Just a few years ago, Tony Ceoffe and Susan Banahasky stood side by side as Lawrenceville activists in the courtroom of Magisterial District Judge Ron Costa Sr., trying to get a Keystone Street tenant evicted for alleged drug activity in her home.
Ceoffe, the full-time head of Lawrenceville United, and LU member Banahasky were trying to clean up their neighborhood, they said. The campaign was part of LU's effort to target bad landlords, derelict properties and crimes like vandalism and graffiti. The group was perhaps best known for getting rid of problem properties by buying them and knocking them down if necessary, and for its network of surveillance cameras aimed from private homes.
That day's eviction attempt had prompted a written death threat directed at Ceoffe -- and the support of state Sen. Jim Ferlo, who offered to pay court costs if the landlord would evict the tenant.
"From this point forward," Banahasky told the landlord, "understand that we all care."
But today, Banahasky and Ceoffe are on opposite sides of a courtroom dispute. They're facing off in the May 19 primary to replace retiring magistrate Eugene Zielmanski, whose Butler Street office handles cases from Lawrenceville's 6th and 9th wards. And while both candidates are careful not to criticize each other, the race is likely to be a referendum on Ceoffe's sometimes-controversial approach to neighborhood advocacy.
Under Ceoffe since 2004, the 600-member LU had become an increasingly visible partner with government and the police. And while many credit Ceoffe with helping to engineer Lawrenceville's turnaround, others worry his tactics are heavy-handed.
"Sometimes, when you take bold initiatives, they look at you like you're a thug," Ceoffe says. But, "The people of Lawrenceville know who I am."
"Both of these individuals have a history of being active in the community," notes Sen. Ferlo, who is a Ceoffe supporter. "The magistrate is really the peacemaker in the community." Ceoffe, Ferlo adds, "has to rise to be independent -- and I think he can do it. The real issue is competency and judicial temperament." When it comes to dealing with problems like absentee landlords, "You'd want somebody with Tony's temperament and track record."
Not everyone is convinced, although Ceoffe's detractors have often been reluctant to talk publicly. "I don't know how fair he can actually be [as district judge] if he's been the person out fighting crime," says John Riegert, a longtime Ceoffe critic and former member of another neighborhood booster group, Lawrenceville Stakeholders.
Ordinarily, district judge races draw little interest. Along with Philadelphia traffic court, it's the state's only judicial post that doesn't require candidates to be attorneys. To qualify for the position and its $76,508 salary, would-be judges must merely be 21, live in their magisterial district for a year and pass a state-run training course -- after being elected.
But Allegheny County's 48 magistrates handle more than 200,000 cases a year. During their six-year terms they hold preliminary hearings in criminal cases, issue arrest warrants and settle summary cases (the kinds that often result in fines and community service) as well as traffic and other citations. They also handle landlord-tenant and contract disputes and protection-from-abuse orders.
Riegert says he has never seen so much interest in a district-judge election. Part of the reason, he contends, is that Ceoffe "hasn't shown that he can really be an impartial party, in his present job, or ... his conduct at the polls."
Riegert cites two incidents reported previously in City Paper. In the first, a May 2006 election in which Ceoffe ran against an incumbent to become Democratic Ward 6 chair, the county sheriff's department confiscated slate cards to which Ceoffe had added his name. The move, while not illegal, may have been misleading, since the Democratic committee doesn't endorse ward leaders.
Ceoffe won the race. But a year later, supervising a Lawrenceville polling place, he got into a conflict with supporters of city council candidate Patrick Dowd, who went on to beat incumbent Leonard Bodack. Dowd supporters accused Ceoffe of intimidation. Ceoffe calls that a lie and says poll watchers "were not where they were supposed to be." A county judge responded with an order clarifying polling-place rules, without accusing Ceoffe of wrongdoing.
Some of those old disputes have carried over into this year's election.
Bodack is a Ceoffe ally, and he owns the building that houses Lawrenceville United. (Bodack's father, a former state senator, owns the building containing the magistrate's office where Ceoffe hopes to work.) Meanwhile, an attorney for Dowd's 2007 council campaign, Isobel Storch, represented Banahasky in response to an aborted attempt to challenge her election petitions. And who originally filed that challenge? Ward 9 chair Ronald Deutsch, who sits on the neighborhood fireworks committee -- for which LU handles the money.
Magistrate Ron Costa believes switching community roles could be tough for Ceoffe. "It might become a little bit of a conflict, because you're going to be on the other side of the table," Costa says. "I would think it would be something of a tough transition. You have to be careful when you become a judge -- you can't step over that line."
Duquesne University law professor Joseph Sabino Mistick agrees: "He has to give up his community activist role -- that's a natural conflict. He can't very well be ... even a volunteer investigator and be the judge."
Ceoffe acknowledges that if elected, his role will change. He has already resigned his political post as Ward 6 chair, as state rules prescribe, and he's careful to speak to the press after work hours, to separate his current and hoped-for posts.
"I think I'd have to relinquish everything" in his official capacity with Lawrenceville United, he says. But, he pledges, "I'm going to still have ties" with the group.
The state's "Rules Governing Standards of Conduct of Magisterial District Judges" prohibit them from fundraising for civic or other groups "but they may be listed as an officer, director or trustee of such an organization."
If elected, Ceoffe predicts he won't have to recuse himself often, even with another state rule. District judges, the state says, must disqualify themselves in cases where "they have a personal bias" or "personal knowledge of disputed evidentiary facts."
Ceoffe says he has "no particular axe to grind" -- and that he won't allow his previous work at LU to affect decisions in the courtroom. As a judge, he says, his opinions will "get narrowed down to what happened today. I'm not going to make a decision based on, 'Oh, that was the same guy six years ago.'"
But, he adds, "You have to have that feel for our neighborhood. Over the past six years I have gained a ton of information. I've done problem-solving on a daily basis." The magistrate's job, he says, is "too important to entrust it to anybody who doesn't know the community."
"There is no question both of us really care about the neighborhood," says Susan Banahasky, who works as a claims specialist at Zurich North America insurance company. "But I think there is a big difference in approach.
"In my professional work, I deal on a day-to-day basis with fact-finding, negotiating between opposing sides and interpreting contracts, and I think those skills are translatable."
Banahasky has fans, too, thanks to the civic events she has supported, such as this month's annual Art All Night.
"I just think she's a very fair and respectful person to others, and you need that in this position," says Mary Coleman, owner of Gallery on 43rd Street, and a friend of Banahasky's for more than a decade. Her insurance work "will transfer well into the magistrate's position. ... I know she's very fair."
But a longtime Ceoffe colleague in neighborhood activism, Aggie Brose, sees the magistrate's job from a different angle. Brose, the Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.'s deputy director, is about to serve with Ceoffe on the city's Disruptive Properties Board.
"People say we should have all these professionals running for office," Brose says. But communities need leaders who are willing to "get down in the dirt with us."
Ceoffe hopes to stay involved in the trenches. When kids come up for community service, for example, he wants to refer some of them to LU colleagues. "When you get these kids early and they find out you're not the enemy," he says, "they're less likely to go down the street and write graffiti or throw trash or cause problems."
"Sometimes it doesn't take that book knowledge, honey," says Brose. "Sometimes it just takes that old-fashioned street knowledge."