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Politics & Government

Kass Withdraws Portion Of Lawsuit, But Democratic Party Dispute Continues

Niven Sabherwal
90.5 WESA

Democratic state House candidate Heather Kass withdrew a request for an injunction against her own political party this morning, but will continue to seek damages in a dispute over access to party voter information.

As WESA first reported earlier this week, Kass sued both the Allegheny County Democratic Committee and the state Democratic Party, alleging that while she paid $2,500 to be compete for the party’s endorsement, the party refused to support her even after she won.

Part of the lawsuit demanded her name be included on “slate cards,” which are mailed to Democratic voters to tell them who their party leaders have endorsed in a primary race. By the time Kass filed suit, however, some of those cards – with her name on them – were already reaching voters in House District 36.

“There is no emergency, that is moot,” Kass’ attorney, Ryan Mergl, said in a telephone hearing held by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James. He later told WESA that party officials had not answered his calls before the suit was filed, and that he was unaware the cards had been mailed.  

But Kass’ suit also alleged that the state Democratic Party had refused to share voter address information it keeps in its VoteBuilder database. As a result, the suit claims, she was forced to spend time and money assembling her own voter information. That portion of the suit will continue.

“We are keeping that in play,” Mergl told James.

Kass is one of four Democrats running to replace retiring state Rep. Harry Readshaw. The party's endorsement of her early this year was controversial, thanks to social-media posts she made that were supportive of President Trump and denounced people suffering from drug addictions. The state party chair, Nancy Patton Mills, pledged that no state resources would be used to support Kass. Sure enough, as WESA reported Tuesday, Allegheny County Democratic Committee chair Eileen Kelly said party leaders at the state level wouldn’t give her information for voters in Kass’ district – even as the state party provided it for other candidates.

The disagreement could also have disrupted mailing state cards to voters in the district, which includes portions of southern Pittsburgh and nearby smaller municipalities. Ordinarily, the state party prints and mails out the cards on behalf of its local chapters, using a bulk-mail permit that reduces cost. That appears to have happened throughout the county except the 36th District, where the county had to pay for mailings itself.   

It’s not clear that the state party and its county affiliate will be on the same page as the suit proceeds.

Attorney Cliff Levine, who represents the state party, told Judge James that “At some point, we would seek to be getting out of the complaint,” because Kass’ suit concerns the endorsement process, which took place at the county level.

Mergl told WESA that he would oppose removing the state party from the suit, because many of the allegations involve actions by state party leaders.

“The county sets the guidelines for the endorsement, and they have to follow the rules of the state," he said. "But if they endorse a candidate in compliance with those rules, how can Nancy Mills say, ‘You endorsed this person but I don’t like them?’"

Levine did not respond to a phone call after the hearing. But Albert Veverka, who represents the Allegheny County branch of the party, said he hoped that those involved could “resolve [the matter] without the need for further litigation.”

From the county’s perspective, he said, “The bottom line is the slate cards have her name on them, and they went out at the same time as everyone else’s did.” And as far as the mailings were concerned, “She received the same treatment as any other endorsed candidate.”

As for access to the VoteBuilder database, Veverka said that the state party has the license for it and “can do what they want with it. They don’t have to share it with anybody” – even endorsed candidates.

“When you get the endorsement, there is no list of things that say, ‘You are going to get a, b, c, or d,’” he said. While endorsed candidates can tout the party’s backing, “what the committee does after [the endorsement] is completely voluntary.”