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Friday, May 21, 2010

County Democrat to seek statewide committee post ... and other Democratic news

Posted By on Fri, May 21, 2010 at 10:25 AM

In recent years, there's been a lot of talk about how statewide races are decided in Philadelphia. This year may be an exception. Both gubernatorial candidates are from Pittsburgh, after all ... and the next head of the Democratic State Committee could be a Pittsburgher as well.

Jim Burn, who currently presides over the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, hopes to be named as the statewide organization's next chair when it meets next month.

"I've spoken to [current chair] T.J. Rooney, who said he was ready to step down," Burn says. If he is elected by committee members, he says he plans to "work with [Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Dan Onorato to really get the party's message out there."

I've got a call in to the state committee to verify Rooney's desire to vacate the position. I'll post any reply here.

But Burn says that as far as he knows, no one else is interested in the post. To me, of course, that's reason to wonder about the job's desirability. ("I guess I must have been a goaltender in another life," he says: "I just miss having everyone take shots at me.") But then again, I sometimes wonder why Burn ever sought the county spot.

During his tenure here, after all, Burn has had to remove the city committee's chair, Tonya Payne, from her post. (You'll recall that during her city council reelection bid in 2009, Payne lost the Democratic primary but waged an unsuccessful write-in campaign against the party's nominee.) He's also wrestled with whether to allow "open primaries" in which party endorsements would be non-binding on committee members: That hotly-debated reform proposal failed when the committee couldn't muster a quorum to vote on it. And he's had to contend with some shenanigans in a city council endorsement last year. (Fans of South Hills politics take note: There's more about what's going on in the 19th Ward later in this post.) 

Still, Burn has had some fun with the post as well -- most recently by having Tommy Chong host a party fundraiser.

So ... what would he do if he is chosen to head the state commitee? 

"I really like [former DNC chair Howard*] Dean's '50-state strategy'" -- in which Democrats try to drum up candidates even in heavily Republican areas. "I truly believe Pennsylvania has the possibility to do that."

Step 1 would be a series of "regional rallies" this summer, paired with meetings with officials all over the state. And while Burn acknowledges that "some counties will never vote Democratic," he holds out hope that "if you take time to listen to Democrats in those areas -- and even Republicans -- you can start to close the margins in rural parts of the state." 

In other committee-related news ...

-- The battle for control of Pittsburgh's 19th Ward, a battle which has pitched longtime ward chair Pete Wagner against former ally Anthony Coghill, could be getting ugly soon.

At last report, Coghill and Wagner seem to have split the ballot, with each man having a more-or-less equal number of committeepeople supporting him for ward chair. And there are rumblings that at least one of the elected committeepeople -- one of those numbered in Wagner's column -- may have their residency challenged by Coghill's side. Word is the committeeperson has a home outside the city -- a domicile that has a "homstead exemption" attached to it. Such tax breaks are limited to properties that serve as the owner's primary residence. And of course, committeefolk are supposed to actually live in the districts they represent. 

Burn says he has heard such rumors too, though he won't act unless somebody formally lodges a complaint. "It's like a courtroom," he says: "If it isn't brought before me, I can't act. Unless somebody writes me a letter, I'm not doing anything." But he says that if such a complaint is brought forward, "I will not allow the 19th Ward committee to meet [and choose a ward chair] until the residency issue is resolved."

Ideally, the 19th Ward would clear up this matter and select a ward chair by mid-June, when the county committee convenes and picks a new ward chair. But "some wards won't be done with their restructuring by then," Burn acknowledges.

-- Finally, there has already been some head-scratching over the fact that Daniel Jimenez failed to win a spot on the state committee, despite having campaigned more aggressively for the spot than anyone else in recent memory. Rest assured that Burn is just as confused as you are.

"Daniel did everything right," Burn says. "He had the party endorsement. He raised $5,000 for this race, and knocked on 6,000 doors. He's young, he's energetic, he's brilliant. I cannot underestand this for the life of me." 

Jimenez was one of six candidates running for five committee spots in the 38th Senatorial district. (In large counties, spots are divvied up among Senate districts in the county.) Jimenez is a University of Pittsburgh grad student who studies all kinds of sophisticated medical stuff I could barely follow when he explained it to me. He was also a highly visible figure in the fight against Luke Ravenstahl's unpopular tuition tax last year. And yet on Tuesday, Jimenez finished sixth, just 30 votes behind Matthew Arena.

Arena is old-school: Ironically, he's previously run against the top vote-getter in the district, Brenda Frazier, in a 2007 county-council campaign where he acknowledged being "not familiar with [the terminology" of phrases like "sexual orientation."

Some theorize that Jimenez's last name -- which sounds, you know, kind of Mexican -- might have damaged his prospects. Burn isn't buying that: "There are places in southwestern Pennsylvania where I couldn't dismiss that," he says. "But Daniel is coming from a very progressive district, so I just can't accept that." Burn figures it had more to do with Jimenez's middle-of-the-pack position on the ballot, and the fact that Arena's name was more familiar with previous runs.

Jimenez himself has posted a map of election results, which shows he underperformed in the Lawrenceville area, and some of the suburban communities.

In any case, Burn says, "We've got to get him elected to something. Without question, this guy is a rising star -- somebody leadership needs to embrace."

There is, in fact, at least some hope that Jimenez will end up on the state committee. The state committee bylaws require that the committee be gender-balanced. Right now, Allegheny County seems poised to have two more women than men representing it. If the net result of elections in all 67 counties has a similarly disproportionate representation of women, committee bylaws allows for the selection of "at large" members to rectify any imbalance. Jimenez could get a spot that way. 

But Burn says he doesn't yet know the final results of committee races statewide. And it's not entirely clear -- at least to him -- what the process is for choosing the at-large members will be. "Sometimes the bylaws read like quantum physics," he says. We should have more answers in the next couple weeks. 

And just think: Burn is volunteering to take on these headaches from all over the state.

*Ed note. I originally typed in "John Dean" there, due to a mental glitch on my part. Apologies to Mr. Burn for creating the impression that he was a closet Nixonian. 

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