The No-Bullshit Philadelphia Election Guide

From the mayor's race, to Council to the Supreme Court, here's everything you need to know for Tuesday's election.

It was over before it started. That’s what a whole lot of people are saying about the Nov. 3rd election. And we won’t lie to you: In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-to-1, the candidates who have a “D” next to their names are highly favored to win in most races.

But “most” doesn’t mean all. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court race is extremely competitive and it could not have higher stakes. Future judges may very well rule on everything from gun control to voter ID to education funding. Another election where your vote could make a huge difference is the City Council at-large race, which could well determine the role and relevance of the city’s Republican party for years to come.

So here’s your ultimate Philadelphia election guide. It’ll look different than any other voter’s guide you’ve seen. It’s a brutally honest, easy-to-read explanation of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. We tell it like it is. Here are your choices.

The offices:

Mayor

Jim Kenney

The basics: 57. He was an at-large City Councilman for 23 years. Resigned to run for mayor.

The case for Kenney (republished from our primary no-B.S. guide) …

  • He’s the progressive candidate. Kenney was the driving force behind the decriminalization of marijuana. He pushed through one of the nation’s most expansive local LGBT rights ordinances. In recent years he’s had a solid record on urbanism, introducing bills that create protections for pedestrians on construction sites and backing food-truck liberalization.
  • He attracts top talent and has run a strong campaign. Kenney has a record of attracting capable staffers and his campaign has clearly been the best managed in the contest, in spite of its very late start. That suggests Kenney knows how to take advice from experts and keep a group of people rowing in the same direction — both are vital skills for any mayor.
  • He’s the candidate of traditional education. For some voters, that’s a big plus. Kenney is endorsed by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, despite supporting vouchers early in his career.
  • He’s got good relationships with Council members. Unlike Michael Nutter, who was resented by a good number of his Council colleagues, Kenney is generally well-liked on Council. He’s also received an endorsement from City Council President Darrell Clarke. Those good relations could help a Mayor Kenney advance his agenda.
  • He’s assembled a diverse coalition. Effective mayors (think Ed Rendell or Nutter) reach across race and color lines as they govern. Those that don’t or can’t tend to be divisive (think Frank Rizzo or John Street). Kenney has put together a coalition built on labor support, white progressives, working class ethnic whites and middle-class black professionals. That suggests he has the empathy to represent and listen to a big swathe of the city.
  • He’s got personality. Plenty of it. And that’s probably an asset in a city that likes its elected officials to show their humanity from time to time.
  • He’s a blend of old and new Philadelphia. Kenney combines the grit and character of old Philadelphia with the worldliness and open-mindedness of new Philadelphia. At his best, he’s a “walking hybrid of Two Street and a pop-up beer garden.”

The case against Kenney…

  • He’s a lifelong politician schooled by the corrupt Vince Fumo. If you want fundamental change in the city’s political culture, Kenney is probably the wrong candidate for you. He’s a product of the system. He was trained in politics by Fumo, the former all-powerful State Senator who was sentenced to 55 months in federal prison after being convicted on 137 charges of corruption. Kenney cut ties with Fumo after the trial, but his allegiance to Philadelphia’s broader political culture seems intact.
  • He’ll owe city unions, and labor boss John Dougherty, big. Kenney is the candidate of big labor. He’s supported by the city’s employee unions (the same unions he’ll have to negotiate contracts with if elected mayor), the PFT, and Dougherty’s electrician’s union Local 98. Will unions own Kenney? Can he tell them no? We don’t really know. His record on resisting union pressure is mixed.
  • He’s done a lot of “evolving.” Earlier in his career, Jim Kenney was a moderate to conservative Democrat who favored experimenting with school vouchers, voted against a ban on assault weapons, opposed a commission to investigate police corruption and favored aggressive policing tactics. Kenney’s positions on those and other issues have changed. Skeptics question just how authentic his evolution has been.
  • He has limited management experience. Apart from running an effective campaign, Kenney has never managed a large operation, and he’s never had a full-time job outside of politics. He does work as a consultant for Vitetta, an architecture firm.
  • There are questions about his temperament. Kenney blows his stack from time to time (he told a reporter last year that Mayor Nutter was “a fucking dickhead”). Can he keep his temper in check in an incredibly difficult job?
  • He ran a quiet campaign during the general election. He didn’t introduce any new proposals or stand out in any debates. Is that what Democrats signed up for in May when they voted for him as their mayoral nominee?

