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As Leaders Push Back On Criticism, Debate Over Democrats' Direction Continues

Courtesy of Bethany Hallam's campaign.
Courtesy of the Hallam campaign
Bethany Hallam says party leaders are making a crisis in the local Democratic committee worse. "We are being embarrassed. This is nationwide story right now, what’s going on in Allegheny County."";

In a wide-ranging and sometimes contentious half-hour press conference, Allegheny County Democratic Committee chairwoman Eileen Kelly pushed back on criticism of the local party and called for unity in a presidential election year — while settling some scores of her own.

“This is a time where we should all be unified and in solidarity because of this presidential election,” said Kelly, moments before suggesting that critics of the party and old foes like Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald “want to start a fight.”

The press conference was called days after members of the Democratic committee — chosen from each of the city’s voting districts to act as party foot soldiers — voted to endorse state House candidate Heather Kass despite social media posts in which she dismissed Obamacare, voice support for Donald Trump, and suggested society would be better off if drug addicts died. The committee also endorsed Chris Roland over incumbent state Rep. Summer Lee, the first black female state legislator elected from Allegheny County.

Held at the county party’s West End headquarters, the press conference began inauspiciously when Kelly and City Councilor Anthony Coghill, who also attended, demanded that County Councilor Bethany Hallam, who has been a vocal critic of the committee, leave.

“I’m uncomfortable with her here to tell the truth,” Coghill said. “You can watch on TV…. You can have your own press conference right after this if you like. You will get to hear what we have to say, I promise you that.”

After Hallam moved into the hall — where she said she listened to the proceedings through a closed door — Kelly praised the party’s endorsement process as “the most purest form of democracy. … Committeepeople know the candidates the best.”

Coghill said that while he couldn’t defend Kass' remarks, “I’m not going to condemn her forever for a bad day.” He did, however, condemn Democrats who accused him of whipping support for Kass. As WESA first reported Sunday, while Coghill had publicly said he could not support Kass in light of her posts, Democrats accused him of privately supporting her. Coghill has denied that, and said he’d been “defamed” by those who said he had. Jessica Benham, who is running against Kass to replace retiring state Rep. Harry Readshaw, "lost that endorsement on her own," he said.

Kelly went further, saying that some critics were being less forgiving of Kass — who has said she made the posts during a medical crisis — than they were of Hallam, who has been open about struggles with addiction that led to a stint in the county jail. “But we have Bethany Hallam who has her own background that she’s been open about, and she comes out and says, ‘I’m sorry blah blah blah’ and she’s forgiven. … So why is it good for them and not for [Kass]?”

Speaking with reporters after the press conference, Hallam blasted that comparison.

“Do not ever put me someone who battled for 10 years and has been in recovery for over three-and-a-half years now — do not ever put me in the same category as somebody that thinks that addicts do not deserve the basic human rights and the right to live as everyone else.”

Kelly also sought to turn the attack on an old foe. While the Kass endorsement has been critcized by a broad swath of Democrats and top labor leaders, she singled out County Executive Fitzgerald for having “helped a white male, Chris Roland, over an African-American incumbent, Summer Lee. It’s unbelievable to me that … he would consciously try to rip up the party during a crucial presidential election where we are to be united and in solidarity.”

Some of the calls for reforming the party have come from Fitzgerald allies like state Sen. Wayne Fontana and state Rep. Austin Davis. Fitzgerald himself has been comparatively quiet this week, but there are longstanding tensions between the two. In fact, Kelly won the chair from Nancy Patton Mills in part due to perceptions within the committee that Mills too often did Fitzgerald’s bidding.

Abby Nassif Murphy, Fitzgerald’s campaign advisor, issued a statement calling the press conference “bizarre and confusing,” and said Kelly “insisted that the Democratic Committee endorsement process was flawless and needs no reforms. Then she attacked County Executive Fitzgerald for supporting a candidate who was endorsed by the same Democratic Committee.”

Some of the grievances outlined by the committee’s critics date back years before the current controversy. The party’s use of endorsement fees as a fundraising tool — a mechanism that essentially finances party operations on the backs of candidates — has been contentious for years, and members of various factions have complained that it discourages challengers.

“Throughout the years it’s been the same complaint,” said Kelly of the fee controversy. But everything comes with a cost, she said: “You go to a show, you pay a fee, you go to a restaurant, you pay a fee. You want to run to be in elected office where you make a lot of money for a four-year term, you pay a fee.”

But since last summer, Hallam has been gathering signatures needed to call a meeting of the party committee to discuss such changes. Party rules require 400 committee members to sign such a petition: Hallam says she has crossed that threshold but wants to have 500 signatures “because people move away or die.”

As chair, Kelly could call such a meeting herself. But she did not sound inclined to do so on Tuesday. If critics wanted to change the party, she said, they should field a slate of like-minded candidates the next time the party’s committee seats are up for reelection. Committee members serve four-year terms and are either elected by voters or appointed to fill vacancies. The next election is in 2022.

“If you want reform, then please go out and run for committee. You can reform it in any way you want, but as far as I’m concerned no reform is needed,” Kelly said. “It’s an institution that’s been running for how long with no problems: Why change it if it’s not broken?”

But while there may be widespread dissatisfaction with party rules, there isn’t necessarily agreement on what changes to pursue — or how to go about changing them. While Hallam favors holding a general meeting for party members to air their grievances, for example, Fontana says a small group of party leaders should draft proposed rules changes as a starting point for discussions.

Solutions may also vary. Some reformers say the party should end the practice by which committee members vote on endorsements by secret ballots: Committee members are, after all, chosen to represent their voters who arguably have a right to know which candidates are being selected in their name. Conversely, there have been long-standing concerns about committeemembers being pressured to support a given candidate — dispensing with the secret ballot, the fear goes, would make the committee more susceptible to such pressure.

Some reformers want to abolish the party endorsement entirely, arguing that it creates division within the party while offering little tangible support to many of the candidates who receive it. Hallam said she wasn’t necessarily in favor of abandoning the endorsement but added, “what I want to see is the people of the Democratic Committee be reflective of the actual people of the district because that is not something that I see right now.”

“We are being embarrassed,” Hallam said. “This is nationwide story right now, what’s going on in Allegheny County. Western Pennsylvania decides what happens in the presidential election for Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania decides … who will be sitting in the White House next year. Our chair and our city councilman had an opportunity today ... to unite the Democratic Party in Allegheny County, and instead they chose to be more divisive than ever and that makes me sick. That is not how we win in 2020.”

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.