On Tuesday, true to form, I laid out some pretty nasty questions for the five candidates who think they can be Nazareth's next district judge. I figured these written interrogatories would scare off at least three of them. Apparently, I wasn't nasty enough. Last night, I met all five judicial hopefuls during a candidates' forum at the Nazareth News Agency. Not only did they answer every question, but they were nice to me, too!
What I learned last night is that, in this cruel and cold world, some good people still care deeply about their community. Five would like to be Nazareth's next district judge. At least thirty more stopped by just to introduce themselves. Ross Nunamaker from News Over Coffee set up tables and very nice name cards for each jurist-in-waiting, while Heidi Wisner at Nazareth News Agency began making the cappuccino and espresso. And we each had nice one-on-one sessions in a relaxed setting. Let me tell you what I learned.
1) Yvonne Falcone. - Not only did I meet Yvonne, but I also had the privilege of meeting her husband, Dan, who has prepared all of her campaign fliers. She's very proud of him, and I liked the way she praised him. My reservations about Falcone are based on the following: most lawyers who are elected as district judge continue practicing law; her belief that only attorneys should be magistrates; her ties to Dem committeeman Rodney Applegate, a very big cog in the local Democratic machine; and her use of Attorney Dave Ceraul to solicit support from local lawyers. She answered every concern.
Falcone explained that, if elected magistrate, she would stop practicing law completely. She would be uncomfortable trying to maintain a law practice while serving as a judge. She told me the four week course of instruction for nonlawyers is inadequate because the law has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, and explained that 60-70% of the voters actually believe that magistrates are attorneys. She acknowledged that many nonlawyers like Elmo Frey have that elusive "common sense" quality, but believes people will see that in her, too.
She explained that Rodney Applegate has given her some support, but her campaign is largely self-funded. She played no part in Applegate's decision to challenge a nomination petition, although she said the "rules are the rules." She has not been funded by the Democratic machine, and has accepted no contribution from any attorney likely to appear before her.
Her chief desire is to create a forum "where people can feel open and comfortable. I think I can make a difference." I think she can, too.
Falcone has twelve years experience as an attorney, and clerked in Lehigh County for Judge Wallitsch.
2) Todd Buskirk. - Before I went to last night's shindig, there was a letter waiting for me from my friend, Larry Kisslinger. I opened it up and, lo and behold, Larry was asking me to consider Todd. "Currently, Todd is the Director of Corrections at Northampton County Prison, overseeing a 25 million dollar budget and nearly 240 employees. Todd has over 25 years of experience in the adult and juvenile justice systems and holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Penn State University specializing in the Administration of Justice. His education and professional experience in the criminal justice field give him a very solid background to be a successful District Judge." Now he tells me!
When I sat down with Todd tonight, he was so relaxed and affable you'd never guess he oversees a pretty big prison operation with lots of daily problems. Here's my reservations about Todd: he'd be collecting a hefty public pension while being paid as a magistrate; he has close ties to Ray Orwig, Nazareth's biggest residential and commercial landlord; and he was plying on emotions by talking about a "tough stance on gang activity." Like Falcone, Buskirk had answers for every one of my concerns.
Buskirk explained that, if elected, he'd freeze his pension and won't be collecting anything until he turns 60. So there won't be any double-dipping, as I originally had suspected. He explained his tie to Orwig by telling me they've been friends for twenty-five years, having coached little league baseball together. He told me that none of Orwig's landlord-tenant cases are handled in Nazareth, so he wouldn't be able to do Orwig any favors. He'd have no problem relocating the magistrate's office, and has made no secret deal to continue renting from Orwig. He would like to see the office centrally located. Finally, he told me he'd like to educate schoolchildren and the public about gang activity, and this proactive approach is what he meant by his gang remarks.
Like Falcone, Buskirk has no intention of accepting any other employment if elected district judge.
3) Alan Siegfried. - Siegfried has been a police officer in Upper Nazareth for over thirty years. For eleven of those years, he's been the chief. After speaking to him for a few minutes, I realized this guy is a class act. He's an "old school" cop, one who is more interested in doing the right thing than in notching arrests on his belt.
Not only did I meet Chief Siegfried, but I also had a nice conversation with his wife, Sandra, and his daughter, Danielle. They are really nice and decent people, the kind you'd like to have as neighbors. My concern about Siegfried? He'd have a difficult time being impartial when deciding cases involving other police officers, especially those in his own department.
