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Young progressives seek to overhaul county's Democratic committee

Bethany Hallam was a leading voice for efforts to urge more progressives to run for spots on the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.
Jared Murphy
90.5 WESA
Bethany Hallam was a leading voice for efforts to urge more progressives to run for spots on the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.

On the night of Pennsylvania’s May 17 primary, most everyone’s eyes were trained on the race for U.S. Senate and governor — and for spirited primary fights for Congress. But Ross Township resident Deanna Philpott also found some results to be excited about a bit down-ballot.

OK, waaaaayyyyy down-ballot.

“We’re on Cloud 9 right now,” said Philpott of her successful bid — and that of roughly 20 allies — to join the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. “We’re really thrilled to do something with our passion for politics.”

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“Thrilled” is not an adjective often used in conjunction with the phrase “Allegheny County Democratic Committee.” Party committee members are elected to help bolster Democratic candidates and causes, but critics say the Democratic operation in Allegheny County has become ineffectual and anachronistic. Philpott is just one of a slew of activists across the region who add their energy to it this spring.

“There are a lot of indications of an influx of new faces, the likes of which I haven’t seen in 30 years,” said Jim Burn, who himself once chaired the county party. “Whether that translates into a new direction remains to be seen.”

For Democrats the movement may come just in time — months before midterm elections in which the stakes for Democrats and the odds they face have rarely been higher. Thanks to the primary's results, Philpott said, “I think we’re feeling like Allegheny County has a chance.”

‘Every bit of change matters’

There are two Democratic committee members for each of the county’s more than 1,300 voting districts. In theory, at least, their job is to inform neighbors about the party’s candidates and rally voters to the polls. They’re also supposed to help act as liaisons between officials and those they represent — and in Allegheny County, they also may vote to endorse candidates before the primary, to suggest which office seeker they believe deserves the support of voters.

But critics say that process doesn’t always work as it should.

Philpott said the local party refused to endorse her own school board run in 2019 — not because it favored another Democrat but because, she said, she was told, “We don’t think some of the Republicans are that bad.” And as recently as this spring, the committee spurned her incumbent state Rep. Emily Kinkead — who, like Philpott, is a progressive woman.

“A lot of people are fed up with the county committee not endorsing progressives,” Philpott said.

So, when it came time for committee members to run for their four-year terms this May, Philpott joined with like-minded allies to find candidates to run for it.

“It started out just recruiting a bunch of my friends,” she said. “But I couldn’t let it go. I would be like, ‘Oh, there’s a supervoter in a district we don’t have a candidate in.’”

Similar efforts took place all over Allegheny County — some coordinated by activist groups seeking to shake up the current leadership, and others put together at the local level. And a generational shift may well be underway — particularly in hotspots in and around the city of Pittsburgh such as the North Side, Bloomfield, Shaler and Ross.

“There is a new progressive wing of the party coming in,” said Kevin Quigley, a Brighton Heights resident who has spent three decades as a committeeman in the 27th Ward. Quigley retained his own committee spot, but his prospects for remaining as the chair of his ward are dubious.

Still, he said, “I think it’s great. I’m going to enjoy the ride” of seeing new committee members — some of whom have been critical of the status quo he was part of — take the reins.

The exact scope of the change is difficult to determine, in part because the county did not have the results for numerous write-in campaigns last week. But there are clues.

County Councilor Bethany Hallam was a chief advocate of one effort to remake the committee. She said her Allegheny County Independent Democratic Committee recruited 170 people, 145 of whom appear to have won. (Ironically, Hallam lost her own committee bid, a fact she ascribed to moving to a new voting district.)

That was far short of their goal of recruiting 500 people, she said. Still, “We knew it wasn’t going to happen overnight, but this is the biggest chip out of the committee that I have ever seen.” Hallam said. “I’m excited to see what it means.”

Hallam’s group worked in parallel with similar efforts, including the Democratic Partners of Allegheny County and local initiatives.

While Hallam has been a staunch progressive critic of the committee, some challengers focused more on simply pushing it to be more reflective of, and responsive to, their communities.

Bob Charland, for example, is an aide to City Councilor Bruce Kraus. But he recruited candidates to the South Side's 17th Ward on his own time, and with a focus on local priorities.

“The South Side has a few bars as you may have heard,” he said — and challenges to nuisance-bar liquor licenses are handled by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judges.

"Last year, there were 40 candidates running for judge, and we had no forum for them on the South Side," Charland said. "We want to make sure they see that we care what happens to the neighborhood.”

Charland says local interest in the committee was so tepid that every candidate he recruited ran unopposed in the 17th Ward’s 16-member committee.

 Jessica Benham
Benham for PA campaign photo
Benham for PA campaign photo
Jessica Benham

Working alongside those efforts, meanwhile, was state Rep. Jessica Benham, who represents the South Side and other parts of southern Pittsburgh and outlying areas. Benham says she encouraged between 15 and 20 of the people who will likely take spots on the committee.