Melissa Murray Bailey

The basics: 36. President of the Americas team of Universum, an employer branding company.

The case for Bailey …

  • She wouldn’t be beholden to the Democratic machine. Or anyone, for that matter. She raised a paltry sum of money and received few endorsements. If you want an independent voice for mayor, it doesn’t get much more independent than Bailey.
  • She has relationships with business leaders overseas. Her job has taken her to Singapore and other countries. She says she’ll use those contacts to get more businesses to move to Philadelphia.
  • She’s says she’s not your typical Republican. She says she would invest in early education, help longtime residents stay in their homes and increase funding for programs that get ex-cons into jobs. As she puts it, “There’s a big difference between national politics and local politics. … Let me tell you what being in the GOP in Philly means to me. It means growth, opportunity and peace.”
  • She would be a friend to the Fraternal Order of Police, though the union has backed Kenney. She wants to immediately add 500 cops to the police department (though she won’t say how she would pay for it). She also questions the police department’s policy of releasing the names of cops involved in shootings, which is something the police union strongly opposes.
  • She’s not a Democrat and she’s not Jim Kenney. Do you want to cast a protest vote against either the Democratic City Committee of Jim Kenney? This is your chance.
  • She’s a Republican. If you are too, you should probably vote for Bailey, not only to support her, but also the city’s weakened Republican Party.

The case against Bailey …

  • She isn’t all that qualified to serve as mayor. She has never served in elected office and the only thing she has helped run is a branding company. If she beat the odds and won the mayor’s race, she would face a steep learning curve upon taking office.
  • She didn’t use the bully pulpit to go after Kenney in the campaign. When asked after the final debate if she challenged Keney enough, she herself admitted, “Not as much as I could have.” But isn’t the whole point of a long-shot opposition candidate to point out flaws in the frontrunner?
  • She a long, long, long, long shot. Bailey doesn’t have a public profile, she hasn’t made waves in the mayoral campaign, and she has raised a tiny sum of money. Oh, and she lives in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans 7 to 1. Her chances of winning of slim to none.

Osborn Hart

The basics: 63. The Socialist Workers Party candidate and a Walmart stock worker.

The case for Hart …

  • He understands the plight of the working class. He’s living it, after all. His platform includes raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
  • He’s the only member of the Socialist Workers Party in the race. Are you a Socialist? Or just fed up with the United States’ two-party system? Think about getting behind Hart.

The case against Hart …

  • He has no chance of winning.
  • He’s clearly not qualified for the job.

Jim Foster

The basics: 72. An Independent and publisher of the Germantown Chronicle and the Northwest Independent.

The case for Foster …

  • He’s mad as hell about City Hall. He does a great job of channeling the anger that so many residents have about corruption, incompetence and waste in government.
  • He thinks voters deserve a choice other than Kenney and Bailey. He rightly points out that because of low voter turnout, a small fraction of Democrats in the city actually chose Kenney as their nominee. Bailey, he says, doesn’t know enough about City Hall to qualify as a solid alternative. 

The case against Foster …

  • He has no chance of winning.
  • He’s probably not qualified for the job.

Boris Kindij

The basics: 41. Property manager and an Independent.

The case for Kindij …

  • He is 100 percent dedicated to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. That is his No. 1 issue in the mayor’s race. A vote for Kindij is a show of support for a higher minimum wage.
  • He’s an Independent. Do you think it’s unfair that Independent mayoral candidates weren’t invited to most of this season’s mayoral debates? Do you believe the country’s political system is rigged? Then maybe cast a protest vote for Kindij.

The case against Kindij …

  • He has no chance of winning.
  • He’s clearly not qualified for the job.

