It wouldn’t be an election cycle in Allegheny County without some complaining about the local Democratic Party apparatus.
But already the complaints this year are louder than in many previous cycles, with the unhappiness amplified by a wide-open field of judicial contenders – and by long-standing grievances about whether the county’s Democratic committee reflects, and responds to, the voters it will need in the future.
“It’s almost like there might be two different Democratic parties – a leadership that has a more traditional mindset, and a new world that is more inclusive,” said Nicola Henry-Taylor, one of nearly three dozen candidates for Common Pleas Judge.
Last week, Henry-Taylor announced that she would not seek the party’s endorsement, a stamp of approval by Democratic committee people that allows a candidate to appear on party mailings and slate cards distributed before the May 18 Democratic primary.
Those can be important advantages, especially in judicial races that voters pay little attention to. But Henry-Taylor’s campaign said the endorsement process “is designed to advantage candidates with deep party connections” and “has historically proven to disadvantage women, and particularly women of color.”
In an interview, Henry-Taylor said the decision was not easy. She herself was a member of the Democratic Committee from Ross Township until she stepped down for her judicial run, and she said, “There’s no other option for me to be a Democrat, as a Black woman that’s an immigrant and an advocate for marginalized populations.” But she said that when it comes to the party endorsements, “women of color, black people and women in general are not benefiting.”
That long-standing grievance gained new currency a year ago, when the committee’s endorsements snubbed a handful of younger, more left-leaning female candidates – including incumbent state Rep. Summer Lee – in favor of a less diverse slate of more conservative office-seekers.
And Henry-Taylor isn’t alone in bypassing the endorsement. Eighteen judicial candidates have filed for it this year, but that is only about half the field believed to be seeking a seat. And other candidates are, like Henry-Taylor, now touting their decision to not seek an endorsement Democrats have traditionally bragged about having.
Common Pleas Court judge candidate Rosemary Crawford, who like Henry-Taylor is a Black woman, has also said she will not seek the endorsement. Nor will judicial candidate Ilan Zur, who in a statement said his campaign would use “campaign funds that would have been spent seeking the ACDC endorsement … to help organizations confronting issues like COVID relief, gun reform, and victim advocacy.”
Judicial candidate Matt Rogers said he too was bypassing the endorsement "because I believe the process, by its very nature, is undemocratic and does not empower voters to choose candidates for themselves.
Former state Rep. Dom Costa has said he will not seek the party’s endorsement in his bid for sheriff, and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said he too was withdrawing his name from contention.
‘It takes money’
Peduto has long been critical of the endorsement process – earlier in his career he frequently railed against “the Democratic machine” – and won election in 2013 without it. But not seeking the endorsement is a practical consideration as well. Costa, for example, won his first race for state House in 2008 against an endorsed foe, and is campaigning as a reformer. Meanwhile his opponent, Kevin Kraus, is backed by outgoing sheriff William Mullen, who is popular among committee members who would endorse a potential successor.
In announcing his decision, Costa said one key factor was money. The Democratic committee charges a filing fee to be considered for its endorsement, and for countywide races like judge and sheriff, it is $8,000 this year – no small sum in a local race.
“I wouldn’t feel right spending nearly $10,000 for an endorsement when the working people who support my campaign, both financially and with their time, are struggling,” Costa said in a statement announcing his move.
And it is not a risk-free investment. Candidates who lose the endorsement risk seeing their money spent by the party to help the candidates who won it. And not every Democrat is convinced the gamble is worth it.
Sam Hens-Greco, who chairs the party’s 14th Ward Committee in Squirrel Hill and whose wife Kathryn Hens-Greco ran successfully for county judge, calls the fees “unconscionable. And for what? I don’t know what the endorsement means anywhere. I know what an endorsement from Planned Parenthood or the NRA means, but if you have the county [party] endorsement, what does that tell me about you?”
Last week, Hens-Greco and other 14th ward officials wrote a widely circulated letter to the county party’s chair, Eileen Kelly, calling the endorsement “a relic of the bygone Democratic machine with little relevance” that is “is badly broken and needs to be drastically overhauled if not eliminated.”
