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In ‘Unorthodox’ Move, Hallam Openly Recruits Candidates To Run Against County Council Colleagues

Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA
In recent Twitter posts, Democrat Bethany Hallam encouraged Allegheny County residents to challenge some of her county council colleagues in future elections.

While political insiders typically work behind the scenes to field candidates for elected office, Democratic Allegheny County councilor Bethany Hallam has taken to Twitter in her own recruitment effort.

In two recent posts on the social-media platform, Hallam encouraged local residents to run against some of her county council colleagues in future elections, or to help her identify potential challengers.

In a thinly veiled tweet in June, for example, the first-term councilor solicited inquiries from those who could help to vote out West Mifflin Democrat Bob Macey, a 13-year incumbent. The tweet didn't mention Macey by name, but did feature a screen-captured list of communities in his district that appeared to have been taken from his page on the county's website.

And last week, hours after council defeated her proposal to require universal COVID-19 testing at the county jail and Kane nursing homes, Hallam invited those who wanted to unseat any of the bill’s 10 opponents to contact her directly.

She said in an interview, however, that her top priority will be finding candidates to challenge Macey, Democrat Tom Duerr, and Republicans Tom Baker and Cindy Kirk. Macey and Baker are up for reelection next year, with Duerr and Kirk's next runs slated for 2023.

Hallam has had disagreements with some of the councilors, including some notably sharp exchanges with Macey. But there’s not necessarily an ideological consistency in her choices.

Credit Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA
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Democrat Bob Macey has served on Allegheny County Council, representing communities in the Mon Valley, since 2007.

For example, Hallam acknowledged that Republican Sam DeMarco is not on her list, even though he “arguably has the most opposite politics [from hers] on the whole council.”

DeMarco's at-large seat is reserved for Republicans, so replacing him might have little impact. But Hallam said of DeMarco, “We work well together. He always votes what he thinks is right.”

Hallam faults the four councilors in her crosshairs for not envisioning a more assertive role for council. She campaigned in 2019 partly on the belief that the 15-member legislative body should have more clout in county government. And she has long criticized council for functioning merely as a “rubber stamp” for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s agenda.

“It's the legislative body of the county, and it's not toothless,” Hallam said of council. “It's just currently powerless by choice and by habit … I need more people on council who are willing to assert our legislative powers, our investigatory powers, our budgetary powers.”

Hallam’s offensive against specific colleagues comes after she suffered setbacks at council. As with the universal testing bill, Hallam and fellow Democrat Liv Bennett failed to win enough support for a measure that would have banned the use of “less-lethal” weapons at protests. And in March, council abandoned a bill that would have required the release of jail inmates charged with low-level crimes, in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Hallam thinks council should take a more creative view on the extent of its powers. For example, with the jail-release bill, she acknowledged that it's judges who decide whether to detain an individual. But Hallam said, council could have blocked the courts from holding people in the county-owned facility.

Macey maintains, however, that council can't interfere with the will of the judiciary in that way. “And that’s something that I think some of our newer county council persons need to understand: There’s guidelines, there’s rules – and there’s opportunities to make a difference,” he said.

But Macey noted those opportunities are limited, considering that the 15 county councilors serve on a part-time basis while sharing a staff of just four people.

“We do the best we can with what we’ve got,” Macey said.

Credit Jared Murphy / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Republican Tom Baker was first elected to Allegheny County Council in 2013, after defeating incumbent Matt Drozd in that year's primary election.

Baker, a Republican whose district includes airport-area communities and parts of the North Hills, added that to be effective, councilors must be willing to compromise with colleagues. “County council has 15 members with very different personal and political beliefs,” Baker wrote in an email. “During my time on council, conservatives, moderates, and progressives have compromised to create good government. I think of them as short running plays that move the ball forward.”

Both Kirk and Duerr said that their first obligation is to represent voters in their district. Both said they didn’t want to get involved in a personal dispute with a fellow councilor.

With Kirk and Duerr’s elections three years away, Hallam has focused on recruiting candidates to run against Macey and Baker in 2021. She said between 30 and 40 people have contacted her with suggestions for who to pit against Macey, and estimated there are “at least five to 10 great potential candidates in that pool.” As for Baker’s district, Hallam would only say she has “a specific person in mind.”

Macey, who said he plans to run for reelection, seemed largely unfazed by Hallam’s effort to vote him out. “This is America,” he said. “She can do what she wants. I’m sure there will be a challenger. But I have a lot of faith in my constituents, and I believe they have a lot of faith in me.”

In the meantime, former county councilor Jim Burn, who has served as chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, predicted that because Hallam is openly searching for candidates to challenge her colleagues, “it’s going to be a little difficult for the councilwoman to get any support from people whose heads she’s trying to take, as she tries to move some of her legislation down the field.”

While Burn called Hallam’s recruitment effort on Twitter “unorthodox,” he commended her for “trying to shake things up on a body that has been essentially stagnant.”