An Allegheny County Democrat is once again seeking to become the face of the state Democratic Party: Nancy Patton Mills, who chairs the county’s committee, is officially declaring her candidacy for party chair when state officials gather in Harrisburg in mid-June.
“I think it’s time for the PA Democratic Committee to come into this century,” Mills says. “[We] are the party of the people now,” with a more diverse make-up.
Patton Mills says her own leadership team would reflect that: She hopes to be elected as part of a slate that would include as vice chair Sharif Street, an African-American state senator from Philadelphia, secretary Janet Diaz, a member of the party’s Latino Caucus from Lancaster, and treasure Alex Reber, a Dauphin County accountant who heads the party’s LGBT Caucus.
“We’re going to make a statement with what you see whenever you look at the state party,” Patton Mills says. She also pledged a “bottom up” approach to politics that sought to harness grassroots energy. “We’re going to incorporate some of the new ideas that have been brought forth.”
The state committee is made up of Democrats elected from around Pennsylvania. It endorses and organizes on behalf of candidates for statewide office, articulates the party’s overall vision and platform, and also provides direction and resources to Democrats at the local level.
Patton Mills, of Moon, grew up in Allegheny County – and in the Democratic Party: Both her parents were active in the state committee, and she has chaired Allegheny County’s committee since its previous chair, Jim Burn, stepped down in 2011.
She said she hoped to remain as county chair as well. With key races for governor and senator in the offing, as well as a chance for Democrats to make gains in House races across the state.
“The one thing we want to do is," she says, "make sure we have the continuity and the leadership team together to take care of Allegheny County and the state of Pennsylvania.”
Patton Mills touts the victory of Democrat Conor Lamb in the March 13 special election for Congressional District 18. Lamb campaigned with the backing of the party, labor leaders, and a coalition of grassroots groups that sprung up locally after Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential victory. He beat Republican Rick Saccone in a district that spans four counties, largely on the strength of running up the vote in Allegheny.
Patton Mills calls the grassroots resurgence “not a gradual shift but a seismic shift” that produced two dozen activist groups in Allegheny County alone.
“We were able to implement the grassroots with the party and with the Conor Lamb campaign," she said. "We were part of an evolution and I think we’ve risen to the occasion here in Allegheny and I plan on taking that message from here all over the state.”
Patton Mills has been considered a contender for the post almost from the moment that its prior chair, Montgomery County attorney Marcel Groen, stepped down in February. Groen was reportedly pressured to leave by Gov. Tom Wolf amid concerns that he had mishandled concerns about sexual harassment. The chair has been filled on an interim basis by another western Pennsylvania Democrat, Jack Hanna of Indiana, Pa. Patton Mills herself has been the party’s interim vice-chair, an experience that she said has allowed her to learn about party operations while building support.
If she secures the chair, it will continue Allegheny County’s recent hold on the post. Groen was preceded by another local Democrat: former Millvale Mayor Jim Burn, who like Patton Mills was the chair of Allegheny County’s committee.
Patton Mills appears to be the first Democrat to openly declare her interest in the seat, though there has been talk of other challengers. Burn, who is still active in the party, says he expects a challenger to arise, in part because Mills planned to hold the state and county chairs simultaneously. Burn tried to do the same thing for a time, but today says, "It is unrealistic for anyone to think they can do both simultaneously."
Some Democrats have privately expressed concerns that Patton Mills may be too close to Wolf. While the governor is traditionally the party’s standard bearer, Wolf’s previous interventions in the party’s leadership have stirred a discussion about the importance of maintaining some independence.
Patton Mills acknowledged she’d heard such concerns. But while she touted her close relationship with Wolf, as with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, “The important thing is that this state committee as a whole is enthusiastic about their chair. … I think it’s important especially now, when we are trying to develop the voice of everybody in the party, to make that clear. I am my own person, and the governor knows it.”
Democrats will select their new leaders in mid-June, after voters select their state Democratic committee members in the May primary.