Kelly herself says she doesn’t see the need for sweeping changes. The fee, she said, covers the cost of mailings and slate cards that even some critics agree can be helpful in a low-wattage campaign like a judicial race. And Kelly said that “serious candidates file for the endorsement. It makes them official candidates. You don’t just wake up one morning and think you’ll run for judge. People know it takes money, it takes work.”
Kelly said she had kept endorsement fees from rising since taking the reins at the committee in 2018, and that the rules had not changed. If complaints seem louder this year, she said, it’s probably because there are nine open judicial seats and three dozen candidates expressing an interest in them – an almost unprecedented number of office-seekers.
‘We have to have more openness’
Kelly has, in fact, doubled down on her approach to the endorsement, telling local party leaders that when they have meet-the-candidate events – get-togethers where candidates pitch themselves to committee members before the endorsement – only candidates who paid the fee should be invited.
“Only candidates who filed to pursue the endorsement may participate in organized Committee functions moving forward,” Kelly wrote Jan. 27. “This applies to all functions, including any meetings, forums, panels, or other events, and also applies to all functions whether virtual or physical.”
Kelly said the move was necessary, in part because candidates who were seeking the endorsement objected that other candidates were being given access for free. “If you go to a sports event, you have to pay for a ticket. If you want to go to a show, you have to pay for that too. If you want to seek the endorsement, you have to do that, and you get more for your money than you would anywhere else.”
Besides, she asked, “If you don’t want the endorsement, why do you want to talk to committee people?”
Candidates like Henry-Taylor said that committee people are worth talking to in their own right: “You meet so many wonderful personalities [and] others that may be looking to them to say, ‘Who should I vote for?’” she said.
Jim Burn, a former Democratic Party chair, said the party has long had rules barring candidates from addressing committee gatherings formally unless they were seeking the endorsement. But he said local chairs manage their own meetings, and he said a common practice was to allow any Democrat to attend the hearing in case individual committee people wanted to talk.
“It wasn’t like Roadhouse,” he said, referring to the 1989 film in which Patrick Swayze played a bouncer.
Still, Kelly’s email angered Hens-Greco, whose letter to her said his ward’s leaders “firmly believe that our party should encourage full participation of all Democratic candidates and that committee members should have ample opportunities to meet and hear from [them]. ... Every Democrat who is running for office will be welcome to speak at 14th Ward Democratic committee meetings.”
“We have to have more transparency and openness,” Hens-Greco said in an interview. “I tell my committee: ‘Your job is to inform, educate and keep the pulse of your community. And my job is to give you the tools to do that.’ These are Democratic candidates, so why are putting restrictions on them?”
A test of worth
Most Democratic observers say that the usefulness of the endorsement has declined, as social media and the rise of grassroots groups provide alternate channels for candidates to get out their message. Judicial races have often been an exception to that rule: Being backed by the party often trumps the value of local Bar Association ratings. But this year may test those endorsements as well.
Of the 18 candidates who are seeking the committee endorsement, only nine can hope to earn it: the others will see their endorsement fees spent on mailings to support their rivals. Even so, victory is not assured – Kelly herself says “the endorsement gives you an advantage, but you still have to work.” And the fate of the remaining candidates in May could have implications for whether candidates seek it in the future – and that could have financial consequences for the party.
Endorsement fees in odd-numbered election years are a huge source of revenue for the county committee: The filing fees provided by the current judicial candidates seeking the endorsement alone will produce $144,000 – more than one-and-a-half times what the party raised all last year. If this year’s slate of candidates don’t receive a solid return on that investment, future candidates may think twice about making it.
In the meantime, Henry-Taylor says the decision not to seek the endorsement “sits well with me. We may have to work a little harder, get some more volunteers. [But] you wouldn’t have probably known my name if we had not put out our press release [rejecting the endorsement]. If you do what you think is right, ultimately there are a lot of positives to that.”