It’s gotten statewide attention.
In what’s being billed as one of the most interesting races in the state, lawyers Alexandra Kokura and Jerry Mecadon will square off in the Nov. 5 General Election for the district judge seat vacated when Fred Pierantoni was elected to the Luzerne County bench.
The race is the first for that seat since Pierantoni ousted Joseph Keating more than 20 years ago.
The campaign is not following traditional party lines because both candidates are Democrats in this Democratic-leaning region. Both cross-filed in the May primary and Kokura won the Democratic nod while Mecadon came out ahead on the GOP side.
The six-year term pays $86,639 a year, said Art Heinz with the state Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. But, he said, that could go up before the winning candidate takes office as adjustments are usually made at the end of the year.
The political blog, PA Politics, named the 13 most interesting races of 2013, and this race came in at 13. “This made the list because it’s plain fun local NEPA politics.”
Northeastern Pennsylvania politics for sure, the race is ripe with rumor and accusations, according to PA Politics:
• Mecadon’s camp was spotted videotaping Kokura at an event.
• Kokura is using the office as a stepping to stone to Luzerne County judgeship.
• Mecadon wants to move the district judge’s office out of Pittston City Hall.
• Kokura’s cousin, Pittston Area School Board President Charles Sciandra, helped get James “Red” O’Brien, who lost to Kokura by eight votes, a job at the Pittston Area School District warehouse in exchange for support.
In separate interviews on Tuesday, both candidates distanced themselves from the innuendo that has surfaced in local news reports, blogs, talk shows and message boards.
Mecadon referred comments about any campaign videos to his consultant, Ed Mitchell. Mitchell said he is using the video footage in a TV ad that will begin airing this week. He said a political candidate at a public event does not have an expectation of privacy.
Kokura said she is focused only on winning the district judge race and hasn’t had time to consider her future.
Mecadon said he was questioning only the lack of elevators at Pittston City Hall when he was told a plan was already in place to install them.
Kokura denied that Sciandra, a second cousin of hers, got O’Brien a job in exchange for him dropping a recount and supporting her.
The seat covers Pittston city, the boroughs of Avoca, Dupont, Duryea, Hughestown and Yatesville, and Jenkins and Pittston townships. The seat is currently occupied on an interim basis by Senior District Judge Andrew Barilla Jr., formerly the longtime Swoyersville district judge. He was appointed to the seat after Pierantoni became a county judge in 2012 and is paid on a per-diem basis.
Both candidates said their experience and their record make them right for the job.
Mecadon cited his years of working as defense lawyer, a master in various civil cases and working in a federal prosecutor’s office.
“I’ve got the experience,” he said. “I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work. I’ve seen everything through prosecutors’ eyes, through judges’ eyes, the victims’ eyes. I’ve pretty much walked in all the shoes with them.”
Kokura said her experience as a court-appointed special master has her already doing many of the duties of a district judge.
“I sit in the capacity as a decision-maker in the courtroom,” she said. “I hear testimony, I weigh evidence and I make decisions based upon what is put in front of me. It’s immediately effective the date I file it, and the orders are enforceable and parties can be held in contempt.”
Both candidates understand the job and its requirements. Mecadon called the position a “neighborhood judge,” and Kokura called the courtroom the “people’s court.”
“You’re a person that people can come talk to if they have issues, and you try to work things out,” Mecadon said. “You try to handle things and be objective and try to be as thorough as you can be.”
“They are the gatekeeper of the people’s courtroom,” Kokura said. “Most people that will ever encounter the judicial system will only ever encounter district court.”
Kokura said it’s “vitally important to have a person in there that has the experience of already presiding over cases, but also has the common sense to be able to listen to everybody, to be able to treat everybody with respect and to make fair and appropriate decisions, hold people accountable to help keep our community safe.”
Mecadon compared his 22 years of legal experience to Kokura’s four years. “My experience is better suited for this job because I’ve actually been in the court handling these types of cases, doing criminal cases, civil cases,” he said.
Mecadon said drugs are behind more than 50 percent of the cases making their way through the court system. He said there’s a range of people who are addicted to various substances, but pills are a growing concern.
“Someone gets in a car accident and was put on a narcotic for pain, like a Vicodin or Oxycontin,” he said. “They get addicted to it and the doctor has to wean them off of it. And some people can’t get off it. The next thing you knew they’re out trying to get a fix, stealing their mother’s checkbook, forging names.”
“I can see if someone needs some sort of rehabilitation while in jail or if they can be OK out on bail. I can tell if they are a threat to themselves or society,” Mecadon said.
An increase in regional crime worries Kokura.
“I’m happy to sit down with law enforcement and try to take a community-based approach to what’s going on in our streets,” she said, saying she would reach out to any crime watch group in the area.
“We need to keep each other informed,” she said. “Communication is key. We are a close-knit community. Neighbors help out neighbors here.”
If elected, Kokura promises to be a full-time district judge.
“That’s something I’ve said from day one,” she said. “If elected I would leave my other position and make this my only primary position.”
She said that’s important because the district was recently realigned to make it significantly bigger and busier. Pittston Area High School is now in the district and so is a Walmart. She expects an influx of truancy and shoplifting cases.
She said she hopes to begin a truancy program at the district court level.
“I have seen first hand the struggles the families face with truant juveniles,” she said. “It’s led to other issues, and I think I can help families that struggle with this chronic issue. If you can help kids at this young age, they’re going to benefit in their adult life.”
She does not have a private practice.
Mecadon said he would also be a full-time judge, but he would keep his private practice and significantly reduce the workload.
He cited previous men who held the seat, judges Pierantoni and Joseph Augello, and noted they both kept a small private practice and were effective full-time magistrates.
Friday was a major deadline to report campaign finances. According to their reports, both candidates have spent a considerable amount of money in the race and have received sizable personal loans in the reporting period, which is June 11 to Oct. 21.
Mecadon reported receiving $20,740 in new donations and had $964 left over from the May Primary. Mecadon reported spending $16,642, leaving him with a cash balance of $5,061.
Kokura reported receiving $30,547 in new donations and had $56 left over from the primary. Kokura reported spending $22,908, leaving her with a cash balance of $7,694.
Regarding unpaid debt and obligations, Mecadon reported $52,500 in loans and Kokura reported $47,850 in loans.
After the reports were filed, both candidates filed a 24-Hour Report, which details daily contributions and loans after the campaign reports were filed. Mecadon reported lending himself $30,000 and receiving an additional $5,500 in donations. Kokura reported a $40,000 loan from her husband, Nicholas Kravitz.
The late loans and donations boosted Mecadon’s on-hand cash to $40,561. The late loan boosted Kokura’s on-hand cash to $47,694.
But that cash will likely go quickly. Both camps will likely spend a big chunk on TV and radio advertising in the week leading up the election.