Squabbles are breaking out among an unusually high number of candidates who are vying to fill an empty Magisterial District Judge seat.
Five people have thrown their hats in the ring for an election to fill a vacancy in District 52-2-01, serving the 4th, 5th, 8th, 9th and 10th wards in the city. They are James Capello, Aurelis Figueroa, Erik Itzen and Anthony Magaro, all of whom are cross-filed, and Sean Maguire, who is running on the Republican ticket.
The May 18 primary election will determine which candidates will appear on the ballot of November’s general election. If a cross-filed candidate takes the primary election, they will be the guaranteed winner of the general election, but the seat will remain vacant until then. The annual salary for all Magisterial District Judges throughout the commonwealth is $93,338.
A Magisterial District Judge, once known as a Justice of the Peace, is at the first level of Pennsylvania’s judicial system, handling landlord-tenant disputes, traffic tickets, many types of civil lawsuits involving claims up to $12,000 and the preliminary stages of criminal cases.
While all five candidates for the seat are willing to explain why they believe they’re best for the job, some have argued that their opponents should be discounted or disqualified from the race.
“Local politics hasn’t been spared from the general lack of civility that has characterized government in these last many years,” Maguire told LebTown.
Maguire said the Capello campaign filed suit against him in Lebanon County Court, seeking to have 33 signatures on Maguire’s petition thrown out. If successful, the suit would have knocked Maguire out of the race.
Capello told LebTown he “did not go forward with (the suit) even though I believe he didn’t have enough good signatures.”
Maguire, on the other hand, said the suit was dismissed by the court “because of a failure to follow court proceedings. It has resolved in my favor.”
“Perhaps it was because of my naivety that I didn’t expect the kind of mean-spirited attacks in a Magisterial District Judge race,” Maguire said. “On the other hand, perhaps we shouldn’t focus on those few negatives and increase their impact disproportionately. There hasn’t been anything that I would call ‘nasty’ in this race. Several candidates are running clean races seeking the votes of just a few hundred citizens.”
Capello, too, has apparently been targeted in the campaign.
His father — Thomas M. Capello, husband of Lebanon Mayor Sherry Capello — was appointed to the post in 1989 to fill an unexpired term and served five more terms before announcing his resignation, effective Jan. 5, 2020.
The Itzen campaign shared with LebTown a voicemail from Tom Capello that claims the Itzen campaign has been spreading rumors that his son “doesn’t live with him,” and therefore lives outside of the district he wants to represent.
The senior Capello asserts in the message that, “if you want to run a clean race, I’m glad to go there, but if not, we can get dirty, too.” He also tells Itzen, “Don’t trust anybody out there.”
The Itzen campaign, represented by campaign manager Paul Vranesic, “emphatically denies this accusation,” according to a statement from the campaign.
“Living with one’s parents doesn’t mean you can’t run for judge, however, we are happy this apparent issue has been cleared up,” the statement notes.
James Capello told LebTown he doesn’t know why people are saying he doesn’t live in the district.
“I have not said anything negative about anyone,” he said in an email, adding that “the only person going negative and making this campaign nasty is (Itzen).” Itzen, on the other hand, has campaigned on the strength of his endorsement by the local GOP.
Lebanon County Republican Committee chairman Ed Lynch said he is “always pleased to see residents of Lebanon County take an interest in public service on behalf of their communities. The level of civic engagement has increased dramatically since the Presidential Election Cycle of 2020 as evidenced by the number of candidates seeking seats on the various school boards here in Lebanon County in addition to the MDJ 52-2-01 race.”
However, he noted, the committee “has not endorsed any candidate” in this race.
Itzen apparently has a different understanding.
“I attended the endorsement meeting of the full committee,” he told LebTown. “A motion was made on the floor to endorse me and a vote was taken in my favor and I’m happy to have the support of any and all local Republicans.”
Itzen’s campaign issued a press release and circulated flyers touting his GOP endorsement. He has since removed mention of the endorsement from campaign materials, stressing instead endorsements from State Police Lodge 65 and Lebanon Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 42.
Magaro, on social media, noted that mailers have been circulated by the Friends of Erik Itzen campaign group linking him and other candidates to past legal problems. “Perhaps people should do their due diligence regarding smear campaigns because the judgment listed for me on this mailer is in fact for a different Anthony Magaro from another county,” Magaro wrote. “I would expect someone who is running for judge would show more competence when making allegations against another person.”
A brief look at the candidates
Capello, 30, has lived in Lebanon since 1997. A former Pennsylvania State Constable and Central Booking Agent, he is currently employed in the traffic division of Public Works.
He said five is an “unusually high number” of candidates for the race, and hopes to be elected because “I have always held public service in high regard.” His interest in the judge’s seat was sparked by attending hearings and preliminary arraignments with his father.
“I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” he said. “Serving your community and being a public servant really is a way of life.”
The job requires people “to be fair, impartial and have knowledge of the law,” Capello said. “I am the only candidate that has related job experience AND has passed the examination to serve as a MDJ… The one-month class and examination process is no joke. Like the job itself, it must be taken very seriously.”
Capello has a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Studies and was a specialist in the Army National Guard. He said he decided not to seek “certain types of endorsements,” such as the Fraternal Order of Police, because it could cast a judge’s impartiality in doubt.
“The residents deserve and must have complete faith that the judge is impartial and fair,” he said.
Capello also argued that he is the “‘only candidate that has related experience and is qualified to serve on day one.”
