Some Omissions, And Criticism, As Local Democrats Seek Party Endorsement

Jan 20, 2020

Pennsylvania’s primary doesn’t take place until late April, but the election cycle is officially underway in Allegheny County: Yesterday marked the deadline for announcing an interest in seeking the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. There were few surprises on the list of candidates vying for the approval of party insiders. But there were some notable omissions — and, as always, some criticism that endorsement filing fees themselves are anti-democratic.

The endorsement represents a “stamp of approval” by the party’s committee members, who will vote on their favorites next month. Committee members are elected or appointed in each voting precinct to represent the party before rank-and-file voters. They're expected to rally behind the endorsed candidate, whose name will appear on “slate cards” that are distributed outside the polls. That can be particularly helpful in races that don’t generate much attention otherwise.

Candidates don’t need the endorsement in order to appear on the primary ballot, or even to win the party’s nomination. But this year’s list of endorsement-seekers confirms that Democrats may see a number of competitive primaries this spring.

In the Monongahela Valley-based district 38, incumbent state Rep. Bill Kortz is not seeking the endorsement, and the Democrat who is – West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly – says Kortz is not running for re-election. Kortz could not be reached for comment Monday, but in a statemnt Tuesday, he confirmed that he would not run for ree-election: "It’s now time for me to take care of my health and step aside for future leaders of this great district," the statement read.

 

Kelly said Kortz informed him that he would not seek re-election over the weekend. “We have the same philosophy, which is pro-labor, pro-law-enforcement, and certainly pro-veterans and senior citizens.”

 

Kelly has previously been a police chief in Homestead and Baldwin, and said his politics were “right down the middle.”

 

Another potential contender, accountant and West Mifflin Community Foundation president Nick Pisciottano Jr., says he is weighing a run.

In state House races, challenger Emily Kinkead will press her challenge of incumbent Rep. Adam Ravenstahl in House District 20, which includes parts of Pittsburgh and the Ohio Valley suburbs. (A second challenger, Emily Marbury, previously withdrew her candidacy.) In District 30, in the North Hills and Allegheny Valley suburbs, both Marco Attisano and Lissa Geiger Shulman are seeking the party’s backing. Chris Roland will seek to topple first-term progressive incumbent Rep. Summer Lee in House District 34’s communities in the Monongahela and Turtle Creek valleys.

And in a bid to replace retiring 36th District state Rep. Harry Readshaw, Jessica Benham and Heather Kass will vie for the endorsement in a race that covers working-class South Hills communities. That race, which a number of candidates were said to be mulling after Readshaw announced his retirement, appears to be tightening up: Kass recently garnered the endorsement of Readshaw and City Councilor Anthony Coghill. Benham, who was seeking the seat even before Readshaw announced his retirement at the end of this year, is backing by City Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith and a number of progressives.

There are some notable absences from the list. Steve Zappala, who had said he would challenge progressive Democrat Rep. Sara Innamorato in state House District 21, is not seeking the party endorsement. It is not clear whether he has abandoned his bid: Zappala, who is the son and last year’s campaign manager of Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, did not respond to requests for comment Monday morning.

Also absent from the list are declared challengers Bill Brittain, who is vying with state Senator Jay Costa in the 43rd Senate district, and Gerald Dickinson, who is taking on Congressman Mike Doyle.

Brittain says he is not seeking the endorsement because “I have to assume that organization will not even consider me. I am challenging these incumbents’ vision of what our country should look like” on a number of hot-button issues like fracking for natural gas and ensuring development not displace the less wealthy.

Dickinson said he decided not to seek the endorsement because doing so was too expensive. In order to be considered, candidates are required to pay a filing fee which is assessed on a sliding scale based on the office sought. This year, Congressional candidates were expected to pay $10,000 for the committee’s consideration; those seeking state Senate posts were asked to pony up $5,000, and state House hopefuls were expected to pay $2,500.

Dickinson called the fee “outrageous. It’s yet another example of how party elites and corporate influence really are trying to freeze out the voices of grassroots campaigns and regular people.” Dickinson raised in the neighborhood of $200,000 last year, he said: FEC reports showed him with just unde$128,000 in September. “So it’s not about whether we can pay the assessment. It’s a principled approach, it’s a moral approach. And we think [the fee is] wrong and anti-democratic.”

“I based [the fee structure] on whether it’s reasonable and fair,” said Eileen Kelly, who chairs the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. The money pays not just for slate cards but a whole range of party expenses, including rental of its West End office and outreach. “We need to be properly funded to execute our outreach for our candidates, especially this year, which is going to be very competitive.”

Kelly noted that Dickinson has aired a campaign ad during a televised debate between Democratic presidential candidates. “That takes money, and the endorsement [fee] is probably miniscule compared to that,” she said.

But the party endorsement is not always necessary to win. Progressive candidates in particular have had success despite either losing the endorsement or failing to win it: Allegheny County Councilor Bethany Hallam, for example, lost the endorsement to then-incumbent John DeFazio last year, but made a strong showing that if anything may have enhanced her prospects.

The endorsement itself is an hours-long voting process which will take place Feb. 16 at the IBEW Local #5 hall in the South Side.

This story was updated at 2:26 p.m. Monday, and again on Tuesday, to add new details about the race in state House District 38.