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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Controversy continues in District 7

Posted By on Thu, Jul 25, 2013 at 3:47 PM

This news will probably come as no surprise to readers of this space, but the special election to replace Patrick Dowd in City Council district 7 is getting kind of weird. Tony Ceoffe, who lost a Democratic Party endorsement vote to Deb Gross this past weekend, has now sued to overturn that result.

Fair warning: The issues presented in the suit — which you can read for yourself here — are a little murky. But for now, at least this much is clear: Ceoffe plans to be on the ballot in November one way or the other. "I am circulating petitions and my name will be on the ballot," he says.

That will likely mean running as an independent, since in a special election, the party endorsement determines who can run as a Democrat. Ceoffe is chair of the party's 6th ward, and running against the party's nominee would mean abandoning that post. Ceoffe says that's not a step he takes lightly, but he calls it "a decision I had to make ... so the voters have a choice about who they want to lead this district."

In the meantime, though, his lawsuit is seeking to void the endorsement vote, which Gross won by a 47-43 count. Ceoffe says the move is necessary because "there were several flagrant violations of policy made by the county committee and filing a lawsuit is the only way for me to go about getting them resolved."

Voiding the endorsement would likely mean that none of the candidates would be identified as Democrats on the ballot: Under a calendar governed by election rules, the party only has a few more days to submit the name of its candidate. Ceoffe is also seeking to prevent Gross' name from appearing on slate cards, and to lift party rules that ordinarily require committee members to support the party nominee.

Ceoffe's complaint reprises some of the concerns we spelled out here a week ago. The suit repeats his allegation that the endorsement vote was scheduled too quickly, and that the party wrongly appointed five new committeepeople in the weeks leading up to it — despite a party rule barring such appointments 30 days before an endorsement.

Party officials contend that the rule only applies to the regular endorsement scheduled before the spring primary. And in any case, notes Allegheny County Democratic Committee chair Nancy Patton Mills, the vote total includes only two of the five appointees Ceoffe is contesting. One of the new appointees didn't show up for the endorsement at all, and two others, both representing Bloomfield's Ward 8, had their credentials challenged by the Ward 8 acting chair, Vinessa Turpin (who is backing Ceoffe). The challenged votes were put in a provisional status, and are not included in the 47-43 total.

Even if you tossed the two votes that were cast, then, that would leave half of Gross' four-vote lead intact. Ceoffe would need to challenge at least two more votes to void the results. And in fact ... that's just what it does For one thing, it notes that Gross herself was allowed to vote as a committeeperson from Bloomfield's Ward 8 ... even though she now lives in Highland Park. And it says that a member of the Democratic state committee — who the suit does not name — was improperly allowed to vote in the local election.

Patton Mills confirms that portion of Ceoffe's account, sort of. She says the state committeeperson in question is Mike Turpin, husband of Vinessa, and that there was confusion at the sign-in desk over his eligibility. "By the time I found out [Turpin had voted], there was nothing I could do." And that, she says, helps explain why Gross was allowed to vote.

Prior to the endorsement vote, Gross acknowledged to City Paper that she moved to Highland Park last summer, and voted in the party's endorsement before the spring primary. "It certainly hasn't been a secret," she said. "I personally told Mr. Ceoffe that I'd moved out of the district during a flower planting" in late June. In fact, she says, she notified Vinessa Turpin of the fact during the spring endorsement. "I've known of other people who have voted after they've no longer lived in the district," Gross says. Since she was never told to resign, she says, she thought she should fill out her term until the 2014 primary, when committeepeople are elected.

Patton Mills says Gross was allowed to vote because Vinessa Turpin never notified the party of Gross' status. (Turpin says that she did tell party officials, but only through word-of-mouth — the same way Gross notified her. "Nothing was done in writing," she says.) Gross "has voted in our endorsements since she moved," Patton Mills says. "She's on the committee, in the [council] district she's voting in" — even if she's in a different ward. And Patton Mills said she figured that allowing Gross to vote would defray a potential challenge to Mike Turpin's vote, because the two votes would "cancel each other out." She says Ceoffe agreed with that reasoning. "He said, 'Let her vote because Mike voted.'"

Ceoffe has not responded to queries about Patton Mills' account. But previously, he'd given City Paper a somewhat different narrative, noting that he has no way of knowing how any committeeperson voted, and so it's not clear whether the votes offset each other or not. (For his part, Mike Turpin confirms that he is the state committeeman named in Ceoffe's suit, though he says his eligibility was called into question not because he's a state committeeperson but because he was improperly left off the list of eligible voters. In any case, he says, "Nobody knows how I voted.") "Nancy decided to let her vote. Who am I to tell the county chair how to conduct business?" Ceoffe said. "Deb Gross voted in the 8th ward, [although] she doesn't live in the ward. That's another flagrant violation."

But that may not be enough to void Gross' vote, or the endorsement. Party bylaws require "written certification by a Ward or Municipal Chairperson or a Committee member that a member has moved out of the district." After which the county chair must give the committee member 30 days to respond. And by all accounts, no notice was ever given. It's quite possible that Ceoffe could come up one vote short here — and that the vote in question would be Gross'.

In any event, this thing ain't over by a damn sight. As Patton Mills puts it, "We'll see what happens. Who knows?"

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