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Allegheny County Democrats Deal Blow To Patton Mills

Nancy Patton Mills still hopes to lead the state party after a setback at home Saturday.

Nancy Patton Mills, who hopes to be chosen as the next chair of the state Democratic Committee next week, suffered a rebuke in her own home county on Saturday: Despite the support of Gov. Tom Wolf and other top Democrats, she lost the race for Allegheny County Democratic chair to Eileen Kelly by a two-to-one margin.

“I think committee members were worried about me trying to be both county and state chair,” Patton Mills said after losing the vote 267 to 609. “They didn’t think I could do both – and now I don’t have to. But it’s full speed ahead for the state committee next weekend.”

Kelly, who has served two terms as the chair of the city committee, said the discontent was broader than that. A dispute over whether Saturday’s vote would be by secret ballot – the standard practice for years – did not help Patton Mills, she said. But more broadly, “The message from all over the county was that they weren’t happy with the way the party is. There is no communication.”

Kelly said the county party, made up of committee people from every voting precinct in Allegheny, should have more gatherings and meetings. And she cited recent wins by Democratic Socialists of America over endorsed Democrats as proof that the party needed to tend to its grassroots. "We used to be good at knocking on doors, we've gotten away from that, and now the Democratic Socialists are doing what we used to do best." She also pledged to be more focused on rank-and-file committee members, and less on relationships with elected officials.

Patton Mills was closely allied with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Wolf, who sent out a mailer urging county members to support her as chair. “Since Nancy became chair in 2012, we have seen Democratic victories up and down the ticket,” the mailer said. “We need her as our chair in Allegheny County to ensure our continued success.”

It wasn’t enough.

Kelly's backing included support from old-guard party members who have been wary of Fitzgerald and his ally, Mayor Bill Peduto. And turnout on Saturday was high – at least for a Democratic Committee gathering. Just over half of the county’s more than 1,700 members voted at the gathering, held at the Pittsburgh Firefighters union hall in Hazelwood. And Kelly’s supporters, many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with her name, turned out in force.

“There were 50 people lined up at 7:30 this morning, and voting didn’t begin until 9,” said Darrin Kelly, the union’s political director.

The leadership vote took place after new committee members were chosen in the May primary. And both Darrin Kelly, who is Eileen Kelly’s nephew, and others said they’d seen committee people who were either attending their first committee vote or who hadn’t attended in years.

Already the question is whether Patton Mills’ loss will affect her prospects in Harrisburg next weekend, when Democrats will pick a full-time chair to replace Marcel Groen. Groen stepped down earlier this yearamid concerns with how he was handling issues of sexual misconduct within the party.

Asked if there will be an impact, Patton Mills said, flatly, “no.” And at least some Kelly supporters, like Paul McKrell, said they’d be backing her in Harrisburg. Patton Mills was the hometown candidate, he said, and “she has a good track record in modernizing the party, but just like everything else, you sometimes need new leadership.”

Kelly said she hadn’t decided whether to back Patton Mills or not. “I haven’t even thought about it, because I was focused on my own campaign,” she said.

Former Franklin County Chair Sheri Morgan, who is vying for the state party chair herself, said it was hard to gauge the statewide impact of Allegheny County’s vote. “All politics is local, as they say. You can have a lot of dissent in your county committee, but it may not translate statewide. There may not be as large a ripple as we think.” (Morgan too just lost her seat, though she says she only put her name in the hat when it seemed like no one else was going to run. "I was happy to lose" after a challenger arose, she said. "I don't think you can do both jobs.")

But, she said, “It will lead to one thing for sure, and that’s chaos. I think as this seeps into the party’s nooks and crannies today, you may see other people running. I’m just marching through my phone calls and letting state committee people know about my campaign. My goal is to change the power dynamic. And that’s what happened in Allegheny County today.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.