Kass Narrowly Prevails In Petition Challenge, Remains On Ballot

Mar 29, 2020

Heather Kass, the state House candidate whose campaign has been a lightning rod for local Democrats this spring, has survived a challenge to her nominating petitions. But not by much.

In a 38-page opinion handed down late Friday, Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia McCullough ruled that while there were defects with hundreds of signatures on Kass’ nominating petitions, 306 of them were valid – a half-dozen more than the minimum of 300 Kass needed.

“It’s about time some of the hurdles were over with, and we can actually do the campaigning,” Kass said after the ruling was handed down.

Kass jumped into the race in the 36th District -- which includes some working-class suburbs in the South Hills and a swath of Pittsburgh's southern neighborhoods -- after veteran state Rep. Harry Readshaw announced his retirement. Her endorsement by local party leaders touched off a firestorm of criticism, due to social-media posts Kass had made speaking derisively of opioid addicts and suggesting support for Donald Trump.

Kass nevertheless filed nominating petitions with 642 signatures, but attorney Chuck Pascal challenged 369 of them on behalf of a voter in the district. Pascal's challenge alleged numerous flaws: voters who signed with faulty addresses or weren’t registered as Democrats in the district at all; petitions compiled by people ineligible to circulate them; and some lines where some information had been completed in a different hand.

Kass’ lawyer, Ryan Mergl, agreed to strike 211 signatures as invalid, and after an all-day hearing on March 11, McCullough struck many others. During that hearing -- which was characterized by sharp exchanges between McCullough and attorneys on both sides --  Kass acknowledged that she had filled out date information on some lines, on behalf of ailing and elderly voters who were unable to do so.

McCullough struck those signatures, ruling that Kass had no proof that the voters were incapacitated. She also ruled that scores of other signatures were invalid for problems stemming from voters' addresses or other problems. In all, 336 of Kass’ 642 signatures were either ruled invalid by McCullough or conceded by Kass’ attorney before the hearing.

But Kass only needed to convince the judge that 27 of the contested signatures were legitimate. And McCullough upheld enough of them to clear the bar. While Pascal alleged other signature lines where someone other than a voter had filled out information, for example, McCullough noted that he had not provided a handwriting expert or other proof. Pascal “did not present any testimony, expert or otherwise, or any other evidence” about who had filled out those lines, she wrote.

Pascal said an appeal of the decision was "unlikely." But not everyone in the 36th District race was so fortunate: Pascal successfully challenged another Democrat in the race, Jacob Nixon, who was taken off the ballot by Commonwealth Court Judge Michael Wojcik earlier this month. Fellow Democrats Jessica Benham, Mark Johnson and Edward Moeller were not challenged and will appear alongside Kass. A challenge to a Republican in the race, Adrian Doyle, was withdrawn.

“We’ve been in limbo” until now, Kass said. But she noted that the political landscape had shifted since her hearing in the middle of March. Because of coronavirus fears, she said, “The only thing you can do is get your mailers out and call people. And I’m not sure this is a great time to be calling people.”

Pennsylvania's primaries were originally scheduled for April 28, but virus fears have pushed the date to June 2.