One day after WESA reported that local Democratic Party leaders had no means of removing a committee member accused of physically accosting a black 13-year-old boy, a newly elected county councilor says it’s time for the party to change its rules.
“However the courts rule ... to me as a committeeperson, it’s an embarrassment to have someone like that in our ranks” said Bethany Hallam.
Hallam said she has begun the long process of having party rules changed.
Thomas D’Andrea has been at the center of a controversy since video of his altercation with a 13-year-old at a lower Greenfield playground began circulating online. In the video, D’Andrea can be seen straddling the youth, threatening his sister and shouting at onlookers. He faces misdemeanor charges of simple assault and criminal mischief, and the city of Pittsburgh has put him on leave from his job as a firefighter.
D’Andrea is also a longtime member of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. Committemembers are the party’s footsoldiers, responsible for turning out voters and vetting candidates. But as party leaders told WESA on Tuesday, once committeemembers are elected, it is difficult to remove them.
The party’s county bylaws don’t contain provisions for removing committee members, other than language that suggests committee members forfeit their seats if they fail to show up at enough committee meetings. Removal is guided by statewide bylaws, but the state party’s removal provisions focus entirely on party members who back non-Democrats in elections.
"To use a Star Trek analogy, there’s only one prime directive, and that is that a Democratic committee can’t support anyone other than the party’s nominee,” said Jim Burn, the solicitor for the county party. “Other than that, there’s nothing in there that provides for any type of removal.”
“Even in my own campaign, I had people afraid to support me because their leaders were telling them they could be removed. You can’t support an independent candidate for office – but if a committeeman goes off on a racist tirade, he can stay. That’s not OK. We need to change the bylaws to reflect the times.”
It won’t be easy.
Hallam will first need to call for a gathering of the party, a process that requires gathering signatures from some 400 committeepeople. She’ll need a similar number to attend that gathering in order to make quorum. Even that gathering would involve the proposition of rule changes: It would merely propose the creation of an ad hoc committee or other mechanism for crafting new bylaws. Once drafted, those rules would have to be passed, without amendment, at a subsequent party gathering.
Just having committeemembers show up for a non-endorsement gathering can be tricky, said Burn, who as a former county chair undertook a similar effort a decade ago.
“It’s about as rare as a solar eclipse,” he said. “I’ve been doing this since 1994, and the only time we did it other than the annual endorsement meeting was the 2009 bylaws convention.” That convention, which was called to vote on changes that an ad hoc committee had proposed, did pass some reforms that Burn himself calls “modest.” But broader changes failed “because no one was able to get an agreement,” said Burn.
Committee members were worried about changes that would give the whip hand to a county chair who might use removal power to infringe on their independence.
Hallam acknowledges that crafting removal power would be delicate. She herself spent months in jail stemming from misdemeanor charges related to opioid addiction, so if the party outright banned anyone convicted of a crime, “I would be off. That’s what’s hard: Do you kick everyone off who has a DUI, or needs drug treatment? We can’t make that the line.”
But she said that such considerations are well down the road. While she says the D’Andrea tapes are spurring the call for reform, “it’s very important to make people aware that this letter is purely for a convention of the committee” – one of which could lead to consideration of any number of bylaw changes down the road.
And while it’s been a decade since such reforms have been considered, Hallam says there is interest in doing so now.
“A lot of other people have reached out to me already, as a committee person but also as a newly-elected official," Hallam said. "This is why I ran, to give a voice to those who don’t have one.”