By Jessica Semler
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
To say that it has been a wild week in Pittsburgh politics would be the understatement of the century.
The Allegheny County Democratic Committee (ACDC) held its endorsement meeting on Sunday 2/16, with disappointing results.
- In every race that the ACDC could endorse a man instead of a woman, they did.
- The only exception to this was their endorsement for House District 36. Demonstrated Trump supporter Heather Kass won handily over disability rights advocate Jessica Benham.
- City Councillor Anthony Coghill was whipping votes for Kass, even after renouncing his endorsement of her.
- The only incumbent to not receive the endorsement was Rep. Summer Lee, the first black woman to hold office on this level from our region.
- A committeeman with a MAGA hat was in attendance.
The backlash from these results was hard and swift. Within 48 hours, news outlets all over the country were talking about it; Apple News, Newsweek, LGBTQ Nation, Fox News! Ironically, this was probably the best thing that could have happened for Summer and Jessica; the sympathetic coverage they have both received is a political campaign’s dream (and a nightmare for the ACDC), and they can keep running their campaigns on the platforms that they want, without needing to tow the party line.
That being said, each candidate paid $2,500 to be considered for the ACDC endorsement. That money will now be used to fund their opponents’ campaigns. Now is a good time to throw these badass women some change if you’re so inclined. We need their voices in the legislature, and from these recent shenanigans, it is clear that they’ve scared the hell out of the old guard.
By midweek, in the aftermath of the endorsement, I thought I’d switch gears to write about the Presidential Primary Debate in Nevada. This was going to be the first debate with Mike Bloomberg, and honestly, the idea of watching the other candidates take to him like a pack of hyenas was making me dizzy with glee.
But suddenly, ACDC Chair Eileen Kelly and Anthony Coghill (Pittsburgh City Councilman (District 4) / ACDC Chair, City Ward 19 in Beechview) announced on Wednesday morning that they would be holding a press conference that afternoon. What followed was an incredibly bizarre political stunt, the only potential benefactors being communications professionals who’ve hit the jackpot in terms of a case study on what NOT to do in a public image crisis.
Kelly and Coghill wouldn’t begin until County Councilwoman Bethany Hallam left the room, an odd demand since 1) it was a press conference and 2) Bethany wasn’t the only non-press person there. After a few minutes, it became clear why they didn’t want her there.
There were no revelations to be had. Coghill and Kelly defended the ACDC Endorsement, calling it “democracy in its most pure form.” As Coghill droned on, exalting the process, I was confused as to how this merited a press conference. Old white man says process that disenfranchises outsiders and minorities is fair: FILM AT 11.
Eileen’s comments were just as non-press conference worthy. But what she lacked in substance, she made up for in offensiveness. Eileen wondered aloud why folks hadn’t forgiven Kass for her comments, and attempted to drag Councilwoman Hallam into a totally batshit-crazy false equivalence: “For some reason, no one wants to forgive her [Kass]… We have Bethany Hallam who has her own background, she comes out and says she’s sorry, she’s forgiven.”
The fact that this was part of her prepared remarks, and not just an in-the-moment mistake, shows how absolutely broken Eileen’s political instincts and moral compass are. She knew she was coming for Bethany, and didn’t want her to be in the room when she said what she was planning to say. She compared Bethany, a recovering addict, to Heather, who said all addicts should die.
I met with Hallam the next day to catch up on all of this. Full disclosure: I am friends with Hallam, but let’s be honest, you don’t have to be friends with someone to see how wrong this is.
“I’m not going to ask for forgiveness for struggling with addiction for 10 years. I’ve proven through my words and my actions that I’m worthy of support and their votes,” Hallam says. “It is not the job of someone suffering from addiction to ask for forgiveness from the general public. So for Eileen to say ‘we’ve forgiven Bethany,’ well I never asked for it, and I don’t want it. I’ve earned the right to a seat at the table. I worked my ass off, I spoke to regular folks, and that is why I’m here.”
Which brought us back briefly to Kass. Heather hasn’t apologized in any meaningful way. We aren’t talking about a one-off angry Facebook post about Obamacare. She had multiple posts praising Trump, speaking ill of opioid addicts, attacking environmental activism, and mocking LGBT identities. Coghill would go on to remark that folks just need to leave Kass alone.
We’ve all had bad takes and opinions; that’s part of being human, we learn and do better. But when called out like Heather Kass was, a politician who is asking for support and votes from people she’s denigrated, there needs to be a genuine analysis of what was said and why it was hurtful. Hallam would like to know, “what has she done to learn, to grow, to better the communities she’s harmed?” We still don’t have an answer.
The fallout from the press conference continues. Many prominent elected officials in the region have called for Eileen Kelly’s resignation, but if you ask Councilwoman Hallam, who has more reason than anyone right now to be upset with Kelly, that is not the answer to ACDC’s problems. “Eileen is a symptom of the larger problem. To act like removing her solves these problems is the same as saying we’re all fine if we remove Trump. It’s just not true.”
The ACDC is funded by candidates seeking endorsements or to stay in the good graces of the group. State Rep candidates pay $2,500 to apply for the endorsement. Countywide judicial candidates pay $10,000. At many wards a candidate would have to pay $50 or $100 to be allowed to give a speech at a committee meeting. “Some candidates might have that money, but I’d rather take that and give it to another Democrat and help flip a seat. What are they (ACDC) doing to uplift the Democratic Party?” Asked Bethany.
Contrary to what Coghill and Kelly indicated on Wednesday, most committee seats are filled not by folks who’ve been elected, but appointed by their ward chair with the county chair’s blessing. The list of committee members isn’t easily accessible. Even for elected officials, the elusive committee list is hard to come by. You shouldn’t need a Cloak of Truth, multiple maps, and a decoder ring to see who represents you on the Democratic committee.
“Purest form of democracy” my ass.
In the past, gatekeeping was consistently done to uphold incumbents, with some noticeable exceptions: County Controller Chelsa Wagner in (2015), City Councilwoman Deb Gross (2019) and of course most recently, State Representative Summer Lee (2020). Notice a pattern here? The Democratic establishment has a problem with strong, outspoken, progressive women.
Speaking of rampant sexism, while it’s clear that Kelly is an utterly ineffective chair, it would be a mistake to have her shoulder this failure on her own. While she has her own fraught history handling racism, she wasn’t off base when she said it was “unbelievable” to her that Rich Fitzgerald would support Chris Roland over an African American incumbent. Coghill disavowed Eileen’s criticism of the County Executive post-press conference. But how can he distance himself from Eileen for naming this truth about Fitzgerald, one of the architects and enforcers of this broken system? While Fitz was whipping votes for Roland, Coghill was doing the same for Kass. They should be held accountable for their role in this as well. One of my good friends said in regard to this, “It’s past time we stop stacking the deck against new voices and new perspectives.”
Many everyday Dems weren’t aware of ACDC before this debacle, and what a depressing lesson in Local Politics 101, right? “Racism, pay-to-play deals, cronyism- it’s not the Democratic Party that I signed up for,” said Hallam. And yet, she has a