County Democratic Chair Calls For Meeting As Second-In-Command Steps Down In Protest

Feb 24, 2020

Allegheny County’s top Democratic Party official reversed herself on Monday by calling for a review of, and potential changes to, the party’s bylaws. But turmoil in party leadership continued, as party vice-chair Austin Davis resigned effectively immediately.

"Chairwoman Kelly and I have often differed on the direction of the Democratic Party,” said Davis, a state representative whose district includes portions of the Monongahela Valley. “But the events of the last few weeks have really crystallized that we don't share the same values."

His brief letter of resignation struck a similar note, saying he and Kelly "hold vastly different views in the direction this party should be moving." 

The infighting comes after an especially divisive endorsement meeting in which party insiders gave their stamp of approval to candidates for state House. One of the candidates they backed, Heather Kass, had previously posted statements on social media that denigrated people suffering from opioid use and voiced support for Donald Trump. Party leaders also notably shunned state Rep. Summer Lee, the first African-American woman elected to Harrisburg from Allegheny County; she was the only incumbent not to receive an endorsement this year.

Kelly defended the endorsements, and the party itself, at a Wednesday press conference that was widely panned by local Democrats. She sought to lay blame for the party’s divisions at the feet of Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a bête noire for many in her faction of the party. And she suggested that criticisms of the party, or suggestions that it needed reform, were off-base. Those who felt otherwise, she said, could run for party leadership posts in 2022.

She reversed that position Monday. In a Facebook statement, she said that she pledged to listen to party members, and that “many of you now believe that it is time for another review of our rules. In consideration of my commitment to all of you … I will be forming a By-Laws Committee” that will “be charged with reviewing the rules … and making proposed amendments.” Changes to party rules must be approved by local party members and approved by the state party.  

Kelly’s proposal is similar to those made by dissidents like state Sen. Wayne Fontana last week, though it’s not clear who will serve on the committee: Kelly did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon. Nor is it clear who will replace Davis as vice-chair: Under the party’s bylaws, Kelley will select a replacement — she must choose a man to fulfill a gender-balance requirement — to fill out the rest of his term.

Davis’ departure was not totally surprising, as his position had long been awkward. When he ran for vice-chair in 2018, he did so as the running mate for then-chair Nancy Patton Mills: Kelly won the chair, but Davis was unopposed for vice-chair, setting up an uneasy relationship in which the two never meshed.

“Whoever she chooses is going to send a message [about] whether she has heard the call over the last few days and weeks about [how] there needs to be a change in the party’s direction,” said Davis.  

He had a similar wait-and-see approach to Kelly’s decision to convene a committee to review party bylaws.

“I think we need to see who she’s going to appoint to the committee. Is it going to be a membership that is reflective … of the full Democratic Party?” he said.

Kelly’s Monday announcement came as a surprise to Democrats including County Councilor Bethany Hallam, who has been one of the party’s sharpest critics. Hallam herself has been calling for an overhaul of the party, starting with a countywide meeting: She says she has 500 signatures on a petition to convene such a gathering — 100 more than she needs under party rules. 

As for Kelly's moves, Hallam said, “I don’t like the fact that the bylaws committee will be handpicked by a chair that it seems a lot of people have lost faith in. I would argue that the countywide meeting needs to happen first. We can conduct any business we need to, whether that’s calling for new leadership, or calling for a bylaws convention to change party rules.”

But while numerous Democrats were calling for Kelly’s departure last week, many see little prospect of that. Hallam herself has not urged Kelly to resign, saying her disagreements with Kelly reflects larger problems within the party.

Some within the party thought Hallam was wary of doing so because Davis held the vice-chair position: Davis was seen as an ally of Fitzgerald, the county executive whose influence is regarded warily both by old-guard Democrats and more left-leaning people on the committee.

Davis’ departure arguably makes such concerns moot, but Hallam says her broader concerns remain. “I was hoping for a complete reorganization [of party leadership] before Austin resigned, and I’m hoping for one now. She gets to pick her vice-chair, and I think the whole idea of somebody appointing their own successor is a problem. As Democrats, we have an obligation to follow the democratic process, and the only way to do that is with a meeting of the party.”

For now, at least, it seems that whatever direction the party takes, it will be with Kelly at the helm. Davis said he spoke to Kelly on Sunday and, he said, “My sense is that she’s not planning on going anywhere." For now, he said, Democrats concerned about her leadership going into the 2020 election will “work around” her. And over the long term, “I think the party’s going to change no matter what — whether it’s Eileen Kelly leading it or it’s the people within the party continuing to demand change.”