PITTSBURGH — In the run up to the Pennsylvania primary in April in the race for state treasurer the assumption among Democrats and most of the press covering that race was that Erie state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro was going to win the Democratic nomination.

Bizzarro had the endorsement of Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania state House speaker Joanna McClinton, the first female person of color to hold that powerful position, congressional representatives Matt Cartwright, Madeleine Dean, Dwight Evans, Susan Wild, and Mary Gay Scanlon, to name just a few.

In short, just about everyone who is anyone in the Democratic Party went into election night believing Bizzarro was going to win; his rival in that primary, Erin McClelland, was running for the fifth time for office having already run and lost for congress twice for the 12th congressional district as the Democratic nominee losing to Republican Keith Rothfus as well as losing when she ran in the Democratic primary in 2018 against Conor Lamb for the 18th congressional district before dropping out.

McClelland ran most recently for Allegheny County executive last spring, the first Democrat to file for that primary, before dropping out a few weeks before primary Election Day, after failing to submit signatures to the county election division.

That track record going into her fifth race helped convince everyone Bizzarro would win.

Everyone that is except one person: Mike Mikus, a well-respected western Pennsylvania Democrat strategist who told me two weeks before the primary he had a gut feeling McClelland was going to pull it off, saying, “she is a woman and she is from Allegheny County, that is not something to underestimate.”

Mikus was right. By election night McClelland, a former contractor for the Allegheny County’s Human Services Division, sailed through the contest seemingly effortlessly, stunning the southeast machine of the state by earning 56 percent of the vote to Bizzarro’s 44 percent.

Mikus said in an interview Monday “Geography and gender often have huge impacts on the results in low profile primaries because the candidate’s home county is on the ballot,” he said of the advantage Allegheny County had over an Erie county candidate.

The last time a candidate for any party from Erie won a statewide primary was when Republican Tom Ridge won the Republican primary in 1994.

McClelland will face incumbent Republican state treasurer Stacy Garrity, a former businesswoman who served as an Army reservist for 30 years that included three deployments to Iraq. The Democratic nominee has had little scrutiny from the press, mostly because few expected her to win, with the exception of a deeply reported story by Penn Capital-Star that showed McClelland campaigned and accepted donations several months before registering a fundraising committee.

Her public campaign finance reports showed that McClelland both began accepting donations and spent them on the campaign expenses beginning in September however she did not register her fundraising committee with the Department of State until four months later.

McClelland, who is seeking the office of the treasurer, whose duty is to “be the custodian of over $150 billion in Commonwealth funds as well as be responsible for the receipt and deposit of state monies and oversight of all withdrawals and deposits from state agencies” told Penn Capital-Star in February that she and her campaign staff had discovered a number of mistakes.

“Going through all of this we have a whole bunch of systemic learning,” McClelland told the Capital-Star.

At the time of that story, a respected Philadelphia Democrat and election lawyer, Adam Bonin, told the Capital-Star that failures to follow campaign finance reporting requirements, even mistakenly, are particularly concerning for a state treasurer candidate, “Given the nature of the particular public office she’s seeking, I think there’s a strong obligation to get that right,” Bonin said.

Since winning two stories have been written about McClelland;  a breezy piece by Spotlight PA outlining McClelland’s efforts to raise money after a contentious primary and an in-depth Post-Gazette investigative piece by journalist Hallie Lauer that laid out a damning Federal Elections Commission complaint filed in March by three Democratic officials claiming McClelland stopped filing reports required by the FEC related to her campaigns for Congress in both 2014 and 2016.

The FEC complaint also outlined her failure to file eleven consecutive reports until the FEC in 2020 administratively terminated her campaign committee. That final report showed McClelland owed over $50,000 in debt.

McClelland did talk to Spotlight for their story; she did not for the Post-Gazette.

Broad + Liberty attempted twice to chat with her for this piece to profile who she is, how she got here, but also to get some of those questions raised by the Post-Gazette answered about her challenges in filing mundane FEC reports but the interview never got off the ground.

Mikus, who worked on one of her congressional campaigns, said her campaign finance issue is a challenge she needs to address.

“She can overcome it if she gets ahead of it by filing amended reports and files timely an complete reports moving forward,” he said.

What may work to her advantage, said Mikus, in a high-profile election year with chaos all around voters tend to not be moved by process problems, “unless they are not addressed,” he said stressing again that McClelland needs to attend to the problems issue now.

There were three other questions Broad + Liberty wanted to ask her for the story beginning with her decision to have as her state treasurer campaign communications director, Chris Benson, an active reporter for United Press International admittedly doing both jobs at the same time.

In fact Benson did a story about McClelland and Garrity without disclosing in the story he worked on her campaign.

One month after the revelation Benson has remained steadfast he has done nothing unethical and still lists his employers as both UPI and McClelland on his bio on X and despite numerous newspapers across the state reporting on this breech of journalistic ethics she has not given a statement to address this.

The other question worth asking McClelland is her use of former legislator Jesse White, who was disbarred by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on his own consent after allegations he misappropriated over $100,000 with which clients entrusted him in 2017.

White — a Democrat, who was elected to the state legislature from the 46th District in 2006 and served until he was defeated in 2014 — became notorious in 2013 for making online posts under a fake name criticizing his constituents and local elected members of his own party, often going on long rants that included calling former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell a “paid whore” for the natural gas industry.

White now runs a Democratic political consulting and digital management firm called Perpetual Fortitude whose services McClelland used in her primary race against Bizzarro — campaign finance records shows she paid him over $8,000 for political consulting.

While everyone is entitled to redemption, there are former constituents and plenty of Democrats who would like to know why McClelland would choose the services of a man who made the decision to attack members of his own party as well as people who had voted for him, then lost his law license for misappropriating $100,000.

Especially because when White was in office his district covered parts of Allegheny and Washington Counties including South Fayette, Oakdale and Bridgeville, voters that gave McClelland outsized support in the Democratic primary over Bizzarro.

Because of her surprise win for the most part McClelland went under the radar of scrutiny of the press, and in turn the voters, as to who she is, how she would address the circumstances of the state of her campaign filings, and what she believes the role of the state treasurer is.

Her last three posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, were on protecting a woman’s right to choose and abortion rights. Her latest post said, “If you don’t believe women have the ability to make their own choices about their bodies, then I don’t think you have the ability to manage my money in state office.”

Three days after she won the primary over Bizzarro, McClelland posted that as state treasurer, “we can take the shareholder power of the $163 billion in our [state] treasury and make a statement. Let’s do it for our environment, our workers and our society. Let’s be a beacon of humanitarian investment and change the world.”

That statement also raises the question of what she believes the role of the state treasurer is. Let’s hope we get some serious answers to that question and the several others posed in this story. 

Salena Zito is a national political reporter at the Washington Examiner who lives in western Pennsylvania.

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