From Hines Ward to Political Wards | Blogh

Monday, February 2, 2009

From Hines Ward to Political Wards

Posted By on Mon, Feb 2, 2009 at 5:10 PM

If you thought the Steelers AFC Championship was a grudge match, you haven't seen anything yet. Even the Super Bowl itself was little more than a tune-up for the bruising contest that may take place next week.

Or not. Depending on whether anyone shows. 

As noted on the Allegheny County Democratic Committee's Web site, the committee will meet at the IBEW Hall next Saturday to discuss changes to its bylaws. And the key question to be discussed is:

Should Democratic committee people be required to support the party's endorsed candidates? 

On paper, that question has already been answered. The bylaws mandate that endorsements be "binding on all party officers and members." So if the party endorses Bill Peduto for mayor -- I'll pause and let the laughter subside -- the faithful must rally behind him, and not publicly support anyone else.

Again, I'll pause and let the laughter subside. The truth is that committee members go off the reservation and support whoever they want all the time. Even Jim Burn, who chairs the county committee, admits as much.

The problem, he says, is that while "the by-laws say the endorsements are binding, they don't tell you what to do if somebody doesn't follow the rules." Which means, in other words, that the endorsements aren't binding at all. 

Thus the largest proposed change to the bylaws -- which you can download from the page linked above -- falls under Rule IV, "Conduct." This section spells out the procedure for handling a committee member who is "accused of being disqualified under any of the provisions of the national, state, or county by-laws." The process starts with written complaints filed within 10 days of the alleged deviation from party orthodoxy. From there it ... well, you can read the thing yourself. 

Burn says the language here was lifted directly from by-laws used by the party's state committee. And he says local party folk have sought these changes for years. And he contends the changes represent an improvement over the current system, in which "if one person accuses another of supporting unendorsed candidates, they call the party chair and say 'go do something about it,' while they stay in the shadows."

The bylaws promise a "full hearing" on such allegations. Details are scarce, but Burn says a person will "get to face his or her accuser" -- and that this process alone should "reduce party infighting." Or at least party backstabbing.

That is, of course, the sunny view of things. A darker view is that these rules will make it easier to for the party heirarchy to force committee members into lockstep. That could be especially true in a one-party town like Pittsburgh, where elections are all but decided in the primary -- and the primary is often all but decided by the endorsement. 

Now I'll admit that this stuff doesn't often get people's blood boiling -- even when those people are committeefolk. At least one previous effort to reform the rules failed because of an inability to get a quorum of roughly 400 commitee members. Burn sounded plaintive when he told me that "if just 80 committeepeople asked five others to come, we'd have our quorum."

But for political junkies, this is important. If you're a Peduto-lovin' progressive, it's bad enough to think your guy will never win the party's endorsement. It's even worse to think you could be ousted  for supporting him.

In fact, Burn acknolwedges that while there have been calls for party discipline in the past, there have also been calls -- almost as loud -- for a less disciplined process. In one survey of committee members, he says, "35 or 40 percent" of party members said they wanted open primaries -- where there would be no binding endorsements at all. 

"That discussion is still very much alive," he says. But open primaries will not be discussed this coming weekend: Discussion will be limited only to the proposed changes. He pledges that wider-ranging reforms will be discussed later this year, after another survey of commitee members to be held this summer. 

I'm not a committeeperson, thank God -- being a journalist is thankless enough -- so I don't have a dog in this fight. On the one hand, I can understand the desire for party discipline. If endorsements aren't going to be binding, it's hard to see what purpose they serve.

On the other hand, does party discipline matter when there's only one party in town? Burn has repeatedly professed a desire to make the party more accountable. (The fact that he posted these by-laws online -- where even a journalist can find them -- is a step in the right direction.) If progressives accuse him of "not doing enough to change the party," he says, "the old-timers say I'm doing too much." 

Unlike some of his critics, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he says he wants to make the party more responsive. But how can the party respond to change if reformers have no choice but to either fall in line or leave?

There's no viable second or third party in town. So where will the impetus for change come from, if not from within? And how is that supposed to happen, if committeepeople can't agitate for candidates and causes that aren't already popular with the rest of the party?

I guess we're about to find out. Assuming anyone shows up to vote for this thing at all.