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MacDonald withdraws Congressional bid in Pennsylvania's 12th District amid tough court battle

A woman smiles as she talks to another woman.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Laurie MacDonald on Monday abandoned her bid to replace Summer Lee in the 12th Congressional District.

Laurie MacDonald withdrew from the race in the 12th Congressional District Monday morning amid a court challenge of her election petitions that was going badly for her.

“Too many people play games in politics,” she told Commonwealth Court Judge Michael Wojcik. MacDonald, who runs a center for crime victims, said she just wanted to represent constituents but added, “I got my smackdown, didn’t I?”

MacDonald also faulted the objectors for not caring about the voters who signed the petitions, and said she was “very disheartened and dismayed that there are so many dishonest people in this world.”

“So I take it …,” Wojcik began

“We’re out,” MacDonald said.

“... You’re withdrawing,” he finished.

Under Pennsylvania's "sore loser" law, MacDonald is barred from appearing on the ballot as an independent this November, though nothing can prevent voters from writing a candidate's name in.

And indeed, by Monday afternoon, MacDonald posted a statement on social media that she planned to conduct a write-in bid on the Republican ticket. After experiencing "the extreme corruption from the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania, I've decided to withdraw a Democrat and re-ignite my candidacy as a write-in option within the Republican Party."

That too may prove an uphill climb, as Republicans already have a candidate for the 12th District listed on their ballot: James Hayes. The Hayes campaign did not exactly welcome the development.

In a statement, it said that while MacDonald's departure "leaves Democrats with little to choose from," she should support Hayes' bid instead of undertaking "a futile write-in campaign for the nomination of a party in which she is not a member."

(District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. won a write-in bid to be the GOP's nominee in a re-election effort last year, but he was embraced by Republican leaders, who had no other candidate on the ballot.)

Prior to Monday's events, MacDonald was one of two Democrats hoping to challenge first-term Congresswoman Summer Lee in the April 23 Democratic primary: Her departure leaves Bhavini Patel as Lee’s only primary challenger.

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But by the time MacDonald spoke to Wojcik at around 11:35 a.m., her prospects for remaining on the ballot in any case were dimming by the moment. Congressional candidates are required to turn in the signatures of 1,000 people registered to vote in the race to have a space on the ballot. MacDonald turned in more than 130 pages of petitions.

But as WESA first reported last month, a legal challenge argued that none of those signatures were valid. A review of her petitions raised several red flags — including a notable variation in how one petition circulator signed her name from one petition to the next.

By the time of the hearing, MacDonald's challengers agreed that 695 signatures were valid, but concern about the circulator's signature on petitions was at the heart of MacDonald’s subsequent withdrawal.

Even as MacDonald said she was stepping aside, she testified that she had personally observed each of the petitions being signed by the circulator — though she acknowledged the signatures didn’t look the same. But the attorney who argued the case for her removal, Jay Walsh, identified 88 petitions, the majority of those filed, in which he argued the signature did not match the one on file in a state voter-registration database.

“You can just tell she didn’t sign all the pages,” Walsh told Wojcik.

The judge apparently agreed: By the time MacDonald withdrew, Wojcik had reviewed 44 of the petitions in question and tossed out 29 of them.

If MacDonald’s withdrawal hadn’t ended the proceedings, Wojcik would have reviewed dozens more petitions and, after that, reviewed challenges to individual signatures based on a number of alleged deficiencies, such as the signer not being registered as a Democrat within the district. A certain percentage of mistakes crop up almost inevitably in any candidate's filing, but combined with the broader challenge to the petitions themselves, MacDonald faced long odds.

The proceeding was delayed by multiple factors, including the fact that election staff could not access the state voter database from the courtroom. The court relocated to the elections office in the County Office Building across the street, although in the end, Wojcik used it to review only one signature: that of the circulator in question.

Proceedings were also delayed by legal miscommunications involving the attorneys. MacDonald’s lawyer, elder law attorney Carl Zacharia, seemed unfamiliar with provisions of election law and was apparently working from copies of election petitions that were numbered differently than the originals and those possessed by Walsh.

The hearing’s location in the county election department gave the proceedings a more informal air, with Wojcik, sans robes, sifting through petitions on the same counter where candidates for local office ordinarily file them. But the close quarters — with the parties, court and election staff, and reporters all milling nearby — also made it possible for a sometimes charged back-and-forth.

“You didn’t count all our signatures,” MacDonald said to Walsh at one point. “Shame on you. This is America.”

The conventional wisdom is that MacDonald’s withdrawal will benefit Patel because having more than one challenger take on an incumbent risks splitting the opposition vote. Patel’s campaign has not directly addressed questions about whether it paid to file the suit, which was filed in the name of a handful of Democratic voters in the district.

Updated: March 4, 2024 at 4:48 PM EST
This story was updated at 4:48 p.m. on Monday, March 4, 2024 to include a subsequent statement by MacDonald that she plans to run as a Republican write-in candidate.
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.