When Dan Butler was asked by leaders at Shaare Torah Congregation to judge its annual chili cook-off last month, he accepted the assignment even though his wife, Nina, had invited guests to their home for Shabbos lunch.
“I didn’t want to do it, because we had company coming for lunch. But I was afraid they would ask Mark [Sindler], so I did it,” quipped Butler, who is currently engaged in a campaign to keep his seat as a magisterial district judge. He is being challenged for that seat by fellow congregant Sindler.
Both Butler and Sindler are lifelong Jewish Pittsburghers and are familiar faces in Squirrel Hill. They are both members of Shaare Torah Congregation — and other congregations in the city — and are active in the wider community. They share many mutual friends and acquaintances.
“Mark has come to my barbecue,” said Butler, referencing the annual event he hosts in his backyard to raise funds for NCSY.
Butler and Sindler each points to himself as the best qualified candidate for magisterial district judge for the Allegheny County magisterial district court, 7th and 14th wards. They will be facing off against each other in the Democratic primary election to be held May 16.
Butler is not altering the way he is running his campaign just because he is running against someone in his own Jewish community.
“My strongest argument is I have more experience than anybody,” said Butler, 65, who served as a hearing officer in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, family division, for five years, was a city magistrate for 11 years and was a family court staff attorney, representing women and adult children with disabilities in collecting support. “I’m devoted to this job.”
Butler was nominated by Gov. Tom Wolf and confirmed by the state Senate last summer to fill the vacancy left by Hugh McGough following that judge’s election to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Sindler, 54, had also applied for the position, which covers cases arising in Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Shadyside and Duck Hollow.
“Danny is somebody I know,” said Sindler, a criminal defense attorney in private practice. “I know his family. Quite frankly, I made my decision to run before the governor established the panel by which judicial vacancies would be filled. I wasn’t going to change my mind once it was apparent [Butler] would run for judge. I made this decision independently of who the opponent would be.”
Sindler served as a deputy attorney general in Pennsylvania’s Drug Law Division for six years, has been an instructor at Duquesne University since 2005 and has been in private practice for 22 years.
Both candidates are believers in giving back to the community. Butler is a past chairman of the Holocaust Commission of Greater Pittsburgh and serves on the board of the Beth Din of America, which operates as a national arbitration alternative to litigation in a Jewish context. He is also a board member of Camp HASC, which runs a full summer program for disabled campers. Sindler is on the board of directors of Shaare Torah Congregation, the Kollel Jewish Learning Center and the Hillel Academy Foundation. He is also involved in his son’s Cub Scout Pack.
So, it may not be surprising that some community members who know both candidates have said they are conflicted by this race.
“There are people who say they will support me at the polls, but for other reasons, they can’t say they will be publicly supporting me,” Sindler said.
Butler said he is not fazed by the fact that he shares community ties with his opponent.
“I’m not running against Mark,” he said. “I’m running for me. I’m not acknowledging that whole scene at all. I have no intention of going negative or anything like that.
“And I’m not even going to go so far as to report anything untoward that they may do, because I think people can judge for themselves,” added Butler. “This is a very sophisticated electorate in this area.”
One questionable tactic did come to light recently, when it was publically revealed at a 14th Ward committee meeting on Feb. 8 that the URL danbutlerforjudge.com sent visitors directly to Sindler’s campaign website.
Although the identity of the purchaser of the URL is difficult to trace, it is clear that the Web address was purchased last fall. Butler had been using that URL for his own website prior to that time. As of Feb. 9, the site now says that it is “under construction” and no longer diverts users to Sindler’s Web page.
Sindler said he had no knowledge that danbutlerforjudge.com took users to his own site until the Feb. 8 committee meeting.
“This is something I didn’t know about at the time,” Sindler said of the URL situation. “There are people doing a lot of things for this campaign. This is not something I sponsored, advocated, or was behind. There are people supporting me who I have no control over. I am confident that no one on my committee did this.”
Whether using a URL with his opponent’s name to take people to his own website is unethical is “a hard question to answer,” according to Sindler.
“I mean it’s politics,” he said. “I teach an ethics course at Duquesne University every summer. I am an instructor of two dozen students. This is not the work of an ethics instructor. It is not something I condone. But [judicial] ethics rules are not part of a campaign.”
Butler explained his campaign strategy as “just doing what I do and being who I am.”
“I’ve literally trained my whole life for this job, because for seven years I served as Judge [Larry] Kaplan’s law clerk, five years as a hearing officer in family court, 11 years as a city magistrate,” he said.
Kaplan, the longest serving family court judge of Allegheny County, “was my mentor,” Butler said. “And I learned to listen, and have patience, and to have a sense of humor — all essential ingredients to make a successful judge.”
Sindler also said he is well-prepared for the job due to his vast experience representing clients before jurists in many venues.
“I have been in front of a variety of judges at the state and federal levels,” Sindler said. “And my work took me to different counties on the western side of this state. I’ve been in front of so many judges that I am aware of and can incorporate what I can give back to the community in this small corner of the world as a magisterial court judge.”
What he has learned from those judges, he said, is that it is important “to listen to both sides and to issue an opinion in a thoughtful way.”
Sindler has spent a good part of his career in the “public service arena,” he said, first as a prosecutor and then representing indigent defendants when the Federal Public Defender has a conflict. He also served as a project coordinator for the YWCA of Pittsburgh and provided legal services at a reduced fee for indigent individuals seeking a divorce.
Sindler understands that come Election Day, community members will have a serious choice to make when casting their primary ballots for magisterial district judge.
“If there is one thing I notice, it is that there are some people — I sense this — that feel divided and conflicted,” Sindler said. “I hope people vote on May 16. Do I want them to vote for me? Sure. I think for some people it will be a very difficult decision.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.