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Friday, April 4, 2014

The final (we hope) word on 2014 Democratic committee battles

Posted By on Fri, Apr 4, 2014 at 1:11 PM

Once again, I'm overdue for an update on the great Wagner/Coghill battle for control of city's 19th Ward – probably the last one I'll write before Election Day. And if that doesn't renew your zest for life, consider this: At the end of this post, I'll quibble with the only other journalists taking Democratic committee politics seriously -- a piece in the Tribune-Review alleging that Mayor Bill Peduto is trying to take over the local party apparatus itself.

But let us now return to the thrilling action in Ward 19 where, as you no doubt recall, longtime chair Pete Wagner has been feuding with Anthony Coghill for control of the local committee.

Coghill and Wagner are both trying to elect a slate of allies to committee positions within Ward 19, which is centered on Beechview. Some 60 committee seats are up for grabs, and presumably if Coghill can win enough of those challenges, he can replace Wagner as ward chair. Prior to Election Day, both men have been asking Judge Joseph James to remove some of each other's pieces from the board, by alleging defects in the candidate's election petitions. James gave Coghill the upper hand in an initial round of challenges last month; on Wednesday, he settled the last three challenges.

And Coghill won that round too.

Wagner's lone victory came in the case of a committeeperson whose petition included a somewhat murky signature. I'm not gonna go too deeply into the details here -- even my appetite for petition battles is sated. But James accepted the petition after reviewing an affidavit signed by the voter attesting to the signature's letgitmacy, and hearing testimony from Wagner ally Kevin Cagni, who helped circulate the petition.

Coghill, meanwhile, managed to keep two of his candidates on the ballot – but he had to testify on the stand to do so.

Coghill had circulated two petitions on which several of the dates appeared to have been written over – evidence that the dates may have been changed, Wagner alleged. As noted here previously, Wagner's legal complaint contended that since the petitions had almost exactly the same mistake, made by exactly the same signers, there was evidence of fraud … and possibly even racketeering.

But Coghill, whom Wagner had subpoenaed to appear in court, offered a far more innocent explanation. One of the signers, he testified, had put down a ZIP code instead of the address on both petitions … and the other signers followed suit. Coghill said he didn't notice the error until he was done collecting signatures for the night. "It about brought me to tears," Coghill testified. "It was cold, I was hungry." But he went back out to the homes he had just visited, and had each signer inscribe the date over the zip code.

Questioned by Charles Fedel, Wagner's attorney, about how each signer could make the exact same mistake, Coghill observed that "Once one person starts with a zip code, [later signers] tend to follow suit."

James agreed that petition errors can cascade, as signers take their cues from those who've already signed. And he agreed that he saw the number "5" on some lines of the petition, consistent with a ZIP code and not a date. (James also decided that Cagni, who brought the complaints against the petitions in question, didn't have proper standing to file them anyway, since he doesn't live in the voting precincts the committeepeople were seeking to represent. But while I am boundlessly fascinated by them, debates over legal standing tend to be a little abstract, so I won't repeat that argument here.)

Bottom line: Coghill kept two of his folks on the ballot, and Wagner kept one of his. If you add that to the challenges James already ruled on, the final score here is Coghill 6, Wagner 2. But while Coghill has the edge going into the primary, I've learned never to count Wagner out.

All of which brings us to the week's other committee-related story …


Based on a Tribune-Review account earlier this week, some people have asked whether, in focusing so much on committee arcana, I've turned a blind eye to a much bigger story: a purported takeover of the Democratic Committee by Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

In a word: I wish … not because I'm a Peduto/Fitz booster, but because that would make committee races more interesting. In fact, a few months ago I was anticipating that this might be a story … but unfortunately, I think the Trib overstates the case.

Peduto, the Trib story asserts, is "attempting to grab power in the city's Democratic committee, lining up candidates to run … in neighborhoods that opposed him during last year's primary." To make that case, it quotes Pete Wagner and Eileen Kelly, a longtime fixture of city politics. It notes that Ward 19 has become a battleground, while also flagging some higher-than-normal activity in a couple of North Side wards.

"I think he's probably trying to build up his strength in the party," Kelly tells the paper. "When he ran for mayor, he did not seek the endorsement of the party. If he plans to run again for mayor, the party is pretty important in city races."

I asked Peduto a few months ago whether he had a plan for a committee push. He denied it then, and denied it again in a Trib follow-up story. Still, it's not as if Kelly's theory is absurd. Years ago, Peduto allies did try stage a (largely unsuccessful) effort to pack the committee with progressives. More recently, Peduto's allies helped engineer a party endorsement for Deb Gross in a City Council special election last fall. And as I noted in a piece about this year's committee battles, Peduto allies – namely political field-general Matt Merriman-Preston and go-to election attorney Chuck Pascal – have been visible in petition challenges in all three wards.

But you can see the logical error in Kelly's quote, right? If Peduto didn't even bother seeking the endorsement as a challenger, why would he crave it as an incumbent? His allies on council obviously don't need the party's backing either: Last spring, Peduto ally Natalia Rudiak won re-election without the party endorsement, in a district that includes Ward 19 itself. (Another staunch ally, Bruce Kraus, has never had the endorsement.) So how important is the endorsement to the progressive coalition, really?

Moreover, the city's Democratic committee has 32 wards: If you were going to take the committee over, would you only be active in three of them? Even granting Peduto a base in some East End neighborhoods – where his protégé Dan Gilman did earn the party endorsement last year – that seems a pretty passive-aggressive approach.

In fact, although the Trib story doesn't say so, the larger pattern here is that hardly any committee spots outside those three wards are being challenged at all.

According to numbers provided by the county Democratic Committee (thanks, Megan!) Pittsburgh has a total of 806 committee slots up for grabs this spring. Of those, 154 have no candidates seeking to fill them at all – those seats will remain vacant. Of the remaining 652 seats, only 142 have more than one candidate in the running. And more than one-third of those contested races are in Ward 19 alone.

So what explains the presence of Peduto allies in Ward 19 and elsewhere? My sense, based on conversations with various insiders that date back months, is that Team Peduto is mostly being opportunistic here, and taking advantage of local grievances where they exist. (The animosity between Wagner and Coghill, for one, dates back well before Peduto's involvement: In fact, squabbling between the two men helped elect Rudiak, Peduto's ally, to council in the first place.) Peduto tried ginning up a slate of candidates to run for committee once before, and it proved to be not worth the bother. It's much easier by far to help out a field of candidates who already have reasons of their own for taking on the likes of Pete Wagner or his North Side peer, 27th ward chair Kevin Quigley.

Really, there's no reason not to do it: Having some committee allies can be helpful – see the Gross race, for example – and it sure can't hurt. It's not a terribly busy election season for local progressives anyway, with only a couple of state rep races really commanding attention.

But at the end of the day, Bill Peduto has probably spent far less time on committee races than, say, I have.

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