Heather Kass, whose endorsement by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee has generated more than a week of controversy, is now facing a challenge to the legitimacy of her election petitions. If that lawsuit is successful, Kass could be taken out of the race to replace retiring state Rep. Harry Readshaw, leaving a smaller field in the 36th state House district — and a festering wound within the local party.
The challenge, filed Tuesday by Democratic elections attorney Chuck Pascal, argues that Kass’ petitions lack the 300 signatures required to earn her a space on the ballot. Such legal challenges, which are filed in Commonwealth Court for state-level races, are not unusual. Typically, they question the credentials of the voters who sign them, arguing that too many are deficient in some way — often because they don’t live within the district or aren’t registered voters — for the petitions to be valid.
Filed in the name of district voter Thomas Wagner, Pascal’s filing argues that three pages’ worth of petitions were filed by circulators who are not registered as Democrats, a violation of a provision in state elections law that requires each circulator to be “a qualified elector duly registered and enrolled as a member of the designated party of the State … referred to in said petition.” The filing also challenges the legitimacy of individual signatures on a line-by-line basis, asserting various defects with their signatures.
In all, Kass filed 642 signatures, more than twice what she needed. The petition challenges at least 369 of them, which would leave Kass with 273 valid signatures — less than the 300 required — if they were all successful.
“The Nomination Petitions submitted by Heather Kass do not contain a sufficient number of valid signatures as required by law,” the petition concludes.
Kass did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Pascal has also lodged challenges to the petitions filed by two other candidates in the race for the 36th District: Republican Adrian Doyle and Democrat Jacob Nixon. If all three petitions were successful, it would leave Jessica Benham — who was spurned by Democratic Party insiders in favor of Kass last week — as the likely front-runner. Democrats Mark Johnson and Ed Moeller are also on the ballot — at least for now. Tuesday marks the deadline for such petitions challenges, but others may be filed by day's end.
Petition challenges are often filed on behalf of a rival candidate who uses a district voter as a cut-out. Pascal declined to say if that's the case here, though of the candidates in the race, Benham would arguably be the best positioned for such an approach.
Challenges were also filed in other competitive primary seats. In the 38th House District race to replace the retiring Bill Kortz, candidate Nick Pisciottano has challenged the petitions of fellow Democrats Anthony DiCenzo III and Victoria Schmotzer. Gerald Dickinson is contesting petitions filed by Janis Brooks, who like him wants to challenge incumbent Congressman Mike Doyle in the 18th Congressional District's Democratic primary.
On the other side of the partisan divide, Republican Daniel DeVito is challenging the petitions of Malek Francis, who is also hoping to challenge incubment Democrat Anita Kulik in the 45th state House District. DeVito alleges that Francis failed to properly complete a statement of financial interests, which candidates are required to file.
This story will be updated.