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Democrats set timetable for choosing District 5 candidate, but field loses top contender

Doors to Pittsburgh City Council chambers.
Maggie Young
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Democrats have set a calendar for choosing their nominee to fill the City Council seat left vacant by Corey O’Connor this summer. But it appears that the man who held the seat before O’Connor will not be running for it again.

On Friday, the Allegheny County Democratic Committee announced that committee members in the district will choose their party’s nominee on Sept. 15. Committee members will gather to choose the party’s champion from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Pittsburgh Firefighters Local No. 1 hall in Hazelwood.

The council race itself will be on the ballot in the Nov. 8 election. But the candidate chosen as the Democrat will be a prohibitive favorite in the district, which includes Squirrel Hill, Greenfield and Hazelwood, as well as a handful of neighborhoods south of the Monongahela River: Hays, Lincoln Place and New Homestead.

Candidates who want to be considered must notify the committee with a letter of intent and pay a $500 filing fee by Sept. 5. But it appears that perhaps the best-known among them will not be in the running.

Doug Shields, who held the city council seat for the better part of a decade, announced his bid to return to it a month ago. But in a Friday-afternoon email, he told the Democratic committee members who will be selecting their nominee that he would not seek the nomination.

“I have assessed the matter, and while there may be a path to a plurality, a path to a majority for me is not clear,” the email read. “Therefore, I have decided to withdraw from the committee’s election.”

That could leave a path for Shields to run as an independent, at least in theory. Neither Shields nor his campaign spokesperson returned calls or responded to emails Sunday.

The email also addresses a controversy that had been brewing in recent days among Democrats on social media: a sign supporting Democrat-turned-Republican candidate Tony Moreno's mayoral bid that was posted at Shields’ home last fall.

The email asserts that Shields posted the sign as a way of registering his disapproval of questions that surrounded campaign-finance reports filed by a former campaign aide to Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey. A WTAE-TV report last springalleged campaign-finance reporting problems at a political committee, African Americans for Good Government. The committee’s treasurer was charged with a misdemeanor for failing to report financial transactions; Gainey himself had no formal role with the committee.

But Shields said he posted the sign as a “protest of the apparent disregard for the rule of law and the lack of transparency in aspects of that campaign.”

Shields’ departure would make it far more likely that District 5 will witness a sea-change in representation, as the seat has been held for decades either by the late Bob O’Connor or people tied closely to him.

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.