Cambria County GOP backs Hunt, Rager for commissioner in rare primary endorsements

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – In a sudden shift, the Cambria County Republican Committee is weighing in on the 2023 primary elections, endorsing two of the four candidates on the GOP ticket for Cambria County commissioner.

Incumbent Republican Commissioner Scott Hunt and Marine Corps veteran Keith Rager, of South Fork, received the party’s nod of support, among a long list of endorsements that favored incumbents overall.

The committee did not endorse John DeBartola and Joe Taranto, a team of outspoken Johnstown residents.

Cambria County Republican Committee Chairwoman Jackie Kulback said that 47 of the committee’s 67 members cast votes at a convention-style meeting on Tuesday.

Jackie Kulback

Endorsements are an election-year tradition for many organizations, but Cambria County’s GOP hasn’t issued them in years, if not decades. Kulback said the party’s fortunes in the past two elections prompted the change.

In 2019, Cambria County Republicans had six candidates run for commissioner, but were unable to capture the majority on the three-person Board of Commissioners in the fall – a defeat Kulback said she doesn’t want to see repeated.

“The one thing we’ve learned is that when you have that many candidates, the electorate doesn’t always have the time to research them all. The 2019 and 2022 elections taught us that sitting on the sidelines doesn’t work,” Kulback said.

She said she viewed the endorsements as a “voters’ guide” for Cambria County Republicans that highlights “electable” candidates who share the party’s ideals. In supporting Hunt and Rager, Kulback said, the party threw its support behind “proven” leaders with conservative values.

Hunt has shown himself to be a conservative commissioner who cares about his community, she said. Taxes have been lowered two of the past three years during his tenure.

Rager, meanwhile, worked for decades to improve businesses from within, implementing ways to fix underperforming UPS facilities, she said. He also has a background in management and labor relations and oversaw contract negotiations – experience that she said would be valuable for a county commissioner, who oversees a workforce of hundreds of county employees and numerous unions, Kulback said.

‘Not the way’

All four candidates addressed the committee prior to the vote, giving them a chance to inform the committee about their backgrounds and their platforms.

In a telephone interview on Thursday, DeBartola said that he and Taranto urged the committee to avoid making endorsements in the race.

“This is not the way the Republican Party should be acting,” DeBartola said. “It’s the people who should be making the choice, not the party.”

DeBartola believes that party leaders made the endorsements to target him and Taranto. He said that they were criticized for targeting Renae Billow – the Republican who last year unsuccessfully ran against state Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, for the 72nd District seat in the state House of Representatives – as well as efforts by the nonprofit Vision Together 2025 to bring refugees to Johnstown.

“I’m willing to bet they never do (endorsements) again,” he said, calling the move thought-control. “We’re glad we didn’t get the endorsements. We’re not country club Republicans, and we’re proud that we are outsiders.”

Kulback said that “outside” views aren’t the problem. Rather, committee members cited Taranto’s and DeBartola’s “divisiveness” as a factor weighing against them. She said the pair are quick to find ways to criticize local leaders’ efforts, but haven’t shown an interest in finding ways to move the county forward.

“Talk is cheap,” Kulback said. “How can you accomplish anything when you can’t work well with anyone? If you alienate the entire business community, how can you attract business?”

In separate interviews, Hunt and Rager said they were proud to receive the endorsements.

Hunt, of Upper Yoder Township, said he views it as the party’s verdict on his performance as commissioner for the past four years – and on his message about finding ways to continue steering the community forward.

Rager, an Adams Township Little League past president and Forest Hills school board member, said he’s hopeful that the vote of confidence in his business- and community-oriented background will resonate with voters, too.

Through their private Facebook page Revitalize Johnstown and in public meetings, DeBartola, a local LGBT activist, and Taranto, a Moxham chiropractor, have often sought to be voices for the city’s poor and marginalized. They’ve targeted what they view as government corruption in Johnstown. They ran as Democrats in bids for elected office prior to 2021.

‘Great government’

The pair aren’t the only candidates running on the Republican ticket after recently switching parties.

At least three incumbent Cambria County row officers who are up for reelection as Republicans – Coroner Jeffrey Lees, Treasurer Lisa Kozorosky and Register of Wills Cindy Perrone – were originally elected as Democrats at a time when the county’s voter registration ratio was far less favorable to Republicans.

Kulback said that the Republican committee discussed candidates’ party affiliation history, but it wasn’t a deciding factor on whether candidates were endorsed.

“And the overwhelming answer was ‘No … that isn’t something we should be dwelling on,’ ” Kulback said. “We’re about great government and trying to get the best Republican candidates elected.”

The Cambria County Republican Committee endorsed Lees, Kozorosky and Perrone, as well as incumbent Republicans District Attorney Gregory Neugebauer, Clerk of Courts Max Pavlovich, Prothonotary Lisa Crynock and Recorder of Deeds Melissa Kimla.

In races for district judge, the committee endorsed Johnstown resident Brian Subich in District Court 47-1-01; incumbent District Judge Susan Gindlesperger in District Court 47-1-03; and a pair of District Court 47-1-07 hopefuls, Ebensburg-area residents Howard Terndrup and Dave Beyer.

Each district judge candidate has cross-filed to appear on both Democratic and Republican primary ballots.

Gindlesperger is facing a challenge from former Cambria County District Attorney Kelly Callihan.

All Cambria County Court of Common Pleas candidates received the committee’s recommendation – attorneys Forrest Fordham, Michael Carbonara, Tonilyn Chippie Kargo, Tim Sloan and Brett Smith. All five also cross-filed.

Kulback acknowledged she’s gotten phone calls since the endorsements were made with questions about the methods used to vet candidates and suggestions about how the meeting might be better conducted in future years.

“To me, all of that is good,” she said. “Questions came up about past voting records (as citizens). That’s something we can look at next time.”

And, separately, when the committee made its choices for endorsements Tuesday, candidates who are members of the committee remained in the room – “something we should have thought about,” Kulback said.

The ultimate goal is to have a strong, robust county party, and finding ways to develop a strong endorsement process is part of that, she said.

“This was the first time, and we learned a lot, going forward,” she said.

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