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Irwin, Deluzio win Democratic endorsements amid questions about committee's openness

Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA

The Allegheny County Democratic Committee gathered for its annual endorsement meeting on the South Side Sunday — and for a handful of young, progressive, female candidates in closely watched races, the outcome wasn’t pretty.

That’s how a 2020 WESA story about the committee endorsement — which marks a seal of approval by party insiders — began two years ago. And the story is especially familiar for a handful of candidates, starting with state Rep. Summer Lee in the closely watched race to replace retiring Congressman Mike Doyle in the 12th Congressional District.

Committee members, who represent voting precincts from across the county, picked Squirrel Hill attorney Steve Irwin as their favorite in that race. In doing so, they passed over Lee as well as University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson and PA College Access Program Executive Director Jeff Woodard.

Irwin has been running as a political pragmatist with liberal values but a willingness to compromise to get things done. And on social media he hailed the endorsement as proof that committee members “understand how important it is for us to stand with [President Biden] and get results for our families right now. When I get to Washington, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.”

Irwin won the votes of 323 committee people. Lee, a progressive champion noted for her stand on issues like environmental justice, finished second with 260. Dickinson, who is also running in a progressive lane, came in third with 105 and Woodard in fourth, with 24.

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Irwin has accrued a handful of notable endorsements in recent weeks, none more significant than that of Doyle, a party stalwart and longtime committee favorite.

In the region’s other contested Democratic primary, Chris Deluzio bested Sean Meloy for the 17th Congressional District seat being vacated by Conor Lamb, who is focused on a Senate run. Deluzio, who is the policy director for a University of Pittsburgh program that studies cyberlaw and security, earned 252 votes to the 171 garnered by Meloy, a senior political advisor for an LGBT political advocacy group.

The committee’s endorsement is not binding on voters, who can and often do ignore the preferences of committee members. But candidates who win the endorsement will be featured on “slate cards” that are mailed to voters or handed out at the polls. And, as in 2020, a number of races at the state legislative level are triggering complaints that the committee is hostile to younger women on the left end of the party’s spectrum.

Lee, for one, was also snubbed in the contest to hold onto her 34th District state House seat. (Lee is running for the state and federal legislative seats concurrently). In that race the committee endorsed attorney and Swissvale borough council president Abigail Salisbury by a 57 to 45 count. The committee also failed to endorse Lee back in 2020, when she was a first-term incumbent — a rare rebuke of a seated public official.

“We WANT young people to participate ... but wait your turn,” Lee tweeted a few hours after results were released. “We protect incumbents ... but not those progressives. We DO want Black women … eventually … just not HER.”

Two other first-term female incumbents were also rejected by the committee this year.

District 36 incumbent Jessica Benham lost to Stephanie Fox in a 34-24 vote, making the second time the committee snubbed her. In 2020, it backed Heather Kass despite social-media posts in which Kass had criticized the Affordable Care Act and expressed support for Donald Trump.

“This is exactly how the Democratic Party in Allegheny County has consistently treated its young women incumbents,” said Benham. “This is a system that is set up to fail people like me: newer, younger, emerging voices in our party. The endorsement that matters occurs in the primary, and I’m convinced — just like I was the last time I beat this machine — that I’m going to have the honor of serving [the district] for another two years.

Fox didn’t respond directly to Benham’s criticism of the process but said, “I know I have support from every neighborhood in that district, and they turned out to support me. I worked hard to earn that trust and the endorsement.” The endorsement, she said, proved, “I know the residents of this district and am very in touch with it.”

In House District 20, meanwhile, North Side incumbent Emily Kinkead was trounced 52 to 18 by Nick Mastros, a Ross Township resident who owns a sandwich shop in the North Side.

Kinkead, who is running in a newly redrawn district that is dominated by Ross Township, expected to lose the endorsement vote, and wasted little time criticizing the outcome. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results,” she said in a Tweet addressed to the committee. “Last time, I lost this vote 101-11. We won where it counted anyway. We'll do it again.”

The news wasn’t all bad for progressive women Sunday. In the north suburban seat of state House District 33, Fox Chapel borough council member Mandy Steele won the endorsement over Pittsburgh city council aide Tristan McClelland by a 41-25 margin. And other contests seem likely to inspire less uproar.

Aerion Abney bested Glenn Grayson in a rematch of their race for the party’s backing in an April 5 special election to replace Jake Wheatley in the 19th House District for the balance of 2022. On Sunday, Abney won the party’s endorsement for a full two-year term by a vote of 60 to 49. That gap was wide enough that, this time, the race could be decided without the help of an empty tub of margarine.

Moreover, Lee herself got better news from an endorsement by the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club, an active group of East End Democrats who often go their own way on endorsements. They backed her both for Congress and her House seat, while supporting Conor Lamb for U.S. Senate.

In any case, the county Democratic Committee endorsement is of decidedly limited value when it comes to predicting how actual voters will decide. Benham, Kinkead, and Lee all went on to win their races in 2020.

Corrected: March 28, 2022 at 7:21 AM EDT
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Chris Deluzio's name in the headline.
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.