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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Will Peduto face a "third" party challenger in the fall?

Posted By on Thu, May 23, 2013 at 12:50 PM

Sort of a funny piece of business in this Post-Gazette story about Bill Peduto's win in this week's mayoral primary:

One of Mr. Peduto's critics, city council President Darlene Harris, switched her registration from Democratic to independent a month before the primary. Beyond confirming her changed partisan status, however, Mrs. Harris would not elaborate on the switch...

She confirmed Wednesday that she temporarily changed her registration from Democrat to independent to keep her options open. She declined to say what those options might be.

Harris, of course, was a mayoral candidate herself for about 17 minutes. She dropped out to back Peduto's main rival, Jack Wagner, and in fact appeared in anti-Peduto ads to back up claims that Peduto is divisive.

Talk of a Harris candidacy might seem premature, if not sort of crazy. But SOME of us journos are experiencing withdrawal symptoms now that this mayoral race is over. So don't spoil this for me.

And there is a bit of precedent, anyway. The legendary Richard Caligiuri won as an independent back in 1977, running against Tom Foerster. And the circumstances there may be instructive: Caligiuri was at the time serving as interim mayor: He'd been city council president and then succeeded Pete Flaherty after Flaherty took a job in the Carter Administration. Harris, as city council president, would be similarly positioned if Mayor Luke Ravenstahl were to step down ... and I've already heard some suspicions -- not from anyone in a position to know -- that such a move might be in the works. (ADDED: And of course, given the swirl of ethics allegations involving the Ravenstahl administration, there's always a chance that he may not have a choice about leaving.)

In any case, the news that Harris, a ward chair in her North Side neighborhood, has dropped her Democratic registration has already prompted one Democrat to demand she be removed. Matt Hogue, a committeeman with a long history of opposing Wagner, has formally asked that Harris be stripped of her party post, in accordance with party bylaws. (Those require removal of party officers who "register as a member of any other political party"; it doesn't specifically address the case of people who register as independents, and thus have no party affiliation at all. I have calls in to Nancy Patton Mills on this matter, but I'd be surprised if the rules would be any different.)

A Harris candidacy would, presumably, seek to champion the cause of old-guard Democrats who opposed Peduto. But backing her could be risky: Jim Burn, who heads the Democratic Party's state apparatus, says any other committeefolk who support her may lose their party position.

"As far as the party's concerned, it's over," says Burn. "[Peduto] is the nominee. And everyone is expected to step up for him."

Of course, it's not unheard of for party officials to back candidates who aren't endorsed by party elders during primary season. For example, after City Controller Michael Lamb won the party's endorsement, state Rep. Ed Gainey had to step down as the chair of the city committee in order to publicly support Peduto. "In the primary, it's been a gray area," says Burn, with party officials allowed to take a leave of absence and later return.

But once the Democratic voters have had their say, Burn adds, "There is no such option in the fall. The party's bylaws are unequivocal: If you support anyone other than the Democratic nominee, you are removed, and you can't be reinstated for two years."

Incidentally: Democrats will be electing their committeepeople again in 2014. And back in 2006, the Peduto-friendly group Progress Pittsburgh ran a slate of some 50 people to become committeefolk. About half of them succeeded, mostly by seeking to fill vacant slots. A couple dozen committee folk don't have much of an impact in a party apparatus that numbers in the hundreds. But in light of Peduto's win, the progressives are riding high right now. If members of the Democratic old guard put their committee status at hazard between now and then, well ... there's always a risk that a year from now, they may not be members of the Democratic old guard any longer.

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