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What does a committee endorsement mean these days?

Rolls of "I voted" stickers from a 2022 election.
Matt Slocum
Rolls of stickers are seen at the Chester County Voter Services office as workers process ballots for the Pennsylvania primary election, Thursday, May 19, 2022, in West Chester, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

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.

Believe it or not, people sometimes ask me to describe the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement process, which took place this past weekend. The question is usually phrased with a mixture of horror and wonder, as if I had been at an amusement park when a roller coaster derailed.

I usually answer with this story, which says a little about how the committee has changed … and a lot about how it hasn’t.

Back in 2017, then-Sheriff Bill Mullen was fending off a spirited challenge from Pittsburgh police detective George Satler. The two were competing for endorsement of the committee, whose members are elected as party leaders from every precinct in the county. Voters often ignore the endorsement, which isn’t binding. But in low-wattage races especially, seeing a candidate’s name and face on a party slate card can carry some weight.

When committee members gathered at the IBEW Local #5 hall in the South Side that spring, Mullen’s campaign executed a master stroke. He arranged to have a golf cart — decked out with his campaign signs — ferry aging committee members to the voting place from the parking lot across the street. There were a lot of aging committee members, and Mullen’s gambit drew murmurs of appreciation from campaign pros on the scene.

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“Everyone is going to have these next time,” one told me. Which turned out to be true. When Democrats held this year’s endorsement event, in fact, Allegheny County Executive candidate John Weinstein offered a similar livery service.

Like Mullen, Weinstein rode that cart to victory on Sunday. And there was more swag being offered to committee people outside the hall: Numerous candidates offered baked goods and coffee, while County Council candidate Joanna Doven offered a chance to win a TV, and District Attorney hopeful Matt Dugan’s campaign provided Bloody Marys. (These were popular, although I heard concern that future candidates might adopt this approach, too … and the South Side already has a St. Patrick’s Day in March.)

But fewer committee members than in 2017 seemed to need help getting across the street: Committee elections last year ushered in a new crop of committee people, and there were newer and younger faces everywhere Sunday. And their impact could be detected when the ballots were counted as well.

Weinstein won, sure, but he didn’t quite crack 40 percent of the committee vote: Sara Innamorato and Michael Lamb divvied up most of the votes between them. District Attorney Steven Zappala — long a gimme for the committee’s support — and Doven also got about 40 percent. But they faced only one opponent each, and they lost to Dugan and council incumbent Bethany Hallam respectively.

That was a dramatic reversal from two nights before, when Weinstein, Zappala and Doven all won the backing of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council. The consortium of local labor leaders requires a two-thirds majority to receive an endorsement. And while the labor council and the Democratic committee don’t always move in lockstep, it’s notable for a candidate to get two-thirds of the support from unions and then fail to muster a bare majority among party leaders. For it to happen in three countywide races at once is striking.

It’s hard not to see that as a sign that a once-common species of western Pennsylvania Democrat — solidly left on union rights and economic matters but less enamored of left-leaning positions otherwise — is giving way to a new generation of party leaders who are more progressive across the board. You’d expect that change to be muted among union leaders, who can’t be replaced wholesale and whose first concern is for members’ economic interest.

And by every account I’ve heard, Weinstein’s win was driven by the construction-minded building trades, with Steamfitters business agent Ken Broadbent and Phil Ameris of the Laborers leading the charge. Zappala also has strong ties to the trades, having announced runs for district attorney and state attorney general at their gatherings.

As for what motivates committee people, meanwhile, there’s always grousing that pre-endorsement freebies amount to a kind of bribery. But ballots are secret, and to borrow from an old (and less G-rated) political saying, if you can’t drink a candidate’s Bloody Mary, enter his TV sweepstakes and vote against him in the endorsement, you don’t belong in the Democratic committee.

Which raises another question: If the endorsement is so lightly given and often ignored, why seek it? Why even write about it?

Well, I wish you’d asked that several hundred words ago, frankly. But partly it’s because endorsements say as much about the values of the groups doing the endorsing as it does about the candidates. This weekend’s endorsement vote suggests those values are changing.

And partly it gives us a peek at how the horse race is shaping up. How strong are these candidates? Who are they appealing to? That’s useful data in local races, where there isn’t much public polling and no campaign contribution reports between January and May.

There may be a fix for the latter concern, at least: County Councilor Tom Duerr has proposed a bill that would require candidates for county office to file an additional campaign-finance report at about this time in future races.

“It’s a way for us to show the public who is giving us money and how we’re spending it,” he told me. And getting a report “two weeks out from Election Day is nothing.”

I’ve whined about the paucity of such reports in this space before, and it would obviously give me something to talk about other than endorsement votes. So that’s a public benefit right there.

On the other hand, no one is going to give out Bloody Marys for sifting through donor lists, are they?

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.