By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
Members of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee overwhelmingly voted to endorse a candidate for the April 28 Primary Sunday who has has used social media to belittle trans people, decry the Affordable Care Act, mocked common-sense gun legislation, called people on public assistance “lazy no good idiots,” said that drug addicts need to “OD” so there is “less shit in the world,” and openly supported Donald Trump.
The Pittsburgh Current first reported about controversial posts from South Hills Candidate Heather Kass in mid-January, a day after she paid her $2,500 fee to compete for the committee’s endorsement. Kass jumped in the race a short time after registered Democratic state Rep. Harry Readshaw announced he was retiring. Kass was also supported at that time by Readshaw and South Hills City Councilor Anthony Coghill.
The other candidate seeking the endorsement Sunday was progressive Democratic candidate and disability-rights activist Jessica Benham, who announced last fall that she was challenging Readshaw for the seat. But despite her advocacy background and established campaign, Democratic Committee members in House District 36 voted to endorse Kass and her checkered social-media past, 49-19.
When contacted Wednesday night, Benham told the Pittsburgh Current she fully intends to continue her campaign, which will now be more important than ever.
“As we’ve seen in past elections, the county Democratic Committee endorsement doesn’t always represent the views of the electorate,” Benham says. “We’ve witnessed that in the past few election cycles. Today’s result is not at all reflective of my ability to win this primary.”
“What’s not acceptable, is that today the ACDC voted to endorse a Trump supporter in a district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by 17 points. To me, that means the party today voted to support Donald Trump and that makes me incredibly disappointed in the party.”
Although being a Trump supporter is enough to anger most Dems, the party’s endorsement of Kass is even more personal to Benham. Benham, a bisexual, is a member of the LGBTQ community. Autistic herself, Benham works as an advocate for people living with Autism.
“I do take it personally as someone with a preexisting condition that the endorsement goes to someone who calls themselves a Democrat and rails against the Affordable Care Act, something that allows me to have health insurance,” Benham says. “She knocks people who aren’t straight, mocks people who believe in common-sense gun laws and supports Donald Trump. So, yes, I take what happened today very personally.”
“I am disappointed in what the Allegheny County Democratic Party has become.”
The county party in the past has come under fire for not changing along with the ideals of the electorate. That mostly comes from an archaic political machine that is controlled ward by ward by long-time factions whose main goal has been voting in their best political interests. That has resulted more in recent years with unendorsed candidates getting elected.
In the last two or three election cycles endorsed candidates, usually incumbents, have found themselves unemployed after election day. Two years ago, Democrats Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato ousted two long-time incumbents from the state house. Last year, Democrat Bethany Hallam beat a 20-year incumbent to win the at-large seat on Allegheny County Council.
Hallam has been a critic of the party and the endorsement system for some time, but more so since she ran for office last year. Sunday’s results didn’t make Hallam any happier with the state of things. In fact Hallam got into a heated conversation with Coghill after she heard that he was making calls supporting Kass after he told the Current in January that her comments forced him to pull his endorsement.
“I confronted him about it,” Hallam said Sunday evening. “He told me it’s about stopping Jessica’s momentum, not about backing Heather Kass. I’m really pissed about this whole situation.”
This concerned another well-known party member familiar with the situation, who asked for anonymity.
“The idea is that if Kass can pull at least some party support from Benham then Coghiil’s candidate can possibly sneak in,” the source said. “But it’s odd that [Coghill] says he won’t support Heather Kass but he’ll use her for his own political agenda. And apparently that agenda is sending a 60-year-old white man to Harrisburg to stop a young, progressive woman candidate.”
Says Hallam: “If you look at the comments that Heather Kass made, they weren’t 25 years ago, they’re recent. She says things like this, supports Trump and she blows Jess out of the water? We have candidates outwardly spewing anti-Democratic Party values getting the endorsement. [Kass] thinks gender identity is a joke, thinks people with substance abuse issues deserve to die and she gets the endorsement. We should all be taking this personally. What the fuck is going on here?”
Hallam says the entire process Sunday took a step backwards for the party. Two years ago, when the committee didn’t endorse Summer Lee and others, the reasoning was a desire to back incumbents. However, despite being an incumbent this year, Lee, the only black woman representative from this region, was defeated for the endorsement by Christopher Roland, a political newcomer backed by some labor groups and Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
2nd time running. Won 1st time w/68%, increased voter turnout, supported new dems, voted more "dem" than they do
Now even as the incumbent, the @AlleghenyDems have refused again to endorse the only Black woman to EVER be elected from this region. Seat at the table where?
— Summer Lee (@SummerForPA) February 16, 2020
“It’s disgusting,” Hallam says. “They’re all about backing incumbents until it’s time to support an outspoken woman. Summer told me today. and it’s true, that if she had Chris Roland’s resume she would have been laughed out of the room. We need someone like her in office and in leadership.”
“Today was a bad look for the Democratic Party. When we talk about the party endorsement not being relevant, these are the reasons why. I’d love to hear from party leadership how they feel about Heather Kass being their endorsed candidate.”
The Current reached out to ACDC Chair Eileen Kelly and executive director Elizabeth Casertano for comment but did not hear back Sunday. Also not returning calls for comment were Heather Kass and Anthony Coghill. We will update this story as new information becomes available.