Allegheny County Dems charging $8k “gate fee” at nominating session for open court seat | Politics | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Allegheny County Dems charging $8k “gate fee” at nominating session for open court seat

On Sun., Sept. 12, the Allegheny County Democratic Committee will hold a nominating session in order to place a candidate on the November ballot for a recently vacated seat on the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas. In late August, Judge Guido DeAngelis notified officials that he was not seeking retention for another 10-year term. This means that political parties have an opportunity to place candidates on the general election ballot, something the Republicans did on Sept. 10.

It’s unclear exactly what process the Republicans used to fill their nomination, but on the Democratic side, the process to place a candidate on the November ballot is causing some unease among members within the committee, as well as some Common Pleas candidates from the primary election who might have been interested in seeking the seat.

According to two ACDC committee members who spoke to Pittsburgh City Paper, the committee is charging $8,000 to candidates who want to be a part of the committee’s nominating process to determine who will appear on the ballot for DeAngelis’ vacant seat. Only two candidates have paid the fee, and so only two candidates will take part in the ACDC nominating session: Tom Caulfield and Alyssa Cowan. The $8,000 fee mirrors the fee ACDC charged to be considered for the committee’s endorsement in the primary, something Caulfield already paid for in March. (He received the committee’s endorsement, but finished 10th on the primary ballot when only nine seats were initially available.)

Caroline Mitchell, an ACDC committeeperson in Pittsburgh’s 14th ward, called the $8,000 payment a “gate fee” and said she is disappointed the committee is charging such a high price to be part of the nominating process.

“I have been a Democrat for many, many years. I cannot believe that my party is charging a gate fee to be on the ballot,” says Mitchell. “If they wanted to, they could charge $80,000 or $800 for the gate fee. What does that do to a person who wants candidates to go through a democratic process? It destroys it.”

Initially, reports indicated that a handful of candidates could compete for the nominating process, which will be chosen by votes from ACDC committee people in leadership roles within their wards. Those listed to be contenders, as reported by WESA, included Patrick Sweeney, Zeke Rediker, William Caye, and Mik Pappas. Sweeney and Caye were endorsed by the ACDC in the primary, but finished outside the top nine (13th and 18th, respectively). Rediker sought the ACDC endorsement, didn't get it, but got several other endorsements, and finished 15th in the primary election. Pappas finished 11th, but only nine votes behind Caulfield, out of more than 1.1 million cast. There were also dozens of other candidates in the primary field.

However, only Caulfield and Cowan paid the $8,000 to be a part of the nominating process, and Sam Hens-Greco, chair of Pittsburgh’s 14th ward, believes the money was a deterrent for more candidates. In fact, one primary candidate who spoke to City Paper on the condition of anonymity said the $8,000 fee was a reason they decided to not participate in the nominating process.

Requests for comment from the ACDC went unreturned.

Hens-Greco is a vocal critic of the ACDC’s $8,000 endorsement fee, but says charging an additional $8,000 to be a part of this nominating process is especially egregious.

“How do you charge $8,000 to be on the ballot?” he says. “This is not an endorsement, this is putting someone on the ballot. That is just outrageous.”

Hens-Greco was also critical of how little this seat was advertised by the ACDC, and said that could have been part of why there are only two candidates who are being considered. There was a WESA story published last August, but no other local press has reported on the vacancy. ACDC published a press release on Sept. 3 on their site soliciting for candidates to be considered fo the vacancy, but that release was never shared on ACDC’s social media.

Hens-Greco says this whole process will not be appreciated by the county’s Democratic voters, who value transparency and expanding voting access.

The nominating process may seem a bit unorthodox, but it's also legal, according to Pennsylvania election law expert Adam Bonin. He points to state election law, section 2938.3, which lays out the rules regulating filling the nomination of judges who reject retention more than 60 days before the general election.

He also points out that while it's not a true democratic process by allowing all registered voters to choose the nominee for this vacated seat, Bonin says the other alternative would be the Governor or Legislature filling the seat.

“Why wouldn’t you want this to be chosen by Allegheny County voters, as opposed to the Governor and the Republican legislature,” says Bonin, referencing that ACDC committee members will be deciding the nominee.

Bonin says every party, even third and minor parties, have the ability to complete a nominating process to get a candidate on the November ballot for an open judge seat after a judge decides to reject retention. He says it's actually quite common in Philadelphia, where they are called “magic seats.” Bonin says there are no rules against a party committee requesting a fee as part of the nominating process.

In Philadelphia this cycle, there are six “magic seats” available, thanks to Common Pleas and Philadelphia Municipal Court judges there not seeking retention. Candidates were chosen by the Philadelphia Dem Party for those seats recently, and according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, five of the six were then asked to pay $25,000 for the party’s election day expenses. However, one candidate didn’t have to pay that fee because he already paid as a candidate in the primary.

That process in Philly appears to be different from Allegheny County, where candidates have to pay $8,000 just to be considered for an ACDC vote. Additionally, Caulfield apparently paid the $8,000 fee twice, before making the general election ballot.

A Common Pleas judge in Pennsylvania earns an annual salary of $186,665.

Interestingly, in Allegheny County, the judge who decided close to the 60-day deadline to not seek retention and open up this current process, Guido DeAngelis, actually earned his Common Pleas Judge seat in a nearly identical process.

In a 1999 election, DeAngelis narrowly missed winning the nomination, finishing seventh out of 50 candidates for six open seats. Then in 2001, Judge Raymond Novak announced he would not seek retention after the primary election, which led to DeAngelis winning the ACDC special election.

For Hens-Greco, he says this year's process just feels too closed off for his liking, and he says the upfront $8,000 fee is too big of a deterrent. He says it makes the process appear unfair to other candidates who might have wanted to be considered for the magic seat.

“The natural response from the voter is, 'see, it is already a done deal,’” says Hens-Greco.

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