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Monday, April 1, 2013

Could the mayor's race get any MORE complicated? Signs, and Democratic bylaws, point to "yes"

Posted By on Mon, Apr 1, 2013 at 8:10 PM

Warning: This post involves a lengthy discussion of Democratic Party bylaws. It is not recommended for people with delicate stomachs, heart conditions, or personal lives.

So now that Michael Lamb, the endorsed Democrat in the city's mayoral race, has dropped his bid, there's one question on everybody's mind: Could this race get any more fucked up?

Answer: Sure!

For starters, as noted here previously, longtime party stalwart Eileen Kelly is already talking about whether the party could hold another endorsement, giving the nod to one of the four candidates still in the race. You might think that's an easy question to answer. You poor, naive creature.

I've spoken to a handful of folks with some understanding of party rules, and about the only thing they agree on is that this situation is unprecedented. It's rare enough for a sitting mayor to drop his own reelection bid, as Luke Ravenstahl did –- in the process ceding the party endorsement to Lamb, the only other candidate to seek it. Now Lamb too has bailed.

The result is that on Election Day, voters may show up at the polls carrying slate cards with a big blank space at the top. I mean, what are they supposed to do then? Rely on the frickin' Post-Gazette endorsements?

Sadly, if you really want the party to endorse a candidate for mayor, you have to read something even more painful: the Allegheny County Democratic Committee's Bylaws. Some sharp-eyed party insiders have done just that, and think they've found a way to hold another endorsement vote. It's in section 2 of Rule 12 ("Endorsement of Candidates"), and it reads as follows:

The County Chairperson and each Local Chairperson shall call a meeting prior to Primary election in each odd numbered year for the purpose of endorsing candidates for School Board and all City and other local offices."

The emphasis there is mine. You may not have realized it -- because who even pays attention? -– but local Democrats have both a county committee and a city committee. And the city committee (which is made up of representatives from each of the city's wards) can hold its own endorsement process. Technically, the rules only give the county committee power to endorse in federal, state, and judicial races. But as a practical matter, the county committee does all the endorsing around here, even for city races. I've been told that's to save effort and money –- the city committee has few financial resources of its own. In any case, says county chair Nancy Patton Mills, "That's the way it's always been done."

But in this singular year, someone could argue that the city committee could still have an endorsement meeting of its own. So even if Lamb's withdrawal made the county endorsement null and void, there could still be one at the city level. All four candidates could theoretically seek the endorsement, although observers I've talked to speculate that former state Auditor General Jack Wagner would be the odds-on favorite to win.

Except. Notice how the local meeting has to be called by the "local chairperson"? Well, guess what? The city committee currently doesn't have a local chairperson. State Rep. Ed Gainey was the chair, but he stepped down … to endorse Bill Peduto. Gainey had to leave the committee because of another provision of the rules, which requires committeefolk to support the endorsed candidates -- in this case, Lamb.

Now of course the city committee does have a vice-chair –- the aforementioned Eileen Kelly. (Remember her? She was in the third paragraph of this post.) And you might think that Kelly, as vice-chair, would step in to fill Gainey's post -- just as Gerald Ford replaced Nixon. After all, while the rules don't spell out the powers and duties of city officers explicitly, they do say those responsibilities should "conform to those of the County Officers to the extent applicable." And indeed, among a vice-chair's responsibilities is "[t]o perform the duties of the … Chairperson in his or her absence "

So the thought might occur to you: Did Gainey inadvertently trip up Peduto by deciding to support him? What if his departure means Kelly can call for an endorsement vote now … a vote that Wagner is likely to win?

But! Ms. Mills says that in fact, "We have no city chair." While the bylaws say that at the county level, when the chair is vacant, the vice chair "shall take office immediately as County Chairperson," there is no such express rule at the city level. Mills says a new city chair can only be chosen under the procedures spelled out in Rule 7 ("City Committee and officers") -- specifically section 3. That provision says that if the city chair or other office goes vacant, the vacancy will be filled "at a special meeting of the City Committee, which shall be convened and presided over by the County Chairperson."

And guess what? The county chair –- Ms. Mills –- hasn't convened a meeting yet. What's more, she says, "I would think it's going to happen after the primary. With everything being the way it is, I think people [who want to be city chair] have the right to get the word out about the fact that they are running."

In any case, Mills seems disinclined to add to this year's pre-primary drama. "I'm going to make this crystal-clear: I am not going to have another endorsement. There will be people who shift the story around to suit themselves. But my story is that I'm not opening this up to re-endorse for the same reason I didn't open up the endorsement for people to run against Michael Lamb [after Ravenstahl dropped out]. " And that reason, basically, is you had your chance. Peduto deliberately chose not to seek the endorsement, and while Wagner entered the Democratic field late, he's been pondering a run as an independent last year. They, along with state Rep. Jake Wheatley and citizen AJ Richardson, passed up the endorsement once, and Mills doesn't want to give them a second bite of the apple.

At this point, though, I'll be a little surprised if any of us gets off that easily.

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