Chip Minemyer | Independent candidates for Penn State board of trustees face ‘an uphill climb’

Ted Sebastianelli called running for the Penn State board of trustees without the benefit of an endorsement “a real fight.”

The power of political backing in the alumni elections was on full display in 2013, when all three candidates endorsed by the group Penn Staters for Responsible Stewardship won seats on the board.

This year, two more alumni groups – Upward State and Penn Staters Reforming the Board of Trustees — have emerged to endorse candidates.

In all, 31 individuals are chasing three alumni trustee seats, and eight of those have the financial and networking support that endorsements bring. The remaining 23 are running as independents.

“It would be difficult as an individual on your own, unless you have incredible resources or political sway,” said Matt Schuyler, one of three candidates backed by Upward State.

Independent candidate George Weigand noted: “It is an uphill climb for those of us who do not have money.”

In 2012, PS4RS-backed Anthony Lubrano cruised to a seat on the board. Fellow PS4RS candidate Barbara Doran was unsuccessful in 2012, but rebounded to become the top vote-getter a year later, when PS4RS candidates William “Bill” Oldsey and Edward “Ted” Brown also easily won election to the board.

This year, PS4RS has backed three more contenders — former Republican state Sen. Robert Jubelirer, former Sallie Mae CEO Albert Lord and St. John’s University psychology professor Alice Pope.

Upward State picked Schuyler, head of human resources for Hilton Worldwide, along with Dan Cocco, a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Julie Harris, former chief operating officer at Endo Health Solutions.

The group Penn Staters Reforming the Board of Trustees is backing Jubelirer; Ryan Bagwell, who successfully sued for records from the Louis Freeh investigation into the Jerry Sandusky scandal; and Robert Hooper, a case worker from Vermont.

Candidate Rudy Glocker unsuccessfully sought PS4RS support in 2013 and again this year. He bowed out of the trustees election a year ago, but stayed in as an independent in 2014, he said, to push his platform of modernizing education and “expanding our global reach.”

Glocker noted: “If you can get your message out there, it’s better to be independent than part of a group. But that’s the trick.”

Glocker and Sebastianelli are Penn State football lettermen and hope those connections pay dividends when alumni begin voting Thursday. Online voting ends May 8.

“I’ve gotten a lot of support from friends in town and outside of town, and from my football brethren in the lettermen’s club,” said Sebastianelli, who finished fifth in the voting last year. “I feel compelled to make a strong run, to do my best.”

Like Glocker, Sebastianelli tried both years to get PS4RS backing.

Local political veteran Keith Bierly was a four-term Centre County commissioner and served as a magisterial district judge for 12 years. Bierly now owns a book store in Rebersburg. He called the trustees race “the toughest campaign I’ve ever been involved with.”

“I know it’s more problematic being an independent candidate,” Bierly said. “When you are part of a group, you can have three times the candidates and three times the resources. You’ve got people to do research for you.”

Sebastianelli and Weigand reside in State College. They joined Bierly in pointing to the value of reaching out to alumni who live near the University Park campus.

Bierly noted data from 2013, when 10 percent of the alumni votes came from Centre County and 60 percent from within Pennsylvania. Sebastianelli said three times as many alumni votes come from within Centre County “as any other county in the state.”

Sebastianelli said he reached out to the Penn State Alumni Association, which is working to increase graduate participation. About 20 percent of alumni have been voting, despite record numbers for individual votes cast in recent years.

Bierly said one disadvantage of growing alumni voting is that candidates don’t have any historical data to suggest who those voters will be, where they live or what priorities might influence their choices.

“I tell people it would be easier to run Andrew Cuomo’s campaign in the Iowa caucus against Hillary (Clinton) than to do this,” Bierly said, “because you could figure it out, you would know who the players are.”

All candidates, endorsed and independents alike, are active on social media. “Facebook,” Sebastianelli said, “is huge.”

And just maybe, the independents said, the presence of three competing alumni organizations might allow a candidate with no endorsement to sneak in and grab a seat on the board.

“With the addition of new groups,” Sebastianelli said, “they might play off one another a bit.”