Big donor in high court race eyeing candidates for governor

December 8, 2021 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The biggest single campaign donor in this year’s race for a seat on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is now aiming to endorse a candidate for governor and, with $20 million in a bank account, it could be a transformative endorsement.

Members of the double-digits-deep field of Republican candidates say they have interviewed with board members of the group — Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs — in hopes of getting support or an endorsement.

A relative newcomer to Harrisburg’s deep ranks of advocacy organizations, the group’s political action committees have become a conduit for campaign cash from billionaire Jeffrey Yass, who is perhaps the biggest force now in underwriting Republican campaigns in Pennsylvania.

One of the group’s political action committees reported an eye-popping $20 million in its account as of Nov. 22. That is thanks to $27.5 million in transfers the past two years from another group that has reported receiving over $30 million directly from Yass in roughly the same stretch.

For comparison, upwards of $65 million was spent on the last race for governor, in 2018, according to campaign reports filed with the state.


The group says it has the twin aims of helping parents choose alternatives to “union-operated, unsafe and underperforming” public schools — in other words, more taxpayer funding for charter schools and private schools — and cutting taxes and regulations to create a “more hospitable business climate.”

Guy Ciarrocchi, who recently left his post as president and CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry to run for governor, said he had interviewed with the group this fall.

“They’re for education reform and growing the economy and getting people help to find work,” said Ciarrocchi, who is also a long-time advocate for Roman Catholic and charter schools. “It sounds like me.”

Bill McSwain, a lawyer who was former President Donald Trump’s appointee as the top federal prosecutor in Philadelphia, is seeking the group’s endorsement for governor, a campaign aide said.

He recently spoke to its leadership “about their shared dedication to individual liberty and free-market principles,” the aide said in a statement.

Some candidates acknowledged meeting with the group’s board members, but did not want to discuss it openly for fear of hurting their prospects.

At least one candidate — Joe Gale, a Montgomery County commissioner — said he is not seeking the endorsement of the group or any other political insiders, saying he would “refuse to be a Harrisburg puppet.”

The primary election is May 17, and March 8 is the deadline to file paperwork to qualify for the ballot. The Republican field is at roughly a dozen and could keep growing.

Commonwealth Partners’ president and chief executive, Matt Brouillette, said its board intends to find a candidate to endorse, although he would not say exactly how much money it is prepared to spend on behalf of that candidate.

The group has no timeline to endorse, he said, although it is willing to spend money to help its candidate in the primary election.

Brouillette — a longtime conservative activist — said Commonwealth Partners is nonpartisan. It does not disclose its donors.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro is running for the Democratic Party’s nomination, and his statewide electoral success and fundraising prowess have helped clear the primary field thus far. A campaign spokesperson said Shapiro has had no contact with Commonwealth Partners.

Still, the campaign cash that Commonwealth Partners could command is, for now, twice the $10 million that Shapiro said he had in his campaign account in October.

Shapiro’s campaign has declined to identify its donors, but other political action committee reports to the state during 2021 revealed that labor unions were the source of over $2.7 million.

Commonwealth Partners, through two political action committees, spent nearly $2 million to help Republican Kevin Brobson win a state Supreme Court seat. That amount made it the largest single donor in the race, accounting for more than one-in-four dollars spent for the seat.

The group also was among the leading spenders in a campaign to support statewide ballot questions to curb a governor’s emergency powers. Voters approved the constitutional amendments on May’s primary ballot.


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