Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Contact 90.5 WESA with a story idea or news tip:

Allegheny County Democratic Staffer Resigns Amid Controversy Over Facebook Posts

The executive director of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee has resigned from his post, just weeks after being hired, amid outcry over his social media posts.

The party said Mark Salvas stepped down on Tuesday, as officials including the committee’s vice-chair, state Rep. Austin Davis, pressed for his departure.

“Chairwoman Eileen Kelly accepted Mark Salvas’ resignation earlier today. Mark Salvas is no longer with the Allegheny County Democratic Committee,” said the committee’s solicitor, Jim Burn. “As this is a personnel matter, neither Ms. Kelly nor the party will have any further comment with respect to it.”

Salvas did not return a call or an email Tuesday night. Kelly also did not return messages. But his departure came as activists were circulating alleged social media posts by Salvas and his wife, Cindy DeZort-Salvas, who in July requested donations to help pay for the legal defense of East Pittsburgh Police Officer Michael Rosfeld.

Rosfeld faces a charge of criminal homicide for fatally shooting Antwon Rose, an unarmed teenager, during a vehicle stop in June.

“This whole entire situation is awful for all involved,” the post read. “But I personally know this family, and they are good people. Family helps family. They were there for me and I am there for them.”

Another post being circulated is an apparently year-old photo of Salvas superimposed with the message, "I stand for the flag, I kneel at the cross" -- an apparent reference to protests of police misconduct by black athletes. President Donald Trump has excoriated football players who have engaged in the protest when the National Anthem has played prior to NFL games.

“I am very concerned” by the posts, said Davis, who represents McKeesport. “There is troubling stuff on his Facebook page. This does not line up with the party’s mission or where it wants to go.”

Davis said he spoke with Kelly on Tuesday for about 15 minutes, but said that at the time, she gave no sign of how she might act. “I told her she needed to dismiss him.”

“You have to decide which side of the aisle you want to stand on, and I’m always going to stand on the side of the victims,” said state Rep. Ed Gainey, who like Davis is African American and represents Pittsburgh’s East End. “How is Antwon Rose’s mother supposed to feel when someone in the party is trying to raise money to defend the man who killed her son? How are black people supposed to feel? We are the backbone of this party.

“I know Mark, and I’m not saying he’s a bad guy, but right is right and wrong is wrong,” Gainey added.

Executive director is not an agenda-setting position in the local committee.  The director largely provides operational support to the chair, who holds decision-making power, and much of the job involves administrative and clerical duties similar to those of an office manager. Burn said Salvas was hired around Labor Day.

Salvas held a similar position over a decade ago, when former Pittsburgh City Controller and current Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Tom Flaherty was the party chair. Kelly is a longtime employee in the controller’s office.

Kelly won the county chair in June, defeating Nancy Patton Mills, who later became chair of the state party. On Tuesday evening, Mills said the Democratic platform has a “zero-tolerance policy” when it comes to racism, but added that county chairs have broad power to hire who they want.

“I’m sure Eileen will do the right thing,” she said, prior to news of Salvas’ departure.

State Rep. Jake Wheatley, who represents the Hill District, said party leaders had done just that. "I want to commend the leadership of the party, starting with Eileen Kelly and Austin Davis, for their senstivity and immediate response," he said after WESA reported Salvas' departure Wednesday morning. "It was vital for the party that they made a swift choice between the wishes and aspirations of the base of their party, and an individual who was clearly tone-deaf to the region."

But Wheatley expressed frustration that the situation arose in the first place. 

"We walk around as if Pittsburgh has progressed, and it hasn’t," he said. "It's just another example of why it's hard to turn out African-American voters for either party. Becuase I think African Americans feel that no matter what party is soliciting their support, neither one really understands or really cares about their best interests." 

The upheaval comes just weeks before a pivotal midterm election, when Democrats especially are hoping that a large turnout among fired-up supporters will reverse Republican gains at every level of government. Wheatley says that Salvas' posts didn't help. "I don’t know if this is something that will keep people at home, but it’s another layer of a conversation that you have to have when you [door-knock] their homes," he said.

The resignation is the second controversy to afflict the party in recent months. This summer, a caucus of Democrats from the city of Pittsburgh elected Kevin Quigley, who has previously been accused of domestic violence. That prompted concerns that the local party was out of step with broader social causes like the #MeToo movement, even as Democrats have increasingly drawn on support from women and people of color.

“I think the Democratic Party is evolving,” said Davis, who, earlier this year, became the first African American from Allegheny County elected to the state legislature outside the city of Pittsburgh. “I think there are some people that may want to keep the status quo. But I always look at where the electorate is, and who the voters are choosing. And the party will either embrace that or be left behind.”

Burn said that the party would move quickly to hire a new executive director, and that Kelly had a pool of activists who had stepped up to help her take the office this summer.

“Eileen has a lot of options," he said. "The most important thing – and we all agree on this – is to keep working to elect Democrats in November … The entire Allegheny County Democratic infrastructure is working in a cohesive fashion to elect our entire slate of candidates."

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.