When she's in a bad mood, Oakland resident Janet Markowitz calls her party leaders "Demorats." While they "are philosophically more congruent with my thinking," she says, "people are tired of these political hacks."
She may be right, judging by complaints from those who, like Markowitz, ran for party committee slots in the May 16 primary.
Markowitz's rival, incumbent Eileen Kelly, was at their Oakland polling place distributing slate cards ... those handy guides that tell voters which candidates are endorsed by party elders. When the cards were first printed, they included a blank space for the offices of "committee male member" and "committee female member." Kelly, however, had inserted her own name into the latter slot ... in a font designed to match that of the slate card. Perhaps as a result, she beat Markowitz by 6 votes.
"If you're the incumbent, you can print your name on the card as long as you pay for it," says Kelly. And Kelly had been previously appointed to the seat by former city controller Tom Flaherty, who was then her boss and chair of the Democratic county committee. While "some candidates had their names handwritten," Kelly says, "I thought it would be more professional" to have her name printed separately. "My daughter's a graphic designer," she adds.
Indeed, Kelly appears not to have broken any party rules, though there are few to break. Neighborhood committee slots are up for grabs every four years, and incumbents have been allowed to pencil themselves into the slate cards. (Because of the number of committee races, party officials say, printing cards with all the names would be too expensive.) "I've heard some complaints, but there's no rule against what was done," says Amber Steinmetz, director of operations for the party's county committee. "We've been printing slate cards [with blanks] for years."
The practice rarely attracts attention, let alone controversy. Elected in male/female pairs, district committeepeople are the party's foot soldiers. They endorse candidates and support party higher-ups, while communicating between the party and the neighborhoods. On Election Day, they often distribute slate cards.
It's not glamorous work, but in this year's anti-incumbent atmosphere, challengers cropped up around the city. There were, for example, 50 candidates affiliated with Progress Pittsburgh, a grassroots group seeking to shake up the political order. Of those candidates, 33 were in contested races. Two-thirds of those lost, and slate cards may be part of the reason.
"There are older people who vote the slate card," says Heather Sage, who ran unsuccessfully for a committee slot in Lawrenceville. "If they see the name and recognize it, that's all they need."
According to Jonathan Robison, an attorney active in Democratic politics, "There's nothing in the rules about endorsing district committeepeople at all." Robison concludes that the race shouldn't appear on the slate card ... even blank. "Process is process," he says.
"The slate card says 'Democratic Primary Committee endorsed candidates' on top," agrees Ben Woods, the county party's vice-chair. "But these candidates weren't endorsed by committee," since the committee doesn't endorse anyone.
Allowing incumbents to pencil in their names anyway, say critics, merely protects the old guard. Says Robison: "There was this perception in the party: 'All these kids are running! Some of them aren't even 60 yet!'"
"Some people were afraid of this effort," agrees Andrea Boykowicz, a Progress Pittsburgh activist who won a committee slot. But "the effort is really pretty innocent: We just think it's good to get some new blood."
How much difference do slate cards make? "If you're sophisticated ... scan it and Photoshop it so it looks good ... you could get 10 or 15 percent more votes," says Khari Mosley, a North Side ward chair.
Indeed, printing slate cards with blank spaces can invite confusion and mistrust. In Lawrenceville, the county sheriff's department confiscated slate cards in a race between an incumbent committeeman, Arthur Nese, and a challenger, Tony Ceoffe. After receiving complaints on Primary Day, deputies seized cards with Ceoffe's name early that morning. ("That's over and done with," says Ceoffe, who beat Nese handily. "It was contentious, and I'd rather not get into it.")
"There are glitches," confesses state Sen. Jay Costa, who chaired the party's campaign committee. "This is how we've done it before ... [but] in hindsight, we probably should have kept [committee races] off the slate card. If the perception is that we aren't letting people get involved, then shame on us."
That's one sentiment Janice Markowitz shares with party leaders. She's urging other frustrated candidates to e-mail her at Kanicki777@yahoo.com "so we can think about getting an attorney involved, and bringing out those that took an unfair advantage. I'm tired of this political machine."