Another Democratic Committee Controversy Over Mayoral Endorsements
Endorsements in Pittsburgh’s mayoral race have been trickling out for weeks now, but last week Mayor Bill Peduto received the endorsement of two South Hills officials whose names raised some eyebrows: Anthony Coghill and Bob Palmosina.
Coghill represents southern neighborhoods in City Council, while Palmosina holds an Allegheny County Council district that covers some of the same area. But both men are ward chairs on the Allegheny County Democratic Committee — a group that endorsed state Rep. Ed Gainey for mayor, and which endorsed Palmosina and Coghill for re-election in the same primary.
“I was in a tough spot,” said Coghill, who chairs the city’s sprawling 19th Ward. The endorsement process, he said, is “the best form of democracy that I know. I wasn’t happy that [Peduto] didn’t seek the endorsement, I can tell you that.” But Peduto has done right by the district, he said, and “ultimately I work for the taxpayers. I have to do what’s best for my voters.”
Coghill stressed that he planned to endorse the rest of the candidates endorsed by the committee — a roster which includes both himself and Palmosina along with nine candidates for Common Pleas Judge and other hopefuls.
As an example of Peduto’s stewardship, Coghill and Palmosina both praised construction of a new Department of Public Works facility in the South Hills. The project is intended to replace a facility whose demolition has been cited as a reason snow-plowing efforts in the area have lagged. Groundbreaking for the project took place one day after Coghill and Palmosina announced their support, though the project has been planned for some time.
“That means better services, and it’s very important to me,” Palmosina said. “I think [Peduto] has done a good job, and I see a lot of development in the South HIlls. And with everything going on right now — the COVID and city finances — I thought it would be a tough time to change.”
Palmosina had actually sued Peduto early in his administration, after a restructuring of city departments cost Palmosina his own Public Works job. The case was later settled, and Palmosina says that afterward he and Peduto “met and had a really nice conversation. We actually became friends.”
There may be still be some patching up to do with the two men who did seek the endorsement.
Gainey’s campaign declined comment, though he won the endorsement by a roughly 60-to-40 margin. Gainey has long been active in the committee and has longstanding ties to its members, and his campaign noted a slate of endorsements he had received from a number of unions and progressive politicians.
But retired police officer Tony Moreno, who lost the endorsement fight to Gainey, said “I am really mad about this — even though it’s actually not a bad thing for me.”
The committee’s endorsement represents a “stamp of approval” by party insiders, and those who earn it appear in mailings and “slate cards” handed out to voters. While those voters can and do ignore the recommendations, the committeepeople who take part in the endorsement are supposed to support the candidate who earns it. Or at least to pretend to.
“I didn’t like the outcome, but these are the rules,” said Moreno. “And when you come out to shatter them, what does that say? … This is the first time we’ve endorsed a black candidate for mayor, and we have people backing someone who didn’t even seek the endorsement.”
Eileen Kelly, who chairs the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, also sounded displeased.
“They have to revoke their seat as ward chair” until after the May 18 primary, she said, citing a traditional means of handling such cases. “Then the vice chair takes over.” A suspended committee member is unable to take part in committee gatherings or functions, though Kelly acknowledged there were few of these during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kelly predicted that the controversy would have little long-term effect on the committee. “We are 2,300 commmittee members strong and we will always have our endorsements.” But she noted that party leaders who defy an endorsement could face blowback next year, when the party elects new committee members and chooses new leaders. “People on the committee don’t like that sort of thing,” she said.
Jim Burn, who formerly chaired both the county committee and the state apparatus, said Kelly’s approach is “normally how we would handle it.”
And a suspension is about as much as the committee can do, he said, because while the partly bylaws say endorsements are “binding” on committee members, “That is all they say. There are no removal provisions. You can’t kick somebody out unless they support a non-Democrat in the fall.”
Both Palmosina and Coghill said they will act in accordance with the bylaws — but both also said they had heard conflicting opinions about what the bylaws required. “I’ll do whatever the bylaws say, and if they don’t say something clear, I’ll just have the conversation with [Kelly],” Coghill said.
Burn said the party either needed to put some teeth into enforcing the rules, or drop the rules entirely. Invoking a Klingon shunning ritual from the Star Trek series, Burn said that as things stand, if a committee member defies the rules, “We’re all just going to cross our arms and turn our backs.”
Such problems are not new: Burn presided over a fruitless debate about enforcing endorsements over a decade ago. But in years past “people weren’t so open about it. They don’t feel like there will be repercussions [any more].” And he worried that, “Because of this kind of problem, the party is on the verge of falling into a crevasse of irrelevance.”
Coghill said he understood Burn’s worries, and he said there were commtteepeople in his own ward who were backing his rival, Bethani Cameron, instead of him this spring. But he said he wouldn’t seek to punish them. “I’m not their cup of tea, but I don’t scream, ‘You have to step down!’”
And if people were concerned, Coghill said they could follow an example he set by wresting control of the 19th Ward from former political heavyweight Pete Wagner in 2014.
“If it’s so bad," he said, "you can do what I did and replace people so it’s in your hands.”