Years ago, losing the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement would have all but sunk a candidate's campaign for city council. These days, however, it may not be such a bad omen.
"What does the endorsement mean?" Don Friedman, a local political consultant, asks. "Very little."
On March 6, all four Pittsburgh City Council incumbents seeking re-election failed to win the Democratic Party's support. Council President Darlene Harris lost to Vince Pallus in District 1, 50-to-29, with Bobby Wilson taking three votes. In District 3, Jeff Koch beat Bruce Kraus 38-to-33. And in Districts 7 and 9, Patrick Dowd and Rev. Ricky Burgess were both bested for the endorsement, losing to their challengers 53-to-32 and 43-to-38, respectively.
But recent history suggests there's little reason for the incumbents to panic. Neither Dowd nor Kraus gained the endorsement in 2007, when they were running as challengers. (Burgess initially lost the endorsement that year, but won a rematch after the endorsed candidate, Rachel Cooper, dropped out.) In 2009, city councilors Natalia Rudiak and Daniel Lavelle also lost the endorsement battle, but won the Democratic primary regardless.
Leading up to this year's Democratic endorsement, much was made of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's influence in three of the council races. Harris, Kraus and Dowd have all butted heads with Ravenstahl, perhaps most prominently by thwarting his plan to boost the ailing pension fund by leasing city parking garages.
Nowhere does that seem more obvious than in District 1.
Ousting Harris would be a big win for Ravenstahl. She won the council presidency by joining with a faction of mayoral critics. She also holds the council seat he once occupied.
There's little secret about where the mayor's sympathies lie. In February, mayoral spokesperson Joanna Doven seemed to campaign on Pallus' behalf via her personal Facebook page. "Are you a city resident that is disgusted with the actions of some Council Members?" Doven wrote. "Make sure you fan Vince Pallus for Pittsburgh City Council." Doven also made the city's official Facebook page a Pallus fan -- a mistake, she explained after controversy ensued.
Ravenstahl's ties to Pallus go deeper. The two are high school friends, and Pallus' campaign outreach is being handled by Zachary Mazefsky -- the twin brother of Ravenstahl's policy director, Gabe Mazefsky. Then there's Kevin Quigley, a public-works employee and mayoral ally who chairs the city's 27th Ward Democratic Committee. Quigley pushed hard for Pallus to secure the Democratic endorsement.
Pallus' opponents say it just shows he was handpicked by the mayor.
"There's no secret about that," Harris says.
"It's clear to me," agrees Wilson.
"I'm definitely not the mayor's pick," Pallus counters. "[Running for council] was my choice."
Things like the Facebook controversy, Pallus says, "I have no control over." As for Mazefsky and Quigley, "It's no secret that I know a lot of these people," says Pallus. "I've known Kevin Quigley my whole life."
Asked whether the perception that he is the mayor's pick will help or hurt his campaign, Pallus says, "You can take it either way." Ravenstahl's critics will use it as ammunition against him, he says, though the perception will boost his campaign among mayoral supporters.
But no matter what people think, Pallus says, "I'm running as an individual."