PHOTO INDEX: 1978 VOTER
BY YOURS TRULY AS PART
OF TOM LEHMAN'S STATE
A few weeks back, a few posters wanted to know about an election from 1978 for the seat in the 20th Senatorial District. Here’s that story.
SUCCEEDING T. NEWELL WOOD
In late 1977, incumbent 20th District, GOP powerhouse and long time legislator T. Newell Wood put the word out that he was not going to seek another term in the State Senate. Wood had been there for over two decades and the announcement caused more than a ripple in local politics.
On the GOP side, State Representative Frank O’Connell put out the word that he wanted to aspire to the seat. O’Connell, a former Kingston Councilman was elected State Representative in 1966 in the newly formed 5th legislative district which is now essentially the 120th. The GOP saw in O’Connell a proven voter getter and guy who knew his way around Harrisburg.
The Democratic side was another matter. In late 1977, Kingston resident Richard Adams announced at a fundraiser at Pilleggi’s restaurant in Kingston that he was considering a run. When pressed, he said he’d be an all but certain candidate. It looked like there would be a rematch of the 1968 State Representative race between O’Connell and Adams. However, sometime in 1978 Adams decided against a run and left the Democrats scrambling for a candidate.
Keep in mind this was 1978, and the Democrats had control of the state for eight years under the Shapp Administration and firmly had a hand on the county apparatus too. Even though the Shapp administration was beset with scandal and other problems, the GOP had no real electoral players on their bench for the ’78 Governor’s race. (It turned out the GOP Govervor’s primary had 7 people running in it and the Ltn. Governor’s race had 14 competing. After all the smoke had cleared, Richard Thornburgh emerged from the west as the Governor nominee and William Scranton won the top spot for Ltn. Governor. This turned out to be a formidable ticket but no one knew that in early ’78).
With Adams out of the race, the Democrats needed to come up with a candidate. One that stepped forward was a Back Mountain butcher named John Pitcavage, a handsome, tall, blunt speaking individual who the Dem establishment could not warm to. County Controller and Party Treasurer Joe Tirpak was dispatched to come up with a candidate. Established Democratic office holders, seeing the demographic of the district demurred. Tirpak then approached an old friend who had worked with him in the IDS financial services office in Mountaintop. (Investors Diversified Services which then was a branch of American Express). The old friend was Thomas Lehman of Kingston. Lehman was a smart, spry man in his late 60s with the energy of a thirty year old and the old time good looks of an aging movie star. He was a huge success in the investment world, well respected in the community and was Tirpak’s dream candidate. The only problem was Lehman was a Republican. After much cajoling (as only the late Joe Tirpak could do) Lehman changed his party registration to Democratic when his friend told him there’d be a clear field in the primary. Well, that turned into a mess because Tirpak could not get the aforementioned John Pitcavage out of the primary. So the Dems had a primary fight while O’Connell sat waiting for the fall campaign.
In the primary, Lehman prevailed and the fall race was set. Having won the primary, Lehman thought he was going to get the unbridled support of the powerful Democratic party to win that Senate seat. But other events intervened. In the Dem primary for Governor, Robert Casey Senior lost his third run for the state’s highest office to Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty. Shapp’s Ltn. Governor Ernie Kline came in third. The enthusiasm for the top of the ticket as well as the rest of the Democratic field waned when no one from the eastern part of the state got on the ticket. In the meantime, the local Democratic party was splitting at the seams when a rumor began to circulate that incumbent County Commissioners Frank Crossin and Ed Wideman might not run as a team in the 1979 race. All of a sudden, Lehman had a nomination but no party to speak of behind him.
In July of 1978 I was laid off from WVIA TV and FM for ostensibly budget cut reasons. I suspect the real reason though was the GM’s pique at the time that I conducted an interview with Robert Casey Senior and did not invite him to do it on air instead of me. A week into my layoff, I received a call from Richard Adams. I had worked for Adams when I was 14 years old and campaigning for Hubert Humphrey at the time. He had heard I was out of work and told me that the Lehman camp was looking for a guy to manage the campaign, run the office, keep the candidate on schedule and gather a volunteer team. I met with the campaign Treasurer, Al Aston, Junior, an Attorney, met with Mr. Lehman and was hired.