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State Supreme Court

The basics: Voters will elect three new Justices — that’s out of seven total on the Court — which makes this one of the biggest shakeups in the Court’s history. It couldn’t come at a better time for the scandal-plagued Court, which is the highest legal authority in the Commonwealth (but has had a hard time acting the part). The stakes? Huge. Just huge.

The candidates:

The case for slate voting: Judges aren’t supposed to be partisan actors. But let’s face it: Democratic judges, particularly elected ones, tend to rule in ways that Democrats like better than do Republicans. And of course the converse is true for Republican judges.

The Supreme Court is no different. The high court could well end up making the ultimate call on an array of highly-charged ideological matters in the next few years, from gun control, to legislation limiting abortion access, to school funding, to the drawing of legislative districts. And that’s to name just a few. For ideologically motivated voters, it probably makes sense to vote for all the Supreme Court candidates from the party you belong to. The best way to ensure your views get a sympathetic hearing in the state’s highest court is to vote for justices that, broadly speaking, share your ideology. Well, either that or write huge campaign checks.

The case against slate voting: If what’s written above makes your skin crawl, if you think the role of judges is to impartially weigh the evidence and consider the law and — inasmuch as humanly possible — set aside their own views … then you’re in a tough spot. Citified sympathizes. Electing judges is nutty. But it’s the system we’ve got.

Judges aren’t mayors or state senators. It’s awfully challenging for non-lawyers to assess their performance in office. Unless you’re willing and able to dig into their past rulings and read a couple of opinions from each would-be Justice, you’ll need to lean on the assessment of a third party. The big one is the Pennsylvania Bar Association, which gives candidates three ratings: “highly recommended,” “recommended” and “not recommended.”

The bar’s three highest rated candidates are Democrats Christine Donohue and David N. Wecht, and Republican Judith Olson. Notably missing the Bar’s “highly recommended” cut is Dougherty.

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City Council at Large

The basics: There are five Democrats, five Republicans and four Independents running for City Council at-large. You can vote for a total of five candidates; and unlike a primary election, you’re free to vote for a mix of candidates, regardless of their party. All five Democrats will easily coast to victory, so the real race is among the Republicans and Independents. They are competing for two seats reserved by law for minority parties.

David Oh

The basics: 55. A Republican City Councilman At-Large.

The case for Oh …

  • He’s the only veteran on City Council. And his presence has made a difference for our country’s finest. Oh successfully pushed through legislation to expand the city’s tax credit for companies who hire vets and helped organize the city’s first Veterans Day parade (which will take place Nov. 8). The United Veterans Council of Philadelphia says he “has been responsive to our needs” and “dedicated to making sure the Veteran community is recognized.”
  • He’s an advocate for fellow Asian-Americans. Along with being the only vet on Council, Oh is also the only Asian-American. He has used his position to organize events such as an Asian-American voting drive.
  • He’s the guy who fought for the city’s “resign-to-run” provision to be repealed. Do you think it’s unfair that city elected officials have to quit their jobs before running for another office, but state and federal officials don’t have to do the same? Oh feels the same way. His attempt to change the city charter was unsuccessful.
  • He’s experienced. He has served on City Council for almost four years and is the Minority Whip.

The case against Oh …

  • He has ethics problems. Lots and lots of ethics problems. He didn’t exactly live up to his promise four years ago to be a good-government reformer. Earlier this year, he admitted that he accepted an illegal campaign donation. According to a settlement agreement with the Ethics Board, in fact, he laid out to a supporter exactly how to do an end-run around the city’s campaign contribution limits. It doesn’t end there: In October, a political consultant accused Oh’s campaign of telling potential donors that contributing at least $250 would get them “a chance to meet Councilman David Oh and his staff as they prepare for an exciting day in the Council’s chambers.” Oh forcefully rejected the consultant’s claim, saying that it was “illegal” and “nobody on my campaign wrote that.”
  • He owes Darrell Clarke. The Council President has donated thousands of dollars to Oh’s campaign, and calls Oh part of City Council’s “dream team.” Clarke exerts tremendous control over many Democratic Council members; does he really need to own the handful of Republican Council members, too?
  • He hasn’t used the bully pulpit to draw attention to the flaws of the city’s Democratic machine. If you think the job of Republican Council members is to critically question their Democratic colleagues, Oh has failed you. Case in point: He did not introduce a bill to hold a hearing on Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed sale of Philadelphia Gas Works.
  • He’s an incumbent. Do you want to shake up City Council? Then you probably shouldn’t vote for an sitting member who is a part of Council’s leadership team.

