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Gainey Says It ‘Speaks Volumes’ That Democratic Committee Endorsed Him As Mayoral Candidate

PA House of Representatives

State Representative Ed Gainey won the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee in his bid for mayor of Pittsburgh Sunday, holding off a spirited challenge from Tony Moreno.

Incumbent Bill Peduto, who both men hope to beat on May 18, did not seek the endorsement. But moments after his 326-224 win, Gainey said the endorsement “speaks volumes. This is the first time I can [remember] them endorsing an African American to be mayor of the city of Pittsburgh.

"This is just more momentum," he added. "We’ve got to unite this city … in the best way possible, and I’ve done that my whole career.”

Eileen Kelly, who chairs the committee, also said the moment was historic. “I’m really happy that we endorsed the first African American [candidate for mayor in the commitee's history], Ed Gainey,” she said. She noted too that when the committee endorsed nine candidates running for Court of Common Pleas, the top vote-getter was also Black: Elliot Howsie, who is seeking to hold a seat he was appointed to in 2019.

The committee’s endorsement represents a stamp of approval by committeepeople, who represent every voting district in the county. Their choices aren’t binding on voters, who often ignore them, but endorsed candidates can appear on “slate cards” distributed to voters on or before the primary.

Moreno’s own vote count was a robust 41 percent of the total, despite the fact that he’s a first-time candidate who switched parties shortly before launching his bid and who garnered headlines for a history of pro-Trump social media posts.

Gainey, who himself has long been a fixture on the Democratic committee, declined to criticize the vote or Moreno.

“I think it demonstrates how hard we both worked,” he said of the result. “We never took him lightly, but we also had a story to tell.”

But critics of the committee and the endorsement process, including some of Gainey's supporters, seized on Moreno's strong showing as proof the party needs to change.

“This isn’t news to anyone who has been following the Democratic committee,” said Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, a Gainey supporter who has tangled with party leadership in the past.

In last year’s 36th state House race, she said, “We saw in 2020 that Heather Kass – another Trump supporter – won the endorsement against a great candidate with an impressive resume, Jessica Benham.” And while that result could be dismissed as an outlier from a particularly conservative district, Hallam said, “This isn’t just one House district. It’s the entire city.”

Hallam allowed that it is difficult to know how many of those votes reflect actual approval of Moreno or his views. Peduto supporters on the committee, deprived of their chance to support him directly, could have supported Moreno to weaken Gainey. (At a committee gathering last week, Peduto said committeemembers should vote for "who you would believe would be the best candidate.") And by all accounts including his own, Moreno courted committeemembers carefully: Some may simply not have heard about years-old posts or his party switching.

Still, Hallam said, “If Peduto was your guy, you could have voted for neither of his opponents. And your number one job as a committeeperson is to be an informed voter.”

Kelly, for her part, played down Moreno’s total. “The only thing I could say is that the committeepeople voted, and he lost. A win is a win, and Ed Gainey won.”

Peduto’s camp, meanwhile, dismissed entire process. “As expected, Rep. Gainey – a former chair of the City Democratic Committee and current committee member – was able to garner more votes than Tony Moreno – a former Republican and a Trump supporter,” his campaign said in a statement.

The statement noted that earlier in the weekend, Peduto had received the backing of the Allegheny County Labor Council, an umbrella group of local unions.

Endorsement votes usually feature large gatherings of commmitee people and officials seeking their support. But like everything else in the past year, the endorsement process was shaped by the coronavirus – and as with last year’s elections, it took place largely by mail. Slightly over 1,600 of the 1,770 votes cast arrived by mail; on Sunday, committeepeople were permitted to drop off their ballots in person or vote at the Steamfitters Local 449 hall on Saw Mill Run Boulevard, where votes were counted. Committee members were almost universally masked -- though not always with noses covered, and adherence to rules about physical distancing varied.

The committee currently has around 2,300 eligible members, Kelly said. A turnout much higher than 1,500 votes is considered strong, said longtime party members on hand. The process of gathering and storing ballots was overseen by accounting firm Schneider Downs to head off fears about political shenanigans. Ballots were counted on optical scanners like those used by the county’s regular elections.

“I’m so happy with the vote count,” Kelly said. “We were very organized.”

But it wouldn’t be a Democratic committee endorsement without some controversy, and there were 20 mail-in ballots whose signatures were missing from the outer envelope. While some candidates understood going into the vote that such ballots would not be counted – a position consistent with the rules in public elections – Kelly decided Sunday to allow them. That prompted an objection from Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, who is running for judge and who said the move could result in “vote harvesting.”

Kelly said she didn’t want to disenfranchise voters, and that the “overwhelming” number of candidates she spoke with were in favor of the move. WESA spoke to three candidates on-hand at the Steamfiters hall. Only Moreno expressed strong reservations to the on-the-fly nature of the decision: “A bad process creates confusion, and that’s what you have here.”

It remains to be seen whether the 20 votes create lasting concern. The votes, while counted, were also sequestered in case of future challenge, and may become an issue in a tight South Hills race for magistrate district judge. But Wagner won an endorsement, despite her misgivings. She finished third, behind Howsie and Sabrina Korbel, but well within the top nine candidates who won the endorsement. The others are Bill Caye, Jessel Costa, Tom Caulfield, Bruce Beemer, Wrenna Watson, and Patrick Sweeney.

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.