MONTGOMERY COUNTY — The Montgomery County Conservative Party has selected funeral home operator John DeStefano to be the only name on the November ballot for District 1 coroner.
Conservative Party Chairman Robert “Pete” Phelps said his party’s committee voted 11-1 to support DeStefano over Amsterdam police Officer Ariel Santiago.
Santiago and DeStefano were deadlocked 32-32 after a counting of the absentee ballots erased Santiago’s election day lead of 31-27.
The committee’s selection of DeStefano breaks the tie and ensures only DeStafano’s name will appear on the November ballot for District 1 coroner, as neither candidate ran in any other party primary, and neither filed an independent petition.
Terry Bieniek, Montgomery County’s Democratic election commissioner, said there were 10 absentee ballots filed in the race and DeStefano received five of them, Santiago got one of them, and two of them were “undervotes,” meaning the person either did not vote for coroner or otherwise invalidated the ballot by filling it out incorrectly.
Bieniek said two absentee ballots were from people who also voted by going to the polls, so those two absentee ballots were thrown out.
Phelps cast four absentee ballots in the race, having picked up ballots for Bernard E. Lewis, Sheila Rockwell, Brett Phelps and John. S. Phelps. Bieniek said the Montgomery County Board of Elections has a rule that states any individual can pick up and then cast up to four absentee ballots, two for friends who designate the pickup and two for immediate blood relatives who do the same.
DeStefano, a registered Republican, was endorsed by the Conservative Party Committee prior to the primary.
Phelps said there was no organized campaign by Conservative Party members to support DeStefano. He said DeStefano approached him about being nominated onto the Conservative Party ballot.
“I says that right now we have no one, so the Conservative Party will endorse you,” Phelps said. “So he gave us his petition, and then a short time after that Ariel Santiago called me and said he wanted to run. He said he’s a Conservative [registered party member], so I says ‘We already endorsed John, but you’re a Conservative, so we can’t stop you from running.'”
DeStefano said he doesn’t understand the politics of how elections work, and it was the Conservative Party who approached him, not the other way around.
“I was asked if I was interested, and they said they’d endorse me,” DeStefano said. “They felt I was qualified for the position. At the time I was approached I was not aware there was another candidate. He came in after and he started posting signs all over town and going after it.”
Santiago did not return phone calls or messages seeking comment for this story.
DeStefano said he’s been in the funeral home business for 43 years, has experience with mass casualty incidents and knows how to do the coroner’s job.
If elected in November, he said he would fill out the unexpired term of Joe Riley III, who died March 21. Riley was also a partner in a funeral home.
DeStefano said he doesn’t know how much the coroner’s salary is, whether there’s a per diem payment per death he would deal with or how many years remain on Riley’s term.
“I’m in uncharted waters right now, I’m not fully aware of how I get paid. I know if the body has to be ordered in, I have to see to it that the transportation is arranged to the pathologist and there’s a voucher put in to the county for the removal, transportation,” he said.
DeStefano described a county coroner’s services as he understands them. “The coroner has to be involved to determine if the cause of death is natural, or homicide, if there’s an attending physician for the case, and a doctor will sign the certificate, the coroner releases the body to the family funeral director. If the unattended death has no family physician to sign the certificate it’s ordered in for an autopsy to determine the cause of death. These are the duties of the coroner, to decide which way it goes,” he said.