Payne-ful Choices | Pittsburgh City Paper

Payne-ful Choices

Today's story about Daniel Lavelle by Rich Lord is a typically solid effort from the P-G's ace city hall reporter. But tucked into the piece about the new councilor-elect is an interesting disclosure: 

Mr. Lavelle has filed a written complaint against [incumbent councilor Tonya] Payne, who is the Pittsburgh Democratic Committee chair, for failing to support her party's nominee. Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chair Jim Burn said he will meet with Ms. Payne and decide if she will be stripped of her party posts.

What brought this on? There was an 11th-hour write-in campaign on Payne's behalf during the Nov. 3 election, even though she'd lost to Lavelle in the May primary. And Democrats generally don't look kindly on insiders who try to actively thwart the party. (Unless, of course, we're talking about Joe Lieberman.)

Ordinarily, a fight over Payne's party credentials might not be so interesting, but for two reasons.

First, I'm pretty sure we haven't heard the last of Tonya Payne. It's widely believed that she'll be running for office next year -- this time against state Rep. Jake Wheatley. Wheatley, like Lavelle, is part of a political faction aligned with former city councilor Sala Udin, who Payne defeated four years ago.

Second, there's a long history of complaints about committeefolk "going off the reservation," and opposing candidates who had the Democratic Party's backing. (In fact, a little lower in this post, we'll talk about a similar accusation lodged against blogger Matt Hogue, of the Pittsburgh Hoagie.) Slag Heap readers may recall that earlier this year, county chair Jim Burn wrestled with similar questions. But that dispute had to do with committeefolk bucking the party's endorsement before the spring primary. What Payne is accused of doing, by contrast, is trying to defeat the party's nominee -- the person backed not just by party elders, but by Democratic voters themselves. 

That's a whole different ballgame, Burn tells me. While there was little stomach for cracking down on dissenters during primary season, this was a general election. And state rules are very clear. A person is ineligible to hold a Democratic committee post if that person has "supported a candidate in a general or special election opposed to the duly nominated candidate of the Democratic Party in that election."

If Payne was involved in this write-in bid, that would constitute supporting a candidate other than the "duly nominated" Democrat: Lavelle. On paper, it'd be hard to see how she could maintain her committee post ... even though Payne is a Democrat herself.

So how involved was Payne in this write-in effort? She told the Tribune-Review that she "didn't ask for a write-in campaign" but that "people in the district didn't like the primary results, and they didn't care what I had to say on the subject, so they're going to do it."

Uh-huh. This is a wee bit hard to believe, since over the summer Payne actually wrote a letter to her constituents faulting them for not supporting her in the primary. 

Burn says, though, that he will "treat this thing objectively. I'm going to listen to everything Mr. Lavelle says, and everything Ms. Payne says, and we'll take it from there." 

The irony here, of course, is that Burn appointed Payne to the city chair in the first place. He did so when the previous occupant, Barbara Ernsberger, had to step down for an (unsuccessful) judicial run. Payne, he says, was the only person who expressed any interest in the post. In fact, when the party met to choose Ernsberger's replacement, "We didn't have enough people to make quorum," he told me. 

"So if you decide to remove Payne from the post," I answered, "you'll just have to find another replacement."

"You've just given me an idea," Burn said. "I could remove her and then, a month later, appoint her all over again."

He assured me he was kidding. A moment later, though, he noted that he'd ALSO appointed Payne to the state committee.

Then we both started laughing, hard. 

I know Burn is unpopular in some circles, but he's a good sport. In any case, he expects to have a decision by early December. If he decides against Payne, she can appeal to the state committee. 

In a related matter, local blogger (and committeeman) Matt Hogue was also the subject of a written complaint, and Burn confirms it stems from Hogue's online endorsement of Kevin Acklin in the mayoral race. But the letter was withdrawn "about five days later," Burn says. No explanation was given he says, and he's not likely to pursue the matter further. 

Burn says that loyalty to the party shouldn't be too much to ask -- at least not in November. "We can debate this all we want in the spring," he says, "but once you cross that line in a general election, you may as well not even have a party." Still, he says, if somebody were to complain about Hogue now, "I'd really have some questions about their motivation and timing." Hogue's blog post, and the letter complaining about it, "haven't gotten much attention in the media, maybe, but it's all well known inside the party." 

All of this just goes to show something I've written about time and again: The Democratic "machine" is barely worth the name. Here you've got a city chair appointed to the position by default ... and even she, it seems, can't be kept on the reservation. And unless Burn was bullshitting me, Payne was the only person who'd expressed any interest in the city chair at all. That strikes me as a pretty damning indictment -- both of the party and, potentially, the reformers who insist it is resistent to change. 

So if Burn does strip Payne of the committee chair, there's going to be a vacancy there. Who's going to step up? 

If only to get the ball rolling, I nominate Matt Hogue.