Political watchers in Indiana County easily identified the election for district attorney as maybe the most fascinating and vigorously contested campaign of the past six months.
The passion and emotion of the race grew more palpable in the final weeks and on election night it delivered the kind of drama and a nod to history that couldn’t have been scripted.
By less than 2 percentage points, Republican challenger Robert Manzi edged two-term Democratic DA Patrick Dougherty to take over as the county’s chief prosecutor.
The campaign was marked by pointed questions of the policies of the district attorney’s office, dueling statistics of crime, prosecution and public safety in the county, and defense of the office’s record of service to victims of crime.
The balance was tipped by a dogged personal approach to voters, Manzi said, or, Dougherty said, the plurality of opposition partisans who checked the ballots with simple, impersonal, straight-party votes.
Manzi basked in victory Tuesday night with fellow Republicans and a sizeable contingent of the county’s legal system community at Josephine’s Pizzeria and Enoteca along Philadelphia Street.
“It feels good,” Manzi said. “It’s incredibly humbling to have the support that we’ve seen over this last year, and I look forward to getting to work as district attorney and following through on everything I’ve been saying over the last year.
“I can say that our campaign was very focused on meeting people face to face, to listening to their concerns, to explaining what our positions were on various issues and trying to meet as many people as we could.”
At a late October campaign appearance, Manzi said he had knocked on doors of more than 7,500 households in Indiana County.
Touting his record in the race, Dougherty held the 20,000 cases he has handled as a prosecutor since joining the DA’s office in 2002 as one of his top qualifications.
The voters opted for change.
The race was close but not enough to merit a recount of the county’s digital tallying system, Dougherty said this morning.
“It is what it is. We’ll move forward.”
Historic poll watchers recognized a stark similarity to the election for district attorney six administrations ago, when a man named Bob edged a man named Dougherty.
Republican Bob Bell defeated the DA’s brother, Democrat Robert Dougherty, in the 1995 race to succeed Michael Handler. With 20,976 votes cast, it was 51.3 percent (10,758) for Bell and 48.7 for the elder Dougherty (10,218).
There was no recount that day, either.
Today, the attorneys are moving on.
“We had a nice phone call,” Manzi said Tuesday. There was closure. “He called me and congratulated me and wished me luck.
“I’m sure Pat and I will find a good way … and I’m confident that Pat and I will work on a smooth transition.”
“My team and I will be very professional,” Dougherty pledged this morning. “We will work to make sure that the transition goes as smooth as possible. We always remember it’s not about us, it’s about the victims in the community that we serve. So we’ll meet in the coming days and come up with a plan, and do what we can to make it seamless for the citizens.”
Dougherty tried to rationalize the result with math.
“I think it was party politics,” he said. “When you look at it, 1,336 more Republicans voted straight party, so right out of the chute, any Democrat is automatically down 1,336 votes.”
Republicans virtually swept the county courthouse, retaining the majority in the commissioners and auditors’ offices, and with the GOP sheriff and prothonotary earning re-elections.
All the races took different tones.
Dougherty this morning said the DA race didn’t have to be as negative as it was.
“The reality of the situation is this. Any sitting district attorney has to make decisions that may not always be popular,” he said. “But I’m a big believer in pointing out factual things but you don’t have to do it in a negative light.
“And clearly some of the advertisements were personal attacks, plain and simple. It was not ‘vote for Bob Manzi,’ it was ‘vote against Pat.’
“But that’s fine. Look, I’m a big boy and I know this is how the game is played. It’s unfortunate that we have to resort to that — I thought Indiana County was immune to that.”
Manzi said politics wouldn’t enter into the transition as he prepares to become district attorney in January.
“I fully expect to retain the staff that’s there now. I’ve never planned otherwise,” he said. “The people that are there and are doing their job will continue being there and doing their job. There’s a lot of good people that work in that office.”
Manzi will exit the Holsinger Clark and Armstrong law office — the second lawyer to quit the partnership in the last two years, leaving Samuel Clark to head the firm. Clark’s brother Michael departed after the 2017 election when he was elected judge of the court of common pleas, defeating Pat Dougherty.