Figueroa, 37, is a bilingual real estate agent, mobile notary and runs a business with her husband. She has lived in Lebanon for more than 20 years and worked in project management in the city’s Elm Street Program, and served as Multi-State Program Coordinator for Youth Advocate Programs through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention for the U.S. Department of Justice.
She, too, says it’s “good that so many of our residents are interested in serving the Lebanon community, and who want to take part in the electoral process.” She wants the job, she said, “to ensure justice with integrity for our community.”
Figueroa is a board member on the Lebanon Valley Council on the Arts and a founding member of the Hispanic Business of Association of the City of Lebanon. She has been a member of the Harrisburg Area Community College Advisory Board and the Lebanon Family Health Services Latino Health Fair Committee.
“This election is not about what I want, it is about what the community wants and needs,” Figueroa said. “This community wants a magistrate who will be neutral, just, and fair. The community deserves someone who is compassionate and firm, someone who will inspire trust within the judicial system. Our residents are entitled to have their case heard at every level of the judicial system especially in the preliminary hearings where the prima facia falls on the prosecution to provide sufficient evidence to sustain the charges being brought against the defendant.”
She warned against electing someone who will be biased and will “always side with one side over the other.”
“I know that I’m the candidate who will be able to ensure the neutrality and impartiality that this office and the community deserve,” she said. If elected, she noted, “I will be the first Latina to be elected to office within the City of Lebanon and Lebanon County!”
Itzen, 40, is a senior security officer at Hershey Medical Center. A native of Bucks County, he has lived in Lebanon for 17 years. “I’ve made it clear from the outset of my grassroots campaign that I am running to bring both the experience and integrity needed to serve as a district judge,” he told LebTown. “My career in law enforcement and education will serve me well as I bring fairness and toughness to the bench.”
Itzen worked as a full-time substitute teacher at Northwest Elementary and Lebanon Middle School, where he ran the in-school suspension program, and he and his wife were relief house parents at Milton Hershey School. He was a Lebanon city police officer from 2005 to 2009.
He received his Act 120 police officer certification from Temple University’s Municipal Police Academy and a bachelor’s degree in Sociology with a Criminal Justice concentration from East Stroudsburg University.
“I know what it takes to keep our community safe from violent offenders and I am committed to protecting our constitutional rights,” he said. “Not only am I the only candidate that owns property and is raising a family in the city, but it’s pretty clear that my experience and integrity is unique in this race,” Itzen said. “I don’t know my opponents well, but what is known is that they all lack the same level of experience and, in some cases, have failed to follow the law, begging the question as to how they can uphold it as a judge.”
Magaro, 38, is self-employed, working with his wife to install and maintain free ATMs for businesses and events. He has lived in Lebanon County since he was 6 years old, he said, and has lived in the city for three years.
He believes he has the “logic and common sense to know how to handle a wide range of situations as well as discernment to use discretion when it’s appropriate.”
Magaro said he is “not seeking any endorsements from any organizations nor accepting any campaign contributions” because the “Magisterial District Judge is a nonpartisan position and is to remain independent and impartial. A judge must not be swayed by political or financial influence. Avoiding even the appearance of impropriety is critical.”
He believes he is right for the post because of “past life experiences and situations that have given me wisdom and insight at a relatively early age.” Among them, he said, was the unsolved murder of his mother in 1987, when he was four, and his early years in a “tough neighborhood” in Harrisburg, where he lived for a few years with his father before being taken in by his maternal grandparents in Lebanon County.
Before graduating from Cedar Crest High School in 2001, he attended Lebanon County Career and Technology Center’s law enforcement program and career-shadowed a Magistrate District Judge. He later served as a tank crewman in the U.S. Marine Corps and worked as a notary, real estate agent, auto inspection mechanic, auto finance and insurance manager and commercial account administrator.
“I can empathize with people who truly need it but know when it is imperative to use the full force of the law to protect the community and their property from violence, theft and destruction,” he said. He also said he can “separate emotion from logic and apply common sense with discernment to use discretion appropriately.”
Maguire, 32, is a teacher at the Paloma School, a bilingual Christian school, and says teaching civics “actually played a large role in my initial decision to put my name on the ballot for MDJ.”
He moved to Lebanon from Oregon in 1999, left for various educational and occupational endeavors before returning in 2019. He practiced law in Pennsylvania and Virginia before becoming a teacher. While in Virginia, he was a lobbyist for the Family Foundation.
Maguire said he’s surprised more attorneys aren’t running for the seat, noting that he is the “only licensed member of the Pennsylvania Bar” in the race.
“I’ve practiced law. This sets me apart from the other candidates running for MDJ,” he said.
“I know that even the slightest mistake of law can rob individuals of justice. If an MDJ makes a mistake about the law in a case the person who has been harmed must undergo an expensive and time consuming appeals process to rectify the mistake. That expense and time is an obstacle too great for far too many people to surmount,” Maguire added.
“Injustice can be done through no ill-will or negligence of the individual MDJ. Mistakes are simple to make without understanding the law. That is why I believe I am the best qualified to be the next MDJ. I know the law and know how to apply it in cases to accomplish justice.”
He wants the job, he said, “in order to apply the education and knowledge I have about the law in a way that meaningfully serves the people of Lebanon.”
Voters, he added, “should avoid looking at the noise of name recognition and partisanship and think about who will successfully carry out the quiet role of a Magistrate Judge – judiciously applying the law to cases without prejudice or preference.”
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Full Disclosure: The campaign of James Capello is a current advertiser on LebTown. LebTown does not make editorial decisions based on advertising relationships and advertisers do not receive special editorial treatment. Learn more about advertising with LebTown here.