An independent who changed her party affiliation after sparring with the local Democratic Party became the first elected female mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, taking the helm of a city known for its deep blue ties.
Paige Cognetti, a native Oregonian who worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and later had a stint in his Treasury Department, handily won her special election over the endorsed Democrat and other candidates in the crowded field. Cognetti, who won with 36% of the vote, according to unofficial results from Lackawanna County, where Scranton sits, will fill out the remainder of the term of the city’s former mayor, who was forced to resign in July. She plans to run for reelection in 2021.
“I think people are ready to move on from the corruption and, you know, being a woman is one thing — it’s really exciting to make history tonight — but I believe that my experience in the federal government, you know, working in finance, I think those things are really what pushed me over,” Cognetti said following her win Tuesday night.
An outsider profile
In a phone interview with CNN on Wednesday morning, Cognetti credited her historic win to her outsider profile, saying voters had decided it was time for a newcomer promising much-needed change to try their hand at managing the city. Having moved to Scranton in 2016 following a gig with Goldman Sachs in New York, Cognetti, whose husband is a Scranton native, served on the city’s school board before becoming the special assistant to the state’s auditor general, two positions she said had helped her fight local corruption.
“It really seemed like the perfect storm where I would have the tools and the experience to help, have the backing of the auditor general, who knows and has seen some of what’s going on in Scranton, where you still have this graft and this nepotism and this patronage network that has really been bringing down areas like this,” she told CNN. “So having been on the school board and having kind of fought the machine, basically, on the school board and then doing that in the mayor’s race, it all kind of fed into (my win).”
Cognetti, a longtime Democrat who said she now identifies as a progressive independent, told CNN she decided not to seek the backing of the local Democratic Party because she suspected that its nomination process would be rife with corruption, a point she claimed was confirmed after the process occurred.
“I chose not to seek the nomination for the Democrats in this special election because I knew they would do it in their way, which they did,” she said. “They went behind closed doors, there were 26 electors — I still don’t even know who those people were — and they anointed a candidate and said he’s the candidate for mayor.”
“They basically thought that they were going to choose the next mayor, not the people.”
Cognetti also said she has a complicated history with the party’s chairman, who she charged was responsible for some of the local corruption she had campaigned against.
Bob Sheridan, the chairman of the Scranton Democratic Party, on Wednesday disputed Cognetti’s assertion that the nomination process was unfair, telling CNN that the party followed all of its bylaws.
“It’s always a closed caucus who elects the nominee,” Sheridan said.
The chairman denied Cognetti’s allegation that he had been involved in wrongdoing while he served on the city’s school board.
“Was I ever involved with it? Was I ever charged with anything? No,” he said, adding, “I was involved in no corruption.”
Sheridan said Cognetti “put a good campaign on” and that he wasn’t surprised that she won the special election.
A ‘local choice’
Cognetti says she doesn’t see her win “as a referendum against the Democratic Party,” which has long been a strong force in the Pennsylvania town.
“I think it’s a very local choice that the Scranton voters made. They want to change their city,” she said, adding, “I don’t that think people here are disavowing the Democratic Party. I do think, though, that because they are so fed up with the corruption they took the time to look at the candidates and they took the time to say, ‘There’s a Democrat on the ballot but that person isn’t the right person for this job.’ “
As mayor, Cognetti said, she plans to make the delegation of municipal contracts a fairer process, helping the city to look for new companies to partner with around the region.
In her conversation with CNN on Wednesday, the excitement of the mayor-elect, who is also expecting her first child, was palpable. She said former Vice President Joe Biden, Scranton’s most famous native, called her after her win and left a congratulatory message.
“It was just an honor to hear his voice and hear that he’s excited for the city of Scranton,” Cognetti said, adding that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also had called and congratulated her on Wednesday.