Burn Treatment 

Local Dems get the change they need

There I was, at the head table — no Clinton jokes, please — at a Democratic Party function.

It was the Allegheny County Democrats' annual Kennedy-Lawrence Dinner. I was the emcee, and things were going swimmingly. I alienated a few of the older yinzer Democrats with various attempts at humor, but that was to be expected. Suddenly I noticed someone screaming at Jean Milko, the chair of the county committee. It was County Executive, the highest-ranking local Democrat in the room.

What was Danny upset about? Well, they had this program, listing every single featured speaker and all the gathered dignitaries in the room. Even I made the program.

Who didn't make it? County Executive Dan Onorato.

"I'm the county executive, Jean! I deserve respect!" he bellowed.

Normally, I don't approve of someone yelling at an old lady. But in this case I'll make an exception. For one thing, it was absurd that Onorato wasn't on the program. For another, on one page of the pamphlet, they misspelled the word "candidate." If you're trying to be a professional political party, that ain't good.

After Dan screamed at Jean, she cried on my shoulder. What the hell was I supposed to do? I was just the freaking emcee. But it was on that day that I realized the local Democratic Party needed some gussying up. Some professionalizing. Someone new.

Jim Burn is that man. He's 43 years old, and he was just elected to replace Milko as party chair. He was the mayor of Millvale for 12 years. Now he's a newly elected county councilor. He can talk. He has a clue. I betcha he can even spell.

Oh, and another thing. Former Pittsburgh City Councilor Ben Woods was also voted out as party vice-chair. Ben is a nice man; I see him at my Starbucks often. It's too bad he was convicted of taking bribes while a member of the city council years ago. It just tends to reinforce that old thuggish image of the party. And that ain't good.

I asked Burn if these changes are the beginning of the de-yinzerfication of the party. "Let's just say there's been a lot of disenfranchisement, a lot of frustration," he said. "Some people have been literally pushed away."

How far away had they been pushed? Far enough, Burn said, that some young Democrats, rebuffed in their attempts to become more involved in the party, actually became young Republicans instead. Jesus.

Burn says he wants to bring "respectability and organization" to the party. Good plan. He wants the local party to become a "progressive beacon of the Democratic ideology." He wants to relate to "more of what you see on the national level." OK, that may not be such a good thing, but I get the drift: Have a plan, have a mission, have a purpose, take a stand. And get your message out.

"We want to be an amplifier for the Democratic Party," said Burn. He wants a rapid-response team for whenever Dems are attacked. He wants committeepeople to get out into the neighborhoods and talk to folks about Democratic stances on issues.

He hailed young new Democrats like Jason Altmire, who may actually have a chance to defeat Tommy DeLay disciple Rep. Melissa Hart.

It's clear the party desperately needed new blood at the organizational level. In '04, I went to a local fund-raiser for John Kerry, and the man could not sit down to eat. Why? Because all the old yinzers immediately lined up, like Kerry was a ride at Kennywood or something — all so they could have their pictures taken with him, one by one. Don't get me wrong: I understand it's a cool souvenir. But the man had just sat down and was not allowed to eat his meal because photos were clearly the top priority for the ancient Dems who wouldn't take the hint and leave the nice man alone. Did they care about what he had to say? Doubtful. The photo — that was all that mattered.

Is there a way local Democrats could avoid embarrassing themselves in the future when national big shots come to town? "Maybe we could charge 40 bucks a photo," ad-libbed Burn. See? Now there's some progressive thinking. And that ain't bad.


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