The office was on Pierce Street in the old Kingston Housing Authority Building and I set out to work with Tom Lehman on this quixotic effort to beat Frank O’Connell. A fund raiser netted some good results but Lehman shelled out a lot of money himself. He drove a huge Wagon Master station wagon, I drove a Rally Sport Camaro. For in town trips, we’d take my car, for out of town trips, we’d take his. One time when I dropped him off at an office in downtown Wilkes Barre for a meeting with fundraisers for his campaign, just before the car came to a stop he said, “Does this thing stop or do I have to jump out?” We developed a radio and newspaper campaign with our small budget, put together a questionnaire we passed out to voters in the district, developed a small but loyal core of volunteers (mostly Kingston ladies who were die hard Dems led by Mary Alice Brokenshire who was the daughter of the late party chairman Dr. John Doris) who stuffed envelopes and put up yard signs as well as a contingent of Young Democrats led by a kid named Bob Morgan. The only help we got from the party was from Joe Tirpak (who constantly was reprimanded by Lehman for getting him into this) Lehman's primary foe Pitcavage who kept on telling us the true enemy of any political campaign was time or lack thereof and Commissioner Crossin. We got some money from County Chairman Bob Loftus but that was like squeezing the juice out of the last bug during a Minnesota blizzard.
When you work with someone in close proximity day after day, you get to know a lot about them. Lehman had a thing about being put on hold when he was on the phone, he never liked it. He figured he was making the call, it was his dime and why should he pay to wait. His wife, Dorothy was ill with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, his children were busy elsewhere and there were times I could tell that maybe he regretted getting involved in this race. Still, there were no complaints. This was a duty, a job and he was going to do it. He insisted on reading every news release, fretted about his radio voice but forged on with this campaign. Always in a suit and tie, natty and slight in appearance, we visited every blessed county in the district. I got my first appreciation for the Pennsylvania State Fair system because we certainly visited enough of them during the campaign. We were the only two guys dressed in suits at each and every fair so I’m fairly certain we stood out. There was dignity though, he refused to handle the animals for a photo op and I gratefully respected him for that.
As the race wound down, it was clear Dick Thornburgh was opening up a double digit lead over Pete Flaherty and nationally it was going to be a Democratic year. Still, we campaigned. If it wasn’t a local county Democratic dinner in a hotel or fire hall, Joe Tirpak would drag us to every wake in the 20th district. It was a shameless exercise but with Tirpak, the venture was wildly entertaining.
On election night, Tom Lehman was trounced by Frank O’Connell. A lifelong Republican, he turned to the Dems because a friend talked him into it. I always thought if he’d stayed a Republican, he might have won some political race. But then I would never have met him or have this incredible experience or memory. As we closed down the office, he told me to keep in touch and use him as a reference. I did and he came through for me. However, we never kept in touch. I went my way, he went his. He never again participated in politics again and led a quiet life taking care of his wife in retirement. Like most caregivers, Tom Lehman died before his wife. Even though I hadn’t kept in touch, I went to the funeral at the Church of Christ Uniting in Kingston. To my surprise, I saw a few veterans of that ’78 campaign. We had all gone on to other things but felt we needed to show up for this. As we went through the receiving line at the church, I took the opportunity to introduce us to his family knowing full well we’d get a polite nod and then move on. Instead, one of his children brightened and said, “Oh you guys are from the campaign!” We were remembered so at least I knew in his later years he talked about that race for Senator. What he said with his sometimes acid tongue is open to conjecture.
People who fail in political campaigns are sometimes reduced to a mere footnote, part of trivia or minutiae. Maybe some people feel that way about Tom Lehman. But to a few of us, he exhibited an old school example of finishing what you start, carry yourself with dignity, do your best against great odds and look good while doing it. And in the book of life, you define qualities like that as ones belonging to a true winner.