Kass Sues Democrats Amid Party Dispute In Controversial State House Race

May 19, 2020

Heather Kass’ bid for the state legislature continues to roil western Pennsylvania Democratic politics, as Kass herself has now sued the Allegheny County Democratic Committee and the state Democratic Party for allegedly failing to provide her with access to voter information and other benefits that Democrats endorsed by the party enjoy.

The suit, which accuses the county and state parties of breach of contract and unjust enrichment, is the latest development in a dispute that has already put state and local Democrats at odds with each other, and featured a standoff involving party “slate cards.” 

Filed late Tuesday, the lawsuit notes that Kass is the endorsed Democrat in House District 36, having won the support of Democratic Party committeepeople at a gathering earlier this year. Kass paid a $2,500 "filing fee" to be considered. Her suit says that winning the endorsement would ordinarily “confer certain additional rights and privileges, among them being listed as an endorsed candidate and having that listing mailed to voters in her district.” But the party “failed and refused, and continue to fail and refuse, to perform as promised,” it asserts.

Kass is running in a four-way race to replace retiring state Rep. Harry Readshaw in the 36th House District, which includes some southern neighborhoods of Pittsburgh and nearby working-class suburbs. Her campaign has been controversial ever since she won the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement in February, despite a social-media history that included caustic statements about the Affordable Care Act and people with drug addictions, as well as statements supportive of President Donald Trump.

Kass later apologized for the posts, but that endorsement – and a couple others – prompted denunciations of the local party apparatus as insular and backwards-looking. It also prompted the state Democratic Party to issue a statement saying state party leaders "do not and will not support [Kass'] candidacy." 

Those remarks appear in the lawsuit. It says Kass was told that she would not be included on the list of endorsed candidates, and that “this was at the direction of … [state party] chairperson Nancy Patton Mills.” It also says she was denied access to VoteBuilder, a database of voter information kept by the party.

As a result, the complaint alleges, the party "failed and refused … to provide Plaintiff access to the list of voters in her district” and “to include Plaintiff on the mailing of their endorsed candidates to the voters.”

The suit says that Kass has had to spend money and time compiling voter information on her own. It seeks compensation for those costs, punitive damages and other fines, and demands that her name be put on mailings to voters in the district.

On Tuesday, Kass declined comment. But Kass previously told WESA she feared her name might be omitted from the slate card entirely. She told WESA a week ago that she had retained attorney Ryan Mergl, who helped her survive a petition challenge this spring, “to see what’s going on.”

“I just want things to be fair,” she said at the time. “Those slate cards go out to every Democrat who’s going to be voting. And with my name being the endorsed candidate – a lot of people follow that.” Patton Mills could not be reached for comment late Wednesday. Allegheny County Democratic Chair Eileen Kelly did not respond to requests for comment during the day. 

But the lawsuit comes after a standoff between the state and county party organizations.

Last week, Kelly told WESA that Kass would not be left off the slate cards. But Kelly said the state party had refused to provide her with voter information for voters in the 36th House District. The state had provided information for voters in other parts of the county. 

That threatened to disrupt the county’s ability to mail the slate cards to voters, which it typically does by making use of a bulk-mailing discount the state organization often gives to local organizations.

Asked about the controversy last week, the state party told WESA in a statement that “[i]t was made clear by our Chairwoman in February that state party resources would not be used to support a candidate who publicly called folks who rely on [Obamacare] ‘no-good idiot,’ and people suffering from addiction ‘[expletive] freaking junkies.’ … We are working with the [county committee] to promote their other endorsed candidates whose districts include HD36, but if they want to promote Heather Kass, nothing is stopping them – state party resources will just not be used to do so.’”

Kelly later told WESA that the state party released voter addresses to the county last Wednesday: Party insiders say that followed complaints from other elected officials. And on Tuesday, WESA did see a slate card sent to a voter in the 36th House District, complete with Kass' name on it. That mailing appears to have been sent by regular mail: Other slate cards viewed by WESA from outside the district appear to have been sent using the state party's bulk-mail label. 

Even so, the slate cards include a fine-print disclosure that says the mailing was “paid for and authorized by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.” That could create further controversy, since the state party has expressly said it did not support Kass’ bid. A spokesman for the state Democratic Party had no comment Tuesday afternoon. But Patton Mills put out a late-day tweet Tuesday that said, "We did not approve the mailer, and we are working to understand how this happened."