After Surprising Primary Season, Democrats Eye Vacant County Council Seat

Jun 7, 2019

At first, Bhavini Patel might seem like an unlikely candidate for Allegheny County Council. At age 25, she’s finishing up a master’s program at the University of Oxford, and runs a tech startup that tries to measure and encourage public engagement. The 15-member council may seem to have less to offer: The part-time legislative body is typically overshadowed by the county executive, and members serve for a stipend of $9,000 a year. 

Still, she says, "There are issues that people are going through, and I have the capactiy to go out there and meet those people and stay in touch with those issues. It's that knowledge, that community involvement, that has inspired me to run." 

Patel herself acknowledges that while she’s involved in politics – she’s the vice-chair of the Edgewood Democratic Committee -- she hasn't attended a county council meeting. “The most I’ve learned is by attending community conversation and talking to advocacy groups,” she said. “That for me has been a strong source of information.” Council itself can seem remote by comparison, she said.

But now she’s just one of the people seeking to replace the late Charles Martoni, who represented Council District 8 for nearly two decades until his death last month. The district includes Monroeville, Plum, and portions of the Mon Valley. It includes East Pittsburgh, where the shooting of black teenager Antwon Rose last summer has prompted calls for a countywide police review board.

“When you have a community that feels urgently about issues that impact their daily life outcomes, you have to respond to that urgency,” said Patel, whose platform includes backing the review board.

By rule, Martoni’s fellow Demcorats on council will select an interim replacement from a pool of applicants to hold the seat until after the November election, when voters will pick a permanent replacement. County Council chief of staff Ken Varhola, who has been receiving applications for the post, said that as of the middle of the week, the number of applicants had already reached the double-digit mark. Applications will be accepted until the close of business Friday.

That may eclipse the number of county residents who typically take notice of council meetings themselves, which are often heavy on feel-good proclamations, light on substance. Still, observers say there are a few reasons the current vacancy may attract interest.

Allegheny County Democratic Committee chair Eileen Kelly forwarded calls for comment to Jim Burn, a former county councilor who serves as the lawyer for county Democrats. He said the field is shaping up to be “a combination of those who aren’t waiting to be tapped on the shoulder to run, and some whose names will be more established – and more establishment.”

Burn said the seat was attracting more interest in part because of a couple of upset victories by progressive women in last month’s Democratic primary. Bethany Hallam toppled council President John DeFazio, while Olivia Bennett bested incumbent Denise Ranalli Russell. Those wins, in turn, built on a 2017 victory by fellow progressive Anita Prizio over Republican Ed Kress.

"Last month, a couple of Democrats won against established council members,” Burn said. “I think that has generated some excitement at the Allegheny County Council level. The rhetoric we’ve seen by the victors is to try and put a bit of life back into the legislature, and reassert it as an equal branch of government.”

Patel isn’t exactly a political newcomer: In addition to her committee post, she volunteered on the Hallam campaign. But she would stand out on council. Council members are often roughly twice her age or more. And as the daughter of a food-truck proprietor who came to western Pennsylvania in late 1990s, Patel would be the only member of Indian descent on a council whose members have traditionally been either white or African American.

“A lot of the conversations around politics are racially binary in our region,” Patel said. But “our stories matter and we should be able to talk about it. Immigrants have done a lot for this region in terms of economic growth. … I think it’s time to start thinking about how we can translate that into policy change and thinking about political power.”

In the short run, being named to council will be something of an inside game: The interim replacement will be chosen by existing council Democrats, led by DeFazio himself. Later this summer, committeepeople in both parties will gather to pick the nominee to carry their banners into the November elections. Burn predicted that while Democrats will take note of council's interim choice, “It won’t be decisive” in selecting the nominee for November.

Patel, for one, has submitted a letter of interest and resume to Varhola, the council chief of staff. But she’s also reaching out to Democratic committeepeople, with an eye towards running this fall.

“It’s not just about running for office: It’s about creating a larger political movement,” she said. “It’s about having as many conversations as you can.”