Modern family gets behind judicial candidate

Ellen Ceisler, who won a seat on Commonwealth Court, with former Mayor Bill Green for the traditional Election Day lunch at at Famous 4th Street Deli in Philadelphia.

The telephone rang in Larry Ceisler’s Center City office about 5:30 on election night. The workplace of the well-known public affairs professional was also serving as the de facto campaign headquarters for Ellen Ceisler, the Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge running for Commonwealth Court.

On the line was a last-minute voter, a young woman from the Philly burbs who said she was in search of information about the candidate. When the call was put through to Larry, he spoke knowledgeably about Ellen’s background and judicial record. After extolling her credentials, Larry said: “And if it matters, I’m her ex-husband.”

“Well, why didn’t you tell me that at the start,” said the impressed voter, who pledged support to Ceisler’s ex-wife.

In an era when the word divorce brings to mind modern cultural touchstones like Angelina and Brad, or, more distantly, Kramer vs. Kramer, the Ceislers have reimagined marital dissolution. While their union of 12 years ended more than a decade ago, not only have they remained cordial, but Larry has taken pleasure in helping Ellen fulfill her professional goals. He supported her unsuccessful bid for Common Pleas Court in 2005 and her successful attempt to reach that court two years later. This cycle, he was again at the ready with resources and advice. Despite being heavily outspent, Ellen Ceisler won one of two seats on Commonwealth Court, placing a close second to Christine Fizzano Cannon out of four candidates.

“It’s never easy in the beginning, but like anything I do, you always have to look at the long game,” Larry explained. “And so the long game was always about trying to be civil and get along.”

Ellen told me she sees the Ceislers as the “quintessential modern family.”

“On the trail, candidates tend to highlight their enduring marriages as a reflection of their values,” she said. “I would talk about how my former husband and his wife, Lina, were backing my campaign. I thought that showed reasonableness and equanimity — good judicial traits. And it usually got a laugh.”

“I am truly grateful to my family for everything they did for me,” she adds. “I feel so lucky and blessed.”

Larry credits his outlook on divorce to advice he received from his father, a successful small-town practitioner in Western Pennsylvania who sometimes handled divorces.

“My father was a traditionalist, and when I told him we were breaking up, I thought he’d say, You have to stay together for the kids,” Larry told me. “But he said the inverse. He told me that the worst thing is to stay together thinking it will help the kids, and he was correct. Ours are doing fine.”

Larry remembers that it was Ellen who was the primary breadwinner when their kids were younger and he was finding his way.

“Besides, acrimony is wasted energy,” he said.

Ellen and Larry have two children – Hannah, a senior at Penn, and Danny, an Army veteran who is a second-year law student at Temple’s Beasley School of Law. Ellen’s campaign was a distinctly family affair. Last spring, Hannah interrupted midterms at Penn to help her mother secure an important endorsement from the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, and Danny took time away from his legal studies to run his mother’s campaign and travel the state with her.

When a GOP election flyer encouraged voters to “vote for judges who share our values and stand for the flag,” it was Danny who penned a response:

“I didn’t risk my life in Afghanistan to have Republican judges question my mom’s patriotism,” it said.

But perhaps most impressive is that even Larry’s current wife, Lina Hartocollis, the dean of students and director of the doctorate in clinical social work at Penn, sent her own letter of support to colleagues on Ellen’s behalf.

“I am familiar with Judge Ceisler’s professional reputation in Philadelphia and her record of doggedly helping vulnerable and marginalized people,” Lina wrote. “As a professional social worker, social work educator and former member of the Pennsylvania State Board of Social Workers, I can say without hesitation that Judge Ceisler is exactly the sort of person who I would want to serve as a judge representing the interests of the people of Pennsylvania. She cares deeply about her community, earnestly seeks to help the vulnerable and marginalized among us, and conducts herself with the utmost integrity.”

Meanwhile, at Friends Select School, Lina’s daughter Isabelle circulated a get-out-the-vote letter to classmates registered to vote.

On election night, everyone gathered at Ellen’s house to receive the returns — Ellen, Larry, Lina, Hannah, Danny, and their youngest step-sibling, Isabelle, and Chris Gorson, Ellen’s fiancé, who is a public school special-education teacher in Delaware County. And on or about Jan. 9,  they will gather again to watch Ellen Ceisler be sworn in as a judge of Commonwealth Court.