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Democratic Committee Deals Setback To Progressive Women

Mel Evans
Party leaders made endorsements in several contested races Sunday

The Allegheny County Democratic Committee gathered for its annual endorsement meeting on the South Side Sunday – and for a handful of young, progressive, female candidates in closely-watched races, the outcome wasn’t pretty.

Challenger Emily Kinkead lost to incumbent state Rep. Adam Ravenstahl by 101 to 11 votes in House District 20, which includes parts of Pittsburgh and Ohio Valley communities. In the North Hills, Lissa Geiger Shulman lost to Marco Attisano by 43 to 15 for the endorsement in House District 30. State Rep. Summer Lee, a first-term incumbent in a Mon Valley-centered district, was defeated by Chris Roland 53 to 35. Jessica Benham lost to Heather Kass by a margin of 49 to 19 in House District 36, which includes southern Pittsburgh neighborhoods and some suburban areas nearby.

Party leaders did endorse progressive female candidates like Sara Innamorato and Emily Skopov, who faced no competition for the endorsement. And in any case, the endorsements are not binding but merely represent a stamp of a approval for candidates by party leaders from each voting precinct. Endorsed candidates appear on “slate cards” handed out to voters on primary day, but voters often ignore the recommendations.

But within a few minutes after results were announced from the IBEW Local 5 union hall shortly after 5 p.m., there was criticism that the party had missed a chance to support candidates who represented its best chance at future success.

In a statement, Kinkead called the endorsement “entirely unsurprising” and said it “has not meant much recently,” citing wins by non-endorsed candidates including City Councilors Bobby Wilson and Deb Gross as well as County Councilors Liv Bennett and Bethany Hallam. Lee voiced her displeasure on Twitter, noting that the party had passed over the first black female House representative elected from the county.

As WESA has reported previously, Roland appears to be capitalizing on those who oppose Lee’s environmental-justice agenda: He won the endorsement of the Allegheny-Fayette Labor Council, an umbrella organization of labor groups, just over a week ago.

The 36th District race, meanwhile, has been rocked by social-media posts that Kass made in late 2015 in which she spoke caustically about the Affordable Care Act and those who depended on it, at one point asserting “go Trump!”

In a statement after the remarks surfaced, Kass said the posts were “completely out of character for me” and that she made them when she was “frustrated and mad because I found out I had to pay $5,500.00 for a medical bill. I regret that I did that and pledge that if elected I will support the Democratic Party ideals, Labor, and will support the United States Constitution and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

Benham sounded unimpressed Sunday.

“What happened today was that the Democratic committee endorsed a Trump supporter, and we know that is not representative of the Democratic electorate in House District 36,” she said.

Kass is backed by Readshaw, who appeared with her Sunday on a ropeline where candidates greet committee members on their way into the vote. “Harry is my mentor, and him being behind me 100 percent is the best," Kass said. "I can’t fill his shoes, but I’d like to dip my toes into it.”

Kass’ campaign started well after Benham launched her own bid, and Kass said the support of the party was crucial to her chances. “It means a lot. It means that everybody stands behind me.”

Kass may also have had help Sunday from Pittsburgh City Councilor Anthony Coghill, even though he had publicly distanced himself from Kass after her social-media posts surfaced. Several party insiders told WESA that Coghill had privately supported Kass in conversations with committee members on Sunday. Coghill did not respond to texts or phone calls after the vote, but prior to it, he told WESA that he was staying out of the race.

Benham said she would continue knocking doors in a grassroots campaign.

“As we’ve seen over the past few cycles, the Democratic Committee vote has been less and less representative of the views of voters within the district as a whole,” said Benham. “So I don’t see this as indicative of whether or not I will win.”

Not every contested race was so fractious.

In another closely-watched primary fight, Attisano won the party endorsement to take on Republican Lori Mizgorski in House District 30. Attisano bested Shulman just over a week after he won the backing of local labor groups. “We worked very hard, and we stay focused on the issues that matter,” Attisano said.

For her part, Shulman said she “would have loved to have the committee endorsement, and I talked to a lot of committee folks who felt really conflicted about a race that had two really strong candidates." But she said that at least in her district, she said, the party was keeping pace with increasingly progressive, and increasingly diverse, political base.

“In District 30 there’s a lot of new energy, and it is a newer committee than in probably some other races,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for the people who are serving on the committee.”

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.