Dennis O’Brien

The basics: 63. A Republican City Councilman At-Large.

The Case for O’Brien …

  • He’s the most passionate advocate for autistic children you’ll ever meet. In 2014, he created the Philadelphia Autism Project, which was tasked with evaluating the quality of services available to people on the spectrum as well as their families. The project’s final report was issued earlier this year, and it included recommendations to streamline government services for people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He said in February that most of initiatives will be implemented over the next two years with a $100,000 city grant. He has also held hearings on the state of housing and educational services for people with disabilities.
  • He’s experienced. He’s served on City Council for four years and was a state representative for 30 years before that. He was even Speaker of the House for three years.
  • He’s got a soft spot for underdogs. O’Brien was behind a charter change that gave Council greater oversight of the city’s contracts with legal firms that provide counsel for poor Philadelphians. Because these contracts have an impact on people’s constitutional rights, he says, they should be subject to more scrutiny. He also secured a federal grant to study the subject.

The Case Against …

  • He owes Darrell Clarke. Just like Oh, O’Brien has received thousands in campaign donations from Clarke. He’s part of Clarke’s “dream team,” too. Do you really want a Republican Council member to be besties with the Democratic Council President?
  • He hasn’t been a vocal critic of the Democratic Party. Just like Oh, O’Brien didn’t introduce a bill to hold a hearing on the proposed PGW sale and hasn’t used his position to call out the dominant Dems.
  • He’s an incumbent. O’Brien is not the face of change.

Al Taubenberger

The basics: 62. Former president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and a Republican.

The case for Taubenberger …

  • He understands how small businesses work. Taubenberger was the longtime leader of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, where he helped small businesses navigate bureaucratic hurdles and convinced some big companies to stay in the city. He is also a pro at getting city officials and business leaders talking, which could come in handy during budget battles.
  • He’s got experience running an organization. That’s a good skill for a Council member to have, and too few do.
  • He’d be an advocate for senior citizens and Northeast Philadelphians. They’re very much his base.

The case against Taubenberger …

  • He’s cozy with business interests. The Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce is a powerful enough lobbying group as it is. Perhaps we don’t need an alum on City Council.
  • He’s a perpetual loser. Taubenberger has run for the State House, City Council, mayor and Congress — and lost every time. Do you really want to waste your vote on a guy who seems unable to make it across the finish line?

Terry Tracy

The basics: 33. Former executive at Ralph Lauren and a Republican.

The case for Tracy …

  • He’s business-friendly. He was an executive at Ralph Lauren between 2011 and 2015, where he helped open stores in Canada, among other things. He also supports the Levy-Sweeney tax plan, a proposal that has been embraced by many business groups. It would shift the city’s tax burden away from business and wage taxes and onto commercial property taxes.
  • He seeks out new and innovative ideas. He thinks Philadelphia should look to other cities for potential solutions to some of our problems. For instance, he says the city should steal Boston’s “City Hall To Go” program, which sends roving food trucks through neighborhoods to deliver city services.
  • He could be the future of Philadelphia’s Republican Party. He’s seen as one the promising youngsters in the city’s GOP. Could he maybe, just maybe, help the party win some elections for once?

The case against Tracy …

  • He’s inexperienced. He’s never served in elected office before and lost his 2013 campaign against incumbent City Controller Alan Butkovitz.

Dan Tinney

The basics: 33. A blue-collar steamfitter and Republican.

The case for Tinney …

  • He’s a labor ally. More than an ally, actually — he’s a card-carrying member of Philadelphia’s steamfitters union. That makes him stand out in a field of lawyers, business leaders and city officials. He has also been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, Fraternal Order of Police and Firefighters and Paramedics Union, as well as Democratic state Rep. Kevin Boyle.
  • He’s a self-described moderate. Though, in truth, most urban Republicans are.