Benham herself has twice been snubbed by the committee endorsement process, but she said that’s not why she encouraged anyone to seek a slot.

“I’ve shown twice that I don’t need the endorsement to win,” she said. “That’s not the point. We need a party where people can get access to the voter lists and where people can get yard signs. We are going to have the fight of our lives when it comes to electing Democrats as governor and to the U.S. Senate. And every bit of change matters.”
Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied grassroots activism on the left, said that in recent years she had seen a trend of “people getting excited and joining their Democratic committee.” And while some committee hopefuls wanted to shift the party ideologically, others just wanted it to be more effective, she said.

“I don’t think the committee is likely to move significantly to the left,” she said. “But I think you’ll see much more competence” in how it operates.

Putnam said the committee can play a critical role in providing legal and other resources for needs such as election protection. But more generally, she said, it provides a way of enshrining personal networks and institutional memory. “Without that party structure, ads are bought, doors are knocked, but nobody remembers anything” after Election Day she said. “D.C.-based consultants show up four years later and make the same mistakes.”

“Networks of relationships,” she said, “decide whether people vote consistently with the party — or at all.”

‘We have to do a better job’

An early test of the committee’s direction will come when the new class of committee members vote on who should lead the committee as chair.

So far, only one candidate has put forward his name: Squirrel Hill attorney Sam Hens-Greco, who chairs the city’s powerful — and decidedly left-leaning — 14th Ward.

“I see the committee as an ideal grassroots organization. It just has to be run like one,” he said. “We have to do a better job of communicating, both internally and externally.”

Hens-Greco has feuded more than once with the party’s current chair, Eileen Kelly. He says he’d take a more hands-on role in providing resources and support to committees, and in broadening its outreach to constituencies with which the committee isn’t in touch.

As one sign of that commitment, he has picked as his prospective vice chair Morgan Overton, a Black woman who helps lead the Young Democrats of Allegheny County.

Overton would be the first Black female vice-chair at a time when Black women make up an increasingly large part of the Democrats’ base and public face: Candidates such as state Rep. Summer Lee and state House candidate La’Tasha Mayes enjoyed big wins this spring, and Black women won a slew of judicial races last year.

“People in communities like mine have felt they have no say,” Overton said.
“But they are the ones in the lead of shifting our culture. There’s a movement of young people ready to be part of the change they are looking for.”

For her part, Kelly said that while she’s “made up my mind” about a decision to run for chair, she doesn’t want to disclose her plans yet.

“When I’m ready to make that announcement, I will let you know," she said.

Kelly’s tenure has been controversial, though she said much of the anger has stemmed from the committee’s endorsement decisions — which she says she does not try to affect and is bound to support. “I’m loyal to the committee,” she said.

Kelly did shepherd the party through a series of endorsement gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a first-of-its kind process that used both in-person voting and mail-in ballots handled by an outside auditing firm. And she said she has shored up its once-rocky finances.

Still, Hens-Greco and others say the committee derives far too much of its revenue from endorsement fees charged to candidates who want the committee’s support: Nearly $150,000 of the committee’s revenue last year came from $8,000 checks signed by candidates running for countywide office. The steep price of admission, critics say, acts as a bar to less wealthy or less connected candidates.

“We raise money on the backs of candidates and elected officials, when there are so many other ways of doing it,” Hens-Greco said. He said he envisions creating a new, active fundraising committee and tapping online and other networks for support.

‘Like having a kindred spirit’

For now, it’s not even clear when the party will vote on its next chair, thanks to a number of complications that include a profusion of write-in candidates. It takes the county a few weeks to reconcile different name spellings and other vagaries, and those efforts have been delayed by a recount in the U.S. Senate race, which occupied elections workers last week.

There is speculation that the county committee will meet to choose a chair in late June. That timetable means the county will not have a recognized chair in time for a state party gathering in Gettysburg in the middle of the month. Allegheny County Democrats would then have less of a say in picking a new state party chair to replace Nancy Patton Mills, a choice that is setting up to be a contentious fight.

Mills, who has a longstanding rivalry with Kelly, acknowledged that county parties faced challenges in reorganizing in time, but she said Allegheny County appears to be the only committee that won’t have picked a new chair before the statewide gathering.

“Every county has the same issues as Allegheny,” she said.

But perhaps the biggest challenge — and opportunity — will concern not who is at the top, but whether the rank-and-file can work together.

Philpott, of Ross, knows what would-be reformers are up against. She recalled attending one local committee meeting where members talked at length about their opposition to abortion: “You’re sitting there thinking, ‘Why did I get my mom to watch my kids for this?’”

Still, she said, “There are a lot of good people already on the committee.”

And she said the primary itself showed the power of like-minded people working together.

“As a progressive in the suburbs, you can feel really alone,” she said.

“So, if you find someone who cares about what you care about, it’s like having a kindred spirit. If we can stick by each other, that will be a success for me.”

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.