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Local Dems Call For Chair's Resignation, But Privately Say It's Unlikely

Matt Nemeth
90.5 WESA
Congressman Mike Doyle called for Eileen Kelly to resign and for a change in party rules.

Calls are mounting for Allegheny County Democratic Committee chair Eileen Kelly to step down from her post, in the wake of a Wednesday press conference many saw as a disaster. Those urging her to step aside include the Allegheny-Fayette County Labor Council, which is headed by her nephew. Meanwhile, the supervisor of her day job, Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb, has joined those calling for an overhaul of the committee’s bylaws.

Kelly has not responded to requests for comment since Thursday, but privately Democrats who spoke with WESA said that – at least so far – they thought it unlikely Kelly would step down. And plans are already being laid to work around the local committee, if necessary, between now and the crucial 2020 Presidential election.

“I won’t be waiting for them to get their act together,” said state Democratic Party chair Nancy Patton Mills. She said that while “the county chair is an essential part of our team, I have lost confidence in Allegheny County.” She said the party planned to open up four offices in Allegheny and Beaver counties to help Democrats up and down the ballot. Similar offices are opening around the state, she said.

But for now, she said, “We are making sure that people know the state party does not share the values expressed at that press conference.”

Kelly's press conference was an effort to respond to criticism of a pair of endorsements made by county insiders last weekend. But during the half-hour discussion, she accused Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald of "try[ing] to rip up the party" by endorsing Chris Roland instead of state Rep. Summer Lee, a forceful critic of fracking and the county's first African-American female state legislator. At the same time, she defended another endorsed candidate, Heather Kass, despite Kass’ social-media posts which derided drug addicts and expressed support for Donald Trump. She said that Kass deserved forgiveness as much as Bethany Hallam, an Allegheny County Councilor who has openly discussed her own problems with drug addiction.

Patton Mills and the state party expressed their displeasure in a Thursday statement that accused Kelly of “furthering division instead of unifying the party.” It called Fitzgerald “a leader in governing Allegheny County and a friend to the Democratic Party. … Rich has our full confidence and support, while Eileen Kelly is rapidly losing it.”

The statement joined a number of others by prominent Democrats, including some close to Kelly. Several called for Kelly's resignation. State Sen. Lindsey Williams and state Rep. Austin Davis were among the earliest to do so Thursday: They were later joined by Congressman Mike Doyle – one of the region’s top elected Democrats – and Darrin Kelly, Eileen Kelly’s nephew and the region’s top labor official.

Without using his aunt’s name, Kelly's statement called it “completely inappropriate for the Democratic Chairwoman to call out County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Councilor Bethany Hallam.”

“We all need to wake the hell up,” the statement added, saying the party “must be unified in the most important election year in the history of this region. The Chairwoman’s actions this week left us more divided. It’s time to step aside.”

Eileen Kelly’s boss, City Controller Michael Lamb, offered a more restrained statement. While it called Kelly’s remarks about Hallam’s struggle with addiction “offensive,” he did not call for her departure. Instead, he urged a party gathering “to discuss rule and bylaw changes to help our party meet our challenges now and in the future.”

Michael Lamb’s own nephew, Congressman Conor Lamb, had issued a similarly measured statement the day before, which said he trusted committee members to chart the local party’s future. “[W]ho leads the party is ultimately their decision to make,” he said in a tweeted statement, before adding “Yesterday’s incident has given them much to consider.” But by Friday afternoon, he was retweeting Darrin Kelly’s statement and adding, “It’s time for the Chairwoman to step aside.”

Even Pittsburgh City Councilor Anthony Coghill – who participated in the press conference as the chair of Pittsburgh’s 19th Ward Committee – distanced himself from it. In a social-media statement of his own, Coghill said his “only intention” in participating “was to defend myself and the Committee. … I do not in any way agree with the derogatory comments Ms. Kelly made about our Chief Executive, Rich Fitzgerald, at that conference.” He said he “deeply regret being a part of a press conference in which these remarks were made.”

(Coghill's chief of staff, Moira Kaleida, made a public statement of her own Friday, tweeting her support for Heather Kass' rival, Jessica Benham, while resigning her position in Coghill's office.)

But despite the flurry of statements, Democrats who spoke privately to WESA say they don't expect her to leave the post, and that there was little appetite for trying to remove her – assuming that's possible.

Neither the party’s state nor local bylaws spell out means for removing a county chair. Robert’s Rules of Order do specify a procedure that involves an investigation and trial, but Jim Burn, a former state and county’s Democratic chairman who previously served as Kelly’s party solicitor, said the procedure was “painful.”

“The process of removing a chair makes presidential impeachment look like a wedding reception,” he said. 

It’s also not clear how many committee members would support such an effort. Kelly won the chair from Patton Mills two years ago thanks partly to concerns among committee people that Patton Mills was too close to Fitzgerald. Patton Mills’ statement lauding Fitzgerald is unlikely to convince them otherwise, insiders say.

Doyle’s call for a review of party rules has also raised some eyebrows. Among the biggest criticisms of the party has been the steep fees it charges for candidates to seek its endorsement, and arguably Doyle benefited from them as much as anyone. For Congressional candidates this year, the fee was $10,000 – steep enough that Doyle’s primary rival, Jerry Dickinson, decided against paying.

Mike Mikus, who speaks for Doyle’s political campaign, declined comment.

Democrats across the spectrum said that despite the flurry of statements calling for Kelly’s resignation, it would be better for the party to move on quickly.

“I don’t think anybody wants to split us up even further,” said one Democrat whose feelings echoed several others that spoke with WESA. “The feeling of a lot of people is that we will just try to work through the state party.”

For her part, Bethany Hallam said she had no intention of calling for Kelly’s removal, but is focused on gathering petitions to convene a meeting of the entire committee. Kelly is “a symptom of a larger problem,” she said. And if she left, “Too many people will think the problem is fixed.”

Her Democratic colleagues on county council put out a similar message Friday, telling Democratic commitee members that while comments at the press conference were "uncalled for and out of line," the councilors "are not calling for anyone's resignation. The problems didn't start with our current chair and won't end with her if all we do is remove her." 

Hallam says she has 450 signatures – more than the 400 required to call a meeting under bylaws. But scheduling the meeting is the responsibility of the board chair. And there is no timeline under which Kelly would be required to act.

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.