I laid it out, and Siegfried quietly but firmly told me he has a strong ethical belief in impartiality, and he developed this because he is a police officer. He told me he has to handle disputes all the time, and can't take sides. He evaluates everything in front of him before making a decision. "Just because someone tells you there's a crime doesn't mean a crime actually occurred." As I listened to him speak, I realized Siegfried already thinks like a fair-minded judge. And as chief, he doesn't have the daily interaction with officers that he may have had eleven years ago. He's a fair man, and I believe he could decide a case involving police officers impartially.
Siegfried will devote all his time and energy to the job if elected. He will seek no part-time position.
I asked him to rate Elmo Frey on a scale from 1 to 10. "12 1/2," he answered. "I know you like him." I asked if there was anything I could do after being so hard on him. "You have to vote for me." Everybody's a comedian.
4) Gary Hammer. - I've seen Gary in town and at the courthouse many times over the years, both as a Nazareth cop and in his current capacity as a detective in the Colonial Region police department. I've seen him in action. Like Chief Siegfried, he's a modest man. He's been a police officer since 1989 and has a degree in criminal justice, but has never been the pushy sort. I've seen him in Giant and at the local hardware store, quietly waiting in line like everyone else.
Gary had told JD Malone at The Express Times that he viewed the District Judge position as the "next step in my law enforcement career." Last night, he explained he should have stated that he views the magistrate's position as the next step and culmination of his career. He realizes a magistrate does not enforce, but upholds, the law.
Although Gary is the youngest person seeking this position, he's another "old school" cop. You won't see him wearing racing gloves or a goofy skinhead haircut. But I had raised the question - how can we expect him to be impartial in cases involving officers in his own department? "I believe I'm fair now and I'll be fair as a judge. I don't rush to judgment as a police officer and I won't rush to judgment as a judge."
Just like Chief Siegfried, Gary spoke quietly but confidently. His eyes tell me he's tired and puts in long hours. But he reamined affable and calm - like any good judge.
He told me how highly he thought of the other candidates. Even his campaign literature is brief and to the point. He's got a great deal of humility, a rare but valuable quality in any judge.
He has no intention of seeking any part-time position if elected.
5) John Capobianco. - I see Cap more than the other candidates because he works at the courthouse as a deputy sheriff. Cap is currently a Lieutenant in Northampton County's sheriff's department, and supervises the deputies in the criminal division. He's a Kutztown University grad, and has a degree in criminal justice. He's married to Andrea Capobianco, and has three children. If I could describe him in two words, they would be - quiet dignity.
Some of you question his relationship with popular state representative Craig Dally. Craig is his brother-in-law. He told me he's close to his brother-in-law, but "I'm running on my own merit."
On his own merit, Capobianco has risen through very competitive ranks in the sheriff's office. He's been a team leader in the Tactical Emergency Response Team, but that's not what he considers important. "Our community is important to me and my family. It is our home. I am committed to preserving the traditions of honesty and integrity that we all cherish. I will treat those who come before the court with great respect. I will serve our community fairly and impartially. You deserve a steward who will work hard, efficiently and responsibly to serve you."
John tells me he would like to work with Nazareth Borough officials to relocate the magisterial office to 30 Belvidere or the new municipal center. That will result in a public, instead of private, landlord that relieves the tax burden on all of us. He's also concerned about the proliferation of drugs and gangs in the community, and would like to visit classrooms on a regular basis to explain the problems caused by both. He'd also like to be a visible presence in the community.
Like everyone else, Cap tells me he will seek no other job if elected as magistrate. He won't try to supplement his income.
Who should you vote for? I'll be honest. John Capobianco is my first choice. He remains my first choice. But after listening to each candidate tonight, I'd applaud any choice. We're very lucky to have such a fine group interested in this very tough and important job. Each would be outstanding. Rarely have I been so impressed. Even more gratifying are the thirty people who cared enough to come out and meet the candidates. And Ross Nunamaker at News Over Coffee deserves special recognition for his commitment to the community.
Desert: Chad Cornell, a Nazareth Area School Board candidate, also dropped by tonight. That makes him the only school board candidate courteous enough to meet the community. Ross reports what Chad has to say.
It was also very nice to see Peg Ferraro, who's running for Tony Branco's at-large seat on Northampton County Council. Peg's escort was her husband, Dominic, who faced death regularly when he made the mistake of becoming one of my father's sailing companions.