Candidates says $500,000 contribution will level the field in GOP primary for Supreme Court

A candidate who received the largest single campaign contribution reported so far in Pennsylvania's Supreme Court race said Thursday that the $500,000 will make him competitive in the May 19 Republican primary.

Adams County Judge Mike George said Thursday that the donor, businessman Gary Lowenthal, is an old friend who wanted to help George get his message out in the six-way race.

"I got in the race because I think Pennsylvania voters are looking for fresh air in politics. I believe that Gary Lowenthal shares that same interest," George said.

Lowenthal and his wife, who live near Gettysburg, founded the company that made Boyds Bears in 1979 and sold it in the late '90s. He praised George as "a great guy and a fair guy" who would make an excellent high court justice, but declined to discuss the contribution.

"It's private thing. I'm a private guy," he said Thursday.

George, 56, a former Adams County district attorney who has been on the county bench since 2002 and currently serves as president judge, is endorsed by the state Republican Party for one of three open seats on the court.

He said that, if elected, he would recuse himself from any case that involves Lowenthal, whom he has known for more than 20 years.

"There's no quid pro quo here," said George, noting that he also has received smaller contributions from at least 11 other counties, bringing his total contribution amount to $546,880 through March 30.

Lowenthal's contribution thrusts George to the top of the GOP candidates' fundraising list.

He still trails two of the six Democratic candidates — Philadelphia Judge Kevin Dougherty and Superior Court Judge David Wecht.

In campaign finance reports covering activity through March 30, Dougherty reported nearly $708,000 in contributions.

Money from organized labor accounted for more than half of the total and most of the labor contributions came from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Dougherty's brother, John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty Jr., is the business manager of the IBEW Local 98 in Philadelphia.

Wecht carried over a 2014 balance of nearly $279,000 and took in nearly $298,000 in contributions so far this year.

Pennsylvania is among the minority of states that impose only minimal limits or none at all on campaign contributions. Corporations and unions here are barred from making direct contributions.

The scope and pace of this year's fundraising — nearly $3 million — by the 12 Supreme Court hopefuls already has raised red flags for would-be reformers.

"It was not that long ago when $500,000 was a whole campaign for appellate court candidates," said Barry Kauffman, director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, which for years has pressed for things like contribution limits and mandatory electronic reporting in all state campaigns.

Also frustrated by the present system is Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a Philadelphia-based group that wants to replace the election of appellate-level judges with jurists who have been reviewed by a citizens panel, nominated by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate.

"Unfortunately, judicial races are fueled by money and too often that money comes from lawyers or potentially, litigants," said the group's director, Lynn Marks.

"There's just something wrong with a system that practically requires the campaigns of judges and would-be judges to solicit campaign contributions and endorsements" from people who could come before them in court, she said.

Other Democrats competing for the open seats are Superior Court judges Christine Donohue and Anne Lazarus, Allegheny County Judge Dwayne Woodruff and Jefferson County Judge John Foradora. The other Republican hopefuls are Supreme Court Justice Correale Stevens, who is completing the term of a justice who resigned, Superior Court judges Cheryl Allen and Judy Olson, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey and Montour County District Attorney Rebecca Warren.