Nancy Patton Mills, the chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, didn't mince words. City Councilor Darlene Harris cannot serve as a Democratic ward chair now that she's registered as an independent.
"I'll be speaking with her, probably tomorrow," Patton Mills says. "I'll ask if she'd like to send a letter resigning from the chairmanship." If Harris doesn't comply, "I'll just send her a letter and remove her."
Patton Mills cited a provision in the party rules asserting that "Any ... party officer who shall register as a member of any other political party shall cease to be a member of the County Committee or a party officer and his or her office shall be declared vacant."
The Post-Gazette, which first reported Harris' switch this morning, notes that Harris' move come on April 22 -- the last day she could switch her registration in time to run as an independent in the November election. There has been speculation that Harris may be pondering a challenge to Bill Peduto, who won the party's nomination for mayor in this week's primary, though Harris hasn't revealed her plans. She has until August 1 to file papers for a mayoral bid.
Patton Mills says that, while she heard rumors of Harris' switch yesterday -- and while "we kind of thought she might do it" -- she didn't have confirmation until today's P-G report. "I also have some questions about her acting as a ward chair since April 22," Patton Mills says.
Harris is chair of the city's 26th Ward committee, in the North Side. Patton Mills says that when a ward chair is removed, the ward's committeefolk would then be convened to select a new chair until 2014, when the party reorganizes itself after the spring primary. Should Harris re-register as a Democrat, the new ward chair could reappoint her to fill a suitable vacancy. Otherwise, Harris would have to run for a committee slot in the 2014 primary.
But that assumes Harris does not actually run for mayor. Jim Burn, who chairs the Democratic Party's statewide committee, says that under party rules, a committeeperson who supports anyone other than a Democrat in the general election can be barred from a committee post for two years. Patton Mills was unaware of that provision -- "This hasn't happened since I've been ward chair; it's a little new to me" -- but said that when it comes to either removing or reinstating Harris, "I will follow the bylaws. We go by the rules."