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Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Battle for the 19th Ward Rages On

Posted By on Thu, Jun 3, 2010 at 12:52 PM

Yesterday's rains have passed, but in the city's 19th Ward, there's still a good chance of thunder in the days ahead. An effort is underway to remove a member of the Democratic Committee from her post ... but even if the challenge is successful, it may be too late to make a difference. 

I've been obsessing over this situation for awhile now. (What can I say? Beechview gets in your blood.) And because things get a little intricate, I'm gonna have to "bury the lede," as we MSMers say, for just a minute. Bear with me.

The story so far: Prior to this year's May primary Anthony Coghill, a roofer and aspiring politician, fielded a slate of more than 40 people to run for spots on the Democratic Party's 19th ward committee. The 19th ward, which is centered on Beechview, has long been the preserve of chair Pete Wagner and his family. Wagner was once a Coghill supporter, but when Coghill ran for council last year, Wagner backed another candidate, Patrick Reilly, instead. Coghill hopes to pay Wagner back by displacing him as ward chair -- something he can do if enough newly elected committefolk support him. 

And Coghill's slate did pretty well in the primary. For starters, as noted here earlier, Pete Wagner's son lost. In all, Coghill says that 26 of his friends and allies won their committee races -- "more than half," he boasts. "Several others lost by single-digits." There are 78 committee positions available, so "The magic number is 39. I feel pretty solid that I have more than that."

Still, he and his allies aren't taking any chances. Which brings us to the effort to oust a committeeperson.

A Coghill ally, Robert McLaughlin, has formally challenged the residency of an incumbent committeewoman, Kimberly Cagni, who is believed to be in the Wagner camp. (McLaughlin, incidentally, is the guy who beat Pete Wagner's son on May 18. Hope he's not counting on a Christmas card from the Wagners this year.)

Committeefolk are, obviously, supposed to live in the ward they represent. And Cagni's nominating petition lists her address as 1820 Ringwalt Street, a home that county records show as belonging to family members. But McLaughlin's complaint asserts that Cagni's real address is 435 Clokey Ave, a Mt. Lebanon home that records show is owned by Kimberly L. Cagni-Young and William J. Young. Significantly for the challenge, that suburban home has a "homestead exemption," a county tax break that applies only to homes that serve as a primary residence.

I spoke briefly to Ms. Cagni this morning, who indicated it was a bad time to talk. I'll try again later, and post any response in a seperate blog post. Allegheny County Committee chair Jim Burn says that Cagni has not responded formally to the allegation, but says he expects Cagni to "respond aggressively" to the challenge.

Burn says he sent Cagni a letter -- to both addresses -- notifying her of the allegations and giving her 30 days to respond.

But Coghill shouldn't break out the champagne just yet. Even if the Cagni challenge succeeds, his efforts could fail.

When I first wrote about the potential for a residency challenge, Burn told me that he "will not allow the 19th Ward committee to meet [and choose a ward chair] until the residency issue is resolved." As recently as yesterday, Coghill told me that Burn had given him the same assurance. 

But Burn has since changed his position. While putting the ward in limbo was "my knee-jerk reaction," he says, he later talked with committee solicitor Jack Cambest. "And our preliminary discussion was that for me to force the ward to wait would be inconsistent with how I've handled other challenges. So if I did it here, we'd be accused of bias." 

You can see where this headed, right? The committeefolk of the 19th ward could meet and vote on a chairman. Pete Wagner could win by, say, a single vote. And even if Burn later did decide to bounce Cagni from the committee, by then it would be too late. 

"That is a scenario that could happen," Burn admitted with a sigh. Still, he stresses, he was looking for other options. "I'm still working on the most equitable way to handle this challenge."

As you might expect, Coghill was less than overjoyed when I broke the news to him. 

"That's a damn shame," he said, sounding aggrieved. "Jim Burn -- he knows what happened here last year. Everyone is afraid to stand up for what's right." 

"You know what's going to be really sad?" he asked. "If I lose by one vote."

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