As Healey announces for District 8, controversy brews over Allegheny Dem’s endorsement process

As Healey announces for District 8, controversy brews over Allegheny Dem’s endorsement process

Author: Stephen Caruso/Tuesday, January 9, 2018/Categories: Pittsburgh

After taking a podium on the cramped main floor of the 5801 Video Lounge in Shadyside, Marty Healey launched a campaign for the newly-vacated District 8 Pittsburgh city council seat with a forward-looking speech, pulling on his time as businessman and an LGBT political activist.

“I’m here to recruit you...because as Harvey Milk said some forty years ago, ‘we gotta have hope’,” Healey said, echoing the words of the first openly gay elected official in US history.

“Hope, for a better world than we’ve had this last year.”

But behind the scenes, Healey’s campaign, as well as other Democratic committee members, raised concerns that the Allegheny County Democratic Committee nomination meeting for the district’s March 6 special election would limit turnout in the endorsement vote.

The special election was sparked when Councilman Dan Gilman resigned from his seat on January 3 to take over as Mayor Bill Peduto’s chief of staff.

Gilman’s — and Peduto’s — former district encompasses many affluent East End neighborhoods, including much of Shadyside and Point Breeze, as well as parts of Squirrel Hill and Oakland.

The Democratic nomination, which will not be decided in a primary but by the votes of around 70 Democratic committee members, was originally going to be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. January 14 at the ACDC’s West End building on Wabash Street.

Now, following the criticisms from the committee members, the meeting is being held on Chatham University’s campus, in Coolidge Hall from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

According to ACDC chair Nancy Patton Mills, the confusion was just the result of the committee trying to make sure they weren't left without anywhere to go to make the nomination.

"What I did yesterday was to make a very very quick decision," Patton Mills said. "We wanted to make sure we had a space secure and time for the decision."

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review on Friday, Patton Mills said she hoped to schedule the nominating committee for early February to give the committee members enough time to learn about the candidates.

She also said the meeting would occur within the district.

But Monday night, to the best of many attendees’ knowledge, the ACDC had not only moved the nomination committee up to Sunday, but also planned to hold the vote on the opposite side of town from the district in the midst of the gridlock caused by a Pittsburgh Steeler’s playoff game.

Adam Butkus, a 4th Ward Democratic committee member, showed up to Healey’s campaign kickoff Monday night as part of his attempt to get to know the different candidates better.

Butkus thought the new date, and especially the location, would not only limit members’ time to get to know the candidates, but also their ability to go and vote.

“It’s a travesty,” he said.

The tight deadline sparked resolve from the Healey campaign to wage an aggressive lobbying campaign for their candidate with only six days until the nomination vote, as campaign members handed out lists of committee members to attendees.

But the change also drew criticism from the campaign, which saw it was a way to limit voter turnout and “[harm] the democratic process, in a way we don’t find fair,” according to a Healey spokesperson.

Besides Healey, a business friendly Democrat, the race has drawn two other candidates hoping for the Democratic nod — Erika Strassburger, Gilman’s former chief of staff and an environmental activist, and Sonja Finn, a local chef, restaurant owner and activist. 

Finn, while worried that the process could be rushed, felt it was important for District 8 to get a new representative as soon as possible.

“It’s a difficult situation for all with the election process squeezed into two months, so my hope is that everyone involved does their best to keep the process as democratic as possible,” Finn said.

Strassburger’s campaign declined to comment.

The county has set a deadline of January 18 for candidates to file petitions to be on the ballot March 6.

Per Pennsylvania election law, candidates hoping to get on the ballot for the special election must have a petition to the county within 15 days of the writ of election.

Given the political leanings of the district and the city, securing the Democratic nomination for an elected position in Pittsburgh is often the only competitive race.

In 2013, when Gilman, then Peduto’s own chief of staff, ran for his boss’s open seat as Peduto ran for Mayor, he faced a Republican challenger. Gilman won the race by 80 points.

As an incumbent in 2017, Gilman ran unopposed.

This story was updated with comment from the ACDC at 5:12 p.m.