The case against Tinney …

  • He’s run a lackluster campaign at times. He has avoided interviews and not shown up to debates. Does he really want this?
  • He’s inexperienced. He has never served in elected office.

Andrew Stober

The basics: 36. A former top aide to Mayor Michael Nutter and an independent.

The case for Stober …

  • He got Philly’s Indego bike share system up and running. That was one of his main jobs as a director in the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities. The bike share program has been wildly successful and has been celebrated as one of the only in the country to also serve low-income residents.
  • He knows the inner workings of city government. In addition to making Indego happen, he helped cut waste and win federal grants for the city government. Stober says Council doesn’t always understand how government actually operates. With him in Council, Council’s operational IQ will go up pretty dramatically.
  • He’s trying to pave a new path to victory that doesn’t rely on the Democratic machine. Do you want to put the nail in the coffin of the city’s GOP? Think about voting for Stober. He wants to prove that you don’t have to be a Republican to win one of the two seats on City Council set aside for members of minority parties. If he is successful, it would change city politics for years to come because many other left-leaning independents would likely follow in his footsteps.

The case against Stober …

  • He could end up being an independent in name only. On the policy issues, Stober is a Democrat. If you want someone to be an opposition Council member, Stober probably won’t satisfy you.
  • He’s cheating the system. What Stober is trying to do is probably not what the authors of the city charter were envisioning when they carved out two seats on City Council for minority members.
  • He could get crushed. Or not. We don’t really know. On one hand, Stober is an independent, and independents haven’t won a city election in decades. On the other hand, he has been an extremely effective fundraiser and has won endorsements from former Gov. Ed Rendell, Mayor Michael Nutter, the Philadelphia Order of Police, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and more.

Kristin Combs

The basics: 28. A Green Party member and public school teacher.

The case for Combs …

  • She’s the teacher’s candidate. Literally. She is a public school teacher in Philadelphia and a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
  • She’s the only Green Party candidate. Do you want someone to stand up against fracking, oil-carrying trains and the so-called “energy hub”? Do you think this country’s two-party system is a sham? Then consider Combs.
  • She thinks the two seats on City Council set aside for minority parties shouldn’t automatically go to Republicans. She might not have gotten as much attention for it in the news media, but Combs is trying to do the same thing that Stober is. She thinks true progressives should take Council’s minority seats instead of Republicans.

The case against Combs …

  • She’s an ultra long shot. She only raised $3,000 in the last filing cycle and has very little name recognition. That makes it almost impossible for her to spread her message around the city.
  • She’s politically inexperienced. She has never served in elected office.

Sheila Armstrong

The basics: 38. A community activist and an Independent.

The case for Armstrong …

  • She’s a small business owner. In 2014, she created an event-planning and motivational speaking company.
  • She’s one of the plaintiffs on the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia’s lawsuit seeking fair education funding from the state of Pennsylvania. She has fought the good fight for the city’s schools.

The Case Against …

  • She’s a long shot. Even more so than Combs. She raised $300 in the most recent filing cycle.
  • She’s politically inexperienced. She has never served in elected office.

John Staggs

The basics: 63. He’s the Socialist Workers Party candidate and a Walmart cashier.

The Case for Staggs …

  • He’s the reason the state’s “loyalty oath” was chucked out. Cool little trivia: Back when Staggs ran for state representative in 2006, he refused to take the “loyalty oath.” At the time, you had to promise that you were “not a subversive person” to get on the ballot. After he told election officials to eat it, then-Attorney General Tom Corbett told them to stop enforcing the law.
  • He’s the only member of the Socialist Workers Party in the race. Stick it to the two-party system — and show support for a far-left agenda — by voting for Staggs.

The Case Against …

  • He’s a long shot. He raised no money whatsoever in the latest filing cycle.
  • He’s inexperienced. He has never served in elected office.

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City Council Districts

The basics: There are 10 district City Council seats, and theoretically voters will fill all 10 on Tuesday. Eight candidates are running unopposed, though, so those races are over. The races in the 8th and 9th Council actually feature more than a single candidate, but when it comes down to it, they aren’t all that competitive either. The Democrats in both districts are highly favored to win because of their party’s voter-registration edge over Republicans and independents. The Dems are Cindy Bass, the incumbent Councilwoman, and Cherelle Parker, who won the Democratic primary after serving as a state representative and head of the House’s Philadelphia delegation for several years. These two races represent another opportunity to cast a protest vote, but they probably won’t be much more than that.

The 8th District candidates:

  • Cindy Bass. Democrat. The incumbent.
  • Michael Galganski. Free Dominion Party.

The 9th District candidates:

  • Cherelle Parker. Democrat.
  • Kevin Strickland. Republican.

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Register of Wills

The basics: The Register of Wills is the elected boss of an office that processes important but basic paperwork like marriage licenses and wills. There are a lot of people who think the office shouldn’t be an elected one at all. The office is also exempt from civil service regulations, which means whoever is Register of Wills can hire whoever they like, within the means of their budget. Yes, that means patronage.

The candidates:

  • Ronald R. Donatucci. Democrat. The incumbent.
  • Ross Feinberg. Republican.

The case for (and against) Donatucci: Look, Donatucci is going to win this thing. How do we know? Because he’s won nine times before. That’s right. If he wins Tuesday, and serves his full four-year term, Donatucci will have been the city’s Register of Wills for 40-flipping-years. It’s nuts. How does he do it? Patronage, patronage and more patronage. You make a lot of political friends when you hire as many cousins of ward leaders as Donatucci has. It helps, too, that he runs a seemingly efficient, clean office.

The case for (and against) Feinberg: Feinberg is running to abolish the Register of Wills. He doesn’t think it should be an elected office, and he’s got a real point when he says that. And say this for the man: he’s dedicated. He’s held regular press conferences outside Donatucci’s office since late August. When not railing against patronage, the Burlhome resident edits an online magazine for audiophiles.

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Sheriff

The basics: The Sheriff is in charge of property foreclosures and transporting inmates to courtrooms in Philadelphia. A lot of folks think this position shouldn’t be elected, either.

The candidates:

  • Jewell Williams. Democrat. The incumbent.
  • Chris Sawyer. Republican.

The case for (and against) Williams: He has been the Sheriff for almost four years. Before that, he was a state representative for 11 years. Williams promised to clean up the long-mismanaged Sheriff’s Office when he took office, and he says that he has made a difference, most significantly by increasing the amount of money raised through sheriff sales. However, the FBI has raided the office under Williams’ watch (he says agents were investigating his predecessor’s administration), Williams has solicited donations from employees, and the office has been slow to pay some residents fees owed to them. Williams is also the Democratic leader of the 16th ward.

The case for (and against) Sawyer: Sawyer is a rabble-rousing anti-blight activist who runs the site Philadelinquency.com. As someone who has deeply analyzed city issues such as tax delinquency, he also knows a lot about how local government works. He vows to make the Sheriff’s Office more transparent, cut costs, and enable residents to purchase properties more easily.  If he defied the odds and got elected, the Sheriff’s Office would be a very, very different place on Sawyer’s watch.

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City Commissioners

The basics: The City Commissioners run elections in Philadelphia. That’s right: Elected officials are in charge of elections in this town. For that reason, plenty of smart people over the years have argued that the office should be abolished along with the Sheriff’s Office and the Register of Wills. In this election, there are three open seats and three candidates. In other words, the race was decided during the primary election months ago.

The candidates:

  • Anthony Clark. Democrat. An incumbent.
  • Lisa Deeley. Democrat.
  • Al Schmidt. Republican. An incumbent.

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Ballot Questions

The basics: Voters will be asked to make a decision on two proposed changes to the City Charter, and to approve a bond to fund capital improvements to city facilities. Click here for a breakdown of each question.

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Local Judicial Elections

Common Pleas Court: These contests were almost entirely decided in the May primary election. There are 13 candidates and 12 spots to be filled. Only one non-Democrat is on the ballot, Republican Vincent Furlong.

Retention elections: Voters will be asked to keep or fire 16 additional Common Pleas Court Judges who are up in a “retention” election. With very rare exceptions, retention candidates prevail. Eight Municipal Court judges are also up for retention.

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