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Allegheny County Democrats debate a favorite topic: party endorsement fees

Julia Zenkevixh
90.5 WESA
Sam Hans-Greco, chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, speaking after being endorsed by local Democrats last summer. 

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. Sign up here to get it every Thursday afternoon.

Democracy unfolds in a series of spectacles: the campaign kick-off surrounded by enthusiastic supporters, the principled arguments on the debate stage, the tearful Election Night speech to supporters who may or may not still be enthusiastic. And then of course, there is the most cherished local tradition of all: arguing about Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement fees.

For those joining late: Each election cycle, Democratic Party officials in Allegheny County vote for candidates to endorse prior to the spring primary. Democratic voters can and frequently do ignore those recommendations, but the picks represent a stamp of approval from the party’s leadership.

But candidates who want the imprimatur of leaders must pay a fee to be considered … and how much they pay is a subject of endless dispute.

Allegheny County released its fee structure for 2023 this week, and there aren’t a lot of changes for the marquee races. If you want to run for a countywide post such as county executive or Common Pleas Judge, it will cost you $7,500 to seek the endorsement. Four years ago, the price ranged between $7,000 and $10,000.

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Down-ballot races see bigger swings, in both directions. Four years ago, a Pittsburgh City Council hopeful would pay $2,500 to be considered for an endorsement; this year it’s $1,000. Conversely, the fee for a city school board candidate has grown — from $125 four years ago to $500 today.

On Twitter earlier this week, that change prompted arguments that the new structure punishes candidates closer to the grassroots level. And more broadly, there are those who would do away with the endorsement fee altogether, which many counties don’t even use.

But party leaders are asking candidates not just to look at the sticker price, but to consider what they’re getting for the money as well. The county party’s new chair, Sam Hens-Greco, hopes to turn the committee into a vehicle for mobilizing and informing Democratic voters. It’s also an effort to respond to criticism of the way the party has done business in the past.

Previously, if candidates who paid the fee lost the endorsement, their money would be spent putting the winner’s name on slate cards mailed to voters or handed out at polls. To seek the endorsement was, then, a gamble that your own money could be used to boost a rival.

But committee executive director Emily Marburger says this year will be different. Instead of mailing out slate cards, the party will send voter guides with information about all candidates who sought the endorsement, even those who lost it. (Slate cards will still be handed out at polling places to voters, who will shove them in their pockets, unread: Like I say, there are traditions to honor.) And all candidates will obtain access to a voter-database system that will enhance their outreach efforts.

Marburger said the new costs are linked to the actual service the party hopes to provide. So the price includes the cost of database access — which is determined by the number of voters in each data set — and of producing and mailing voter guides. Those costs vary depending on the office being sought.

“The number has been arbitrary for so long,” Marburger said. “Most people are pleased when we’ve communicated how the fee has been decided.”

Some candidates I’ve talked to privately say the move is a step in the right direction. And it may help to address some of the bitterness of the previous winner-take-all approach.

Through the years, the committee has arguably lost touch with a Democratic electorate whose voters are more diverse, and more likely to be young. That has resulted in situations where the party leaders shun Black and female candidates who go on to win anyway — a dynamic that raises questions about whether the endorsement is worth it at any price.

But if candidates come away with something to show for their money even if they don’t win, the stakes of the gamble might not be quite so high. That could heal some wounds, along with the fact that when Democratic voters chose new committee members in last year’s primary, there were real pockets of progressive change around the county.

We’ll see if this new approach works. The size of the voter’s guide — and how many voters receive it — will depend on how many people seek the endorsement. So whether this experiment succeeds will depend partly on how many people want to give it a try.

But Hens-Greco already has dabbled with ranked-choice voting in a special-nomination process, and that worked well. (There will not be ranked-choice voting when the party endorses candidates for the primary, by the way. Out of kindness, I will not explain why here. Masochists can email me for details.)

Anyway, someone is always unhappy with the fee structure.

“I got a call from someone who was upset we didn’t charge $3,750 for magistrate district judges,” Marburger said. “Because they earn half of what a Common Pleas Court judge earns, and the fee for judges is $7,500.”

And they say Democrats don’t understand economics!

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.