GOP slate wins big; Browning loses
Ott, Mazziotti, Scheller, Najarian take Republican county commissioners primary in unofficial tallies.
A slate of Republican Lehigh County commissioner candidates formed in response to Dean Browning’s budget vote last fall did what they set out to do: beat him at the polls.
Scott Ott, Vic Mazziotti and Lisa Scheller of the slate won three of the Republican nominations for four at-large commissioner seats Tuesday night, according to unofficial election results. Slate member David Najarian appeared to eke out a nod for the fourth spot with a 33-vote advantage over South Whitehall Township Commissioner Brad Osborne, who stayed out of the feud that split the GOP. Browning finished sixth.
With all precincts in, Ott was the top vote getter with 9,945 votes, Scheller had 7,637 votes and Mazziotti had 7,127 votes. Najarian and Osborne were only 33 votes apart with Najarian receiving 6,057 and Osborne, 6,024.
Browning had 5,074 votes, Norma Cusick garnered 4,517 and Mike Welsh had 3,802.
The vote that put a bull’s eye on Browning’s back was his decision last fall to side with four Democrats on the board and reject an effort by fellow Republicans to send the budget back to County Executive Don Cunningham for steep cuts. That allowed Cunningham’s budget with a 16 percent tax increase to go into effect.
Reached at his home Tuesday night, Browning said he still believed his budget vote was in the best interests of the county and he would do it again, despite what it cost him. “I knew that that had the potential to be a life-changing decision,” Browning said. “I still don’t think sending the budget back would have changed the outcome.”
He called to congratulate the winners and said he would work for their election in November.
Ott said it was clear during the campaign that the slate’s message resonated with voters. “Over and over people agreed with what we said which was: Don’t raise taxes in the worst economy in memory,” he said at a victory party at the Comfort Suites in South Whitehall Township. “Nobody believed when there is $110 million in government spending, that nothing can be cut.”
Slate supporters began gathering at a banquet room in the Comfort Suites about the time the polls closed at 8 p.m. The mood was jubilant from the beginning and grew more excited as Ott, Scheller and Mazziotti took early leads with their slate mate David Najarian hovering a place or two below.
Cheers arose as it was announced that Ott, Scheller and Mazziotti were leading and Browning’s name was met with a “Boo.”
Mazziotti played down the split in the county Republican Party between those who backed Browning and slate supporters. “There were a relatively small number of people in our political establishment that sided with Dean,” Mazziotti said.
Scheller said it was clear to her during the campaign that voters were looking for a change. “They wanted the government to serve the people,” she said.
With 33 votes separating him from the fourth spot, Osborne said, "It was a hard fought race. I'm going to wait for the official results to come in."
During the race, Browning traded barbs and controversial ads and mailers with Scheller, Ott, Najarian and Mazziotti over the hard fought primary campaign.
In March, the four announced they had formed a slate intent on unseating Browning for refusing to vote with fellow Republican commissioners to send the budget back to County Executive Don Cunningham for cuts.
In turn, Browning accused the four of being puppets of Scheller’ husband, Wayne Woodman, who is chairman of the county Republican Party and had been among the voices urging Browning to send back the budget. Browning argued that there was no way to avoid a tax hike this year and pointed out that the slate candidates did not say specifically what they would have cut to make up the approximately $15 million deficit. He called the vote to send the budget back a cheap political move, designed to let the Republicans avoid blame for cuts or a tax hike.
The animosity hit a fever pitch last week at a debate sponsored by the Lehigh Valley Tea Party when Mazziotti told Browning, “I’m nobody’s puppet. It’s a cheap shot by a desperate politician, and I’m sick of it. In the old days, we’d be having a duel and if I had my way, your head would be spinning.”
Staying out of the fray was Osborne and Cusick, who said they were running as individuals, unaligned with either side, but concerned about reforming the county’s budget process to avoid any more large tax increases or agonizing last minute cuts.
Cusick spent more time campaigning below the media radar, with campaign signs and personal contacts. She was absent from the Tea Party debate and one the following day moderated by the League of Women Vote the Lehigh Valley. Mike Welsh’s campaign was also lower key with him raising the least amount of money – about $350 as of May 2. When he spoke, however, he supported Browning, whom he said consistently worked for spending cuts during his tenure in office.
Browning spent more money on the campaign than all four of the slate candidates who had organized to unseat him. By the reporting period ending May 2, he had raised $95,751 and spent $55,433, mostly on media buys, polling and campaign mailers.
During that same period, the slate’s political action committee, My Lehigh County, had raised $51,025 in campaign contributions. Scheller was the
biggest fund-raiser for the PAC, gathering $25,000 in donations for her campaign committee but giving $21,000 to the PAC.
Osborne, South Whitehall Township commissioner, loaned his campaign $25,000.