Late state senator could always draw a crowd

Last updated: April 24. 2014 11:15PM - 3047 Views
By - jandes@timesleader.com

State Sen. Ray Musto sits in his Pittston office with a copy of an indictment and some retirement cards in November 2010.
State Sen. Ray Musto sits in his Pittston office with a copy of an indictment and some retirement cards in November 2010.
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Officials and residents react to Musto’s passing. Page 5A

Partial obituary for late state senator. Page 6A

Raphael Musto, who died Thursday at home at 85, celebrated his 61st birthday in March 1990 at a dinner event scheduled by a Democratic organization.

Democrats United named the Pittston Township state senator “Man of the Year” and booked 20 groups presenting proclamations, plaques and speeches honoring him.

An additional floor at the American Legion hall in Wilkes-Barre had to be rented for the affair because 800 people had purchased $25 tickets, which “sold like hotcakes,” according to an organizer. Then-Bishop James Timlin of Scranton even issued a special dispensation allowing Catholic attendees to eat prime rib even though the event fell on a no-meat Friday during Lent.

Presents included a giant birthday card with Musto’s caricature kissed by a donkey.

“The response is overwhelming,” Musto said at the time. “It makes me feel as though I’m doing something right.”

Celebrated career

Musto was showered with many such affirmations at tribute events and award ceremonies during his 36 years as a legislator.

His annual Sunday-morning breakfast political fundraisers often drew more than a thousand politicians, business and labor leaders and citizens. Then-Gov. Robert P. Casey showed up for at least one breakfast in the 1980s.

Musto received his final public adulation as an elected official at a buffet brunch acknowledging his retirement in the Senate hearing room in Harrisburg on Nov. 17, 2010.

The event was days before he was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly accepting $38,000 in kickbacks in exchange for using his influence as a senator.

Government leaders and other well-wishers greeted Musto and his family at the retirement event.

Outgoing state House Speaker Keith McCall described Musto as “an icon in this building.” He was praised for his environmental advocacy, and the state secretary of the state Department of Community and Economic Development called Musto “a great legislator.”

It’s unclear if Musto, the longest-serving local state lawmaker, had any inkling of the case brewing against him when he announced his retirement in January 2010.

Eighty at that time, Musto said he was in “excellent health” and wanted more time to enjoy his family.

That April, agents discovered six envelopes containing $6,500 in cash during a raid at Musto’s office, according to the indictment. He was accused of accepting $35,000 in cash and services from a contractor and another $3,000 from a municipal authority official for supporting their grants and loans.

Musto was at his district office in Pittston during the press conference announcing the charges against him and showed no outward sign of concern.

“I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel, but I feel fine,” he told reporters.

Early life

A Korean War veteran who served in the Army from 1951-53, Musto ran Musto’s Market in Pittston Township before he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps, entering politics.

He was elected to the state House in 1971 to a post left vacant by the death of his father, James.

Musto’s victory in the 118th Legislative District was considered a “stunning upset” because the county Democratic Party endorsement — the usual promise of victory back then — had gone to Roscoe Mulcahy, a county assessor also from the Pittston area, despite Musto’s push for party backing.

In public office, Musto focused heavily on constituent services, particularly walking coal miners through the process to receive Black Lung benefits that had been pushed by his father, a former miner, during his 21 years as a state representative.

One son of a Black Lung victim said Musto helped his father and thousands of others access the benefits.

Musto also cemented support from county Democratic leaders and unions.

After eight years in the state House, Musto set his sights on the U.S. House of Representatives seat left vacant when Congressman Daniel J. Flood resigned. Musto came out on top in a seven-man race in a special election and served the remainder of Flood’s term for several months in 1980.

But Musto had to leave the Congressional post in January 1981 because Republican Jim Nelligan defeated him in the 1980 general election. Nelligan portrayed Musto as a free-spender and himself as a fiscal conservative.

‘Back to Harrisburg’

While contemplating his next political move, Musto rounded up more than 400 supporters at the Nanticoke American Legion Post No. 350 in February 1982 and asked them whether he should engage in a rematch against Nelligan or run for a state Senate seat vacated by Martin L. Murray.

The audience roared, with some shouting, “Back to Harrisburg.”

Often called “Ray,” Musto ran for the 14th Senatorial District seat against Republican political newcomer Michael Passanite. He campaigned on his prior legislative experience, but the opposition portrayed Musto’s close ties with Murray as negative “machine politics” and accused him of cronyism.

After handily defeating Passanite, Musto won re-election to six more state Senate terms.

There were several attempts to unseat Musto over the years, but opponents could not overcome his name recognition and loyal support base. One political advisor noted Musto had successfully avoided controversy or scandal during his tenure in office, saying it’s hard to beat an incumbent who “offers no compelling reason to replace him.”

Musto also brought home the bacon, acquiring numerous grants and assistance for road, bridge and jobs projects throughout his district. Many also viewed him as a go-to person to obtain political jobs.

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