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Petition filings set stage for hotly contested Democratic primary this May

A sheet of stickers reading "I voted today."
Matt Slocum
Vote stickers are seen at a satellite election office at Temple University's Liacouras Center, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, in Philadelphia.

Tuesday marked the deadline for candidates to file election petitions for the May 16 primary … and all signs point to spirited races up and down the ballot. At least on the Democratic side. 

No less than seven Democrats filed petitions for the marquee Allegheny County Executive race. Most of the names were familiar: County Councilor Liv Bennett, attorney Dave Fawcett, state Rep. Sara Innamorato, city controller Michael Lamb, activist William Parker, and county Treasurer John Weinstein. But one name was missing — Erin McClelland — and one was a last-minute entry: former Pittsburgh Public Schools board member Theresa Sciulli Colaizzi.

“I surprised you, didn’t I?” Colaizzi said Tuesday night. 

Colaizzi, who retired from the school board at the end of 2013, acknowledged that she “decided very much at the last minute" to run and only discussed it with a small circle. But, she said, “I looked at everyone else and I thought, ‘I can cut this rug.’ I’ve got energy and experience.” 

McClelland, meanwhile, bowed out with little fanfare. Although she was the first candidate to get in the race, she found it difficult to make headway, as Weinstein commanded much of the union support she hoped to attract. 

“I did this as a county worker tired of listening to politicians talk about what’s going on inside that organization without knowing anything about it,” said McClelland, who works as a contractor in the county’s Human Services division. 

Asked what her plans are now, McClelland said with a laugh, “I’m going golfing.” 

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There may be more changes in store up and down the ballot in the days ahead: Voters and rival candidates have until March 14 to review and challenge the petitions filed for public office. Bennett, in fact, appeared to come very close to not qualifying on Tuesday, after a last-minute scramble to complete her petitions at the county’s election office, and to come up with the cash — obtained from a nearby ATM and produced a few minutes after the 5 p.m. deadline — needed for the filing fee.

For now though, Democrats appear set to have a competitive primary for County Treasurer, where Pittsburgh City Council member Anthony Coghill will face off against Erica Rocchi Brusselars to vie for Weinstein’s current post. For the County Controller post, incumbent Corey O’Connor is fending off a challenge from activist Darwin Leuba. And the District Attorney’s race pits longtime incumbent Steven Zappala against the county’s chief public defender, Matt Dugan. 

No Republicans filed for a spot on the GOP ballot this May other than Joe Rockey's bid for county executive, but that doesn’t mean the party won’t field a nominee this fall. In years past, Republicans have run below-the-radar write-in campaigns for these posts.

Sometimes those candidates have been Democrats: In 2019, both Zappala and Weinstein won the GOP nomination as write-in candidates even as they won their Democratic primaries. At least in theory, a write-in campaign on the GOP ballot this spring could allow a Democrat who lost a primary to reappear as a Republican in November.

But Weinstein, at least, has pledged not to do so for the treasurer post. In a January interview, WESA noted the possibility that Weinstein could use a write-in bid to reclaim his treasurer seat. When asked if it was true that “under no circumstances will John Weinstein be the treasurer” next year, he answered, “That is 100 percent correct. I’m all in for this” county executive race. 

In any case, changes in local leadership are clearly underway. In Pittsburgh City Council District 9, longtime incumbent Ricky Burgess did not file petitions for re-election, auguring the end of his tenure in city government. Political insiders long predicted his departure, but he has not announced it publicly. He leaves his seat up for grabs in a primary battle between two rivals: political activist Khari Mosley and newcomer Khadijah Harris, who filed petitions Tuesday. 

Burgess is the longest-serving member of council along with fellow Class of 2007 member Bruce Kraus, whose District 3 seat has drawn two challengers of its own: Bob Charland and Wliliam Reeves.

In fact, all five city council seats appear to be contested. District 1 incumbent Bobby Wilson faces a challenger from previous council contender Steven Oberst; Matt Mahoney and Lita Brillman are challenging Barb Warick for the District 5 seat she won in a special election last year, and Deb Gross is facing what may be a spirited challenge from Jordan Botta in District 7. 

The City Controller race has drawn four contenders, all of whom have previously declared their runs: School board member Kevin Carter, longtime government staffer Mark DePasquale, deputy controller Rachael Heisler, and former acting county controller Tracy Royston. 

Several county council races are also up for grabs — at least on the Democratic side. Bethany Hallam and her challenger Joanna Doven both filed petitions to continue their fight for the Democrats’ at-large seat. District 10 incumbent DeWitt Walton faces a two-way challenge in Eric Smith and Carlos Thomas; District 11 incumbent Paul Klein appears likely to be challenged by Dennis McDermott; and Bennett will face David Bonaroti in District 13. 

Republicans, meanwhile, have no competitive primaries, with Sam DeMarco’s return to the GOP at-large seat uncontested. But District 2 incumbent Suzanne Filiaggi appears set to face Democrat Todd Hamer this fall, and Republican Mike Embrescia will contend with Democrat Dan Grzybek in District 5. 

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.