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Democratic Field Set In County Council Nominee Fight

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Just months after being appointed to county council in District 8, Paul Zavarella will have to fight to hold the seat, which was once held by the late Charles Martoni. Democratic committee members from the district will gather next month to select a nominee in a special election this fall, and Zavarella faces two familiar rivals.

After Martoni's death in May, Bhavini Patel and Ryan O’Donnell, both of Edgewood, were among the dozen contenders who sought to hold his seat on an interim basis earlier this summer. And while Zavarella carried the day in a nearly unanimous vote, he won the seat only until a special election on the November ballot. Now the three will compete in a new arena.

All three paid a $1,000 fee with the Democratic Party, which will select one of them to be the party's champion this fall. Members of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee who live in the district – which includes Monroeville, Plum, and portions of the Monongahela Valley – will make that choice in Monroeville's Triveni Center on August 10.

The nominee will go on to run in the November election, the winner of which will fill out the last two years of Martoni's term. 

Zavarella, of Plum, has many of the hallmarks of a frontrunner.  An attorney with Bruce Dice and Associates, he’s the incumbent — although not by much — who has been a municipal solicitor and magisterial district judge in the district. His father was a Common Pleas Court Judge. He did not return calls for comment.

Patel and O’Donnell say the choice is far from decided.

“As I’ve talked to committee members, I’m finding people who want to talk, and whose communities are being overlooked,” said O’Donnell, a borough councilman in Edgewood. He cites his experience as a social-worker – he runs a family-owned social-service agency – as a key asset for a government that provides social services across the county. He also names police reforms as a major issue

Patel, who serves as vice-chair of Edgewood’s Democratic committee, agreed that committee members are “open to learning about other candidates.” Even so, she said, in working-class communities where Democratic ties can span generations, “There’s a lot of history you have to engage with and be respectful of. I think it’s my responsibility to prove on a very short timeline that I can also form those relationships.”

Patel, the daughter of a food-truck proprietor who immigrated to Pittsburgh 20 years ago, would be the only council member of Indian descent. She says diversifying council is important, but also stresses the need for council – which rarely draws headlines — to become more assertive in shaping policy.

Is there a danger in having two challengers, who live within a stone’s throw of each other, split the vote of committeepeople who may not support Zavarella? “I guess we’ll see,” said O’Donnell. But both he and Patel say they are reaching out to over 150 active-duty committeepeople in the district, and as O’Donnell put it, “We’re bringing this directly to the deciders. I feel confident about the work I've put in.”

Republicans from the area will similarly convene a gathering of committeepeople to choose a nominee. But party leaders say they haven’t devised a schedule for making their choice yet. The Republican Committee of Allegheny County just selected a new chairman, Sam DeMarco, in July. And in any case, District 8 skews heavily Democratic.