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Friday, March 12, 2010

Political storm brewing in Ward 19

Posted By on Fri, Mar 12, 2010 at 5:48 PM

Anthony Coghill is back. And this time it's personal. 

There is a political maelstrom developing in the city's 19th Ward, the sprawling South Hills district that has long been the preserve of the noted Wagner family. And Anthony Coghill -- whose break with the Wagners helped define last year's city council district 4 race -- is hoping to ride the storm.

As we've noted previously, in addition to races for US Senate and governor, this year's May primary offers Democratic voters a chance to vote for new party committee members. Committee members determine which candidates will be endorsed by the party -- an especially important function in special elections. Typically, though, the committee races attract little interest.

It's a different story in Ward 19.

The 19th Ward has 38 districts, and every district is represented in the party appartus by a male and female member. Of the 76 spots up for grabs in Ward 19 this May, 48 are being contested. 

That's a lot. I mean, a lot.

"Every so often, you'll see some challengers here or there," says Jim Burn, who chairs the county Democratic Party. "But in all my years of doing this, I've never seen anything like this." 

By way of comparison, the last time these committee seats were up for grabs, I count only 5 committee races in the 19th Ward where there was actual competition.

But that was in 2006 -- before Anthony Coghill got pissed off.

Coghill is a lifelong resident of Beechview, the heart of Ward 19. You may also remember that Coghill was a former ally of the 19th ward chair, Pete Wagner. (Wagner's brother, of course, is the state Auditor General and is a gubernatorial candidate. Pete Wagner's daughter, Chelsa Wagner, is a state Representative.) But when Coghill ran for City council last year, Wagner lined up behind Patrick Reilly, a staffer in Chelsa Wagner's office, instead. And things got really ugly during the endorsement vote, when a ballot was cast by a woman pretending to be a committee member who didn't show.

A judge tossed out the vote, but upheld the final result -- in which the party gave its nod to Reilly -- because the margin was larger than 1 vote. (Pete Wagner was named in the lawsuit Coghill filed, but a judge dropped him from it, since no wrongdoing on his part was ever alleged, much less proven.) But both Coghill and Reilly ended up losers at the polls. The winner was Natalia Rudiak -- in no small part because Ward 19's votes were split between Reilly and Coghill

But now Coghill is back for round 2.

Coghill says that "for the past two or three months," he's been recruiting candidates to run against incumbents -- many of whom he faults for being Wagner loyalists. "A lot of these people have never faced a challenge," he says of the current committeefolk. "We're fielding a very strong group of candidates. Some are friends and family; others are strangers that were referred to me."

When he found interested candidates, Coghill says, he gave them packets of information, including street lists of the voters in each voting precinct, eligibility requirements, and sample petitions. If  enough friendly committee members get elected this May, Coghill could earn their votes and be chosen ward chair. If that happens, he'll have toppled one of the most prominent political names in the city. 

"If you would have told me five years ago that I'd be running for ward chair, I'd say you were nuts," Coghill says. "I had no interest. But after what happened to me? I spent $1,500 to apply for the endorsement. And you saw what happened."

What kind of changes would Coghill bring about as ward chair? For one thing, he says, the fiasco that marred last year's endorsement would never happen on his watch. "It's about leadership," he says.  But are there bylaws he would change, or party reforms he would support? "I'd have to look at that," he says. But ousting Wagner "would be a good start" to reforming the party, he adds. 

The 19th Ward "is their house" he says of the Wagners. "It's everything to them." 

I have a call in to Pete Wagner to get his response to all this. Should he respond, I'll be posting that as well, with a link here.

Is some of this about political payback? You bet. But Coghill maintains that there are broader reasons for discontent. The Wagners have been around a long time, he says, "But look at Beechview. Has it been getting any better? How many years do you need to really make an improvement?" 

There will inevitably be speculation about the politics here. Coghill is tied to state Sen. Wayne Fontana, a Wagner foe, and his council campaign was backed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. As Coghill acknowledges, "People wonder who is behind this. But it's really just me."

Nor, he says, is he trying to set the stage for another shot at city council. "I don't have any political ambition at this point other than to be the ward chair -- and to right a wrong." 

You'll note the language "at this point." Could Coghill imagine running for Natalia Rudiak's seat at some point in the future? "I never rule anything out," he says. "But I gotta tell you that this is where my focus is. [Rudiak] is a nice person; I'm confident she's smart, and I hope she'll do a good job."

What does Burn, the county chair, make of all this? "It was a mystery to me why there was all this activity in Ward 19," he says. "But if Anthony has stepped up and taken credit, that answers a lot of questions right there. I've heard rumors." And, he says, "If this is an organized approach -- as it appears to be -- it is an incredibly well-coordinated effort." 

Coghill allows that he can't take credit for all the challengers in Ward 19 -- just a lot of them. And he acknowledges that not all the incumbents are Wagner loyalists. "There are a handful of good ones," he says.

For Burn, what's most important is "the issues that are going to emerge in the days ahead. For as much effort as is being put into this, it has to be about more than last year's city council race. So I'll be listening to hear what sort of platform emerges." In the meantime, he says, "You do want people to get involved and engaged in the party committee." 

Ironically enough, in fact, one of the Ward 19 incumbents being challenged this May -- by Coghill's campaign treasurer in 2009 -- is Erin Molchany, the director of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project. Among PUMP's latest initiatives? Getting more people to run for party committee slots

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