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Pennsylvania's Democratic Party Sees New Enthusiasm At The Ground Level

Lucy Perkins
The Democratic Committee in Bethel Park had roughly 50 members at a recent meeting.

Local Democrats have been recently running for officeeven in conservative Pittsburgh suburbs where the party's committee seats have been vacant for decades.

Party committee members are the "foot soldiers" of political parties. Ideally, they turn out voters to the polls on Election Day and communicate between their neighbors and political leaders everywhere else. But to a lot of people, the committee's purpose and role in elections are a mystery.

“I didn’t even know there was a party committee until recently,” said Nancy Shelton. The 62-year-old Democrat lives in Jefferson Hills, where she estimated the party split to be about 60 percent Republican and 40 percent Democrat.


“I know we’re outnumbered," Shelton said.


Shelton said that ever since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, she felt like she didn’t belong in her own community. But feeling outnumbered actually pushed her to get actively involved in politics. And she wasn't alone.


This winter, before a Congressional special election on March 13, Shelton drove by her neighbor’s house and saw a sign for Democrat Conor Lamb in the yard. She pulled up and told her neighbor she was a Democrat too. That’s when her neighbor told her about the Jefferson Hills Democratic Committee.


For years, the committee was small, with just a couple members. Then, in early 2017, a small ad appeared in the South Hills Messenger and South Hills Record, telling people interested in supporting the Jefferson Hills Democratic party to come to a meeting and organize. About 10 people showed up.

Dave Oster and his wife were behind the ads.


“It was purely Trump," Oster said of the impetus for the ads. "We said we had to do something because of Trump."


After organizing the group, Oster and his wife weren't sure what to do next. But they soon found a way to have an impact: run for committee.


Elections for Democratic committee members happen in midterm election years and Republicans run during presidential elections. Committee members are elected, though they’re not paid. Each group is set up to have a male and female member from each voting district.


Both Dave Oster and Nancy Shelton ran as write-in candidates in the May 15 primary. Oster won. Shelton failed to get the 10 votes she needed, but said she's being appointed to a spot instead.

"The fact that it’s being resurrected tells me that people are interested in having their voices heard," she said.

Why committees lost power

Shelton will join a party apparatus that has seen better days. Its heyday was in the 1950s-60s, according to political analyst and Duquesne University law professor Joe Mistick. 


“It’s really the ground level force of party politics. They want to fight for the candidates and policy of their political party,” said Mistick.


Back then, he said, committee members served as a community’s links to local government. If residents needed coal delivered during a harsh winter, or a pothole fixed, they told their committee person who they told their Democratic Committee Ward Chair. Soon, the problem was fixed.


In the 1970s, committees started to lose power. If a resident needed something done, they didn't need to call their neighbor on the committee, they just called a hotline to report a complaint. In the mid-1900s, having an endorsement from the party's committee was vital to getting elected in a one-party town like Pittsburgh. Mistick said that's no longer the case.


"[Now], you’d rather have the endorsement than not, but it’s no longer sufficient," he said.


Renewed political influence

Though they have less of their traditional impact, committee people are seeing renewed political influence. In the South Hills, they knocked on doors and helped get out the vote for Lamb, who won the 18th Congressional District seat.

Bethel Park Democrats also used some of that same energy. Its committee, like Jefferson Hills, had only a handful of members. But interest has clearly grown, as evidenced by dozens of Democrats gathered in the Bethel Park council chambers for a recent monthly meeting.

Mary Ann Raynor is one of the new faces. Like Nancy Shelton, she wanted to get involved after Trump was elected, and said that committees play a key political role.


“As you’re talking to people, you find out what they’re thinking and what they’re concerned about," she said. "And that’s important too because you’re taking it back to the candidate that you’re working with,  saying, ‘Gee, probably half the people I talked to are really concerned about the severance tax and that could really help with money for the schools.’”


As a member of Bethel Park's Democratic Committee, Raynor spent the May 15 primary at the polls. She knew her district well enough that when some voters didn’t show up, she called to make sure they were able to come and vote.


Looking ahead to November, Shelton hopes the committee's increased visibility will bring energy to this fall's midterm elections.

“I suspect a lot of Democrats are hiding," she said. "We want to make it a little bit more comfortable for them to come out into the light.”

Lucy Perkins is an editor and also reports on federal government and elections for the Government and Accountability team. Before joining the WESA newsroom, she was an NPR producer in Washington, D.C., working on news programs like All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. You can reach her at lperkins@wesa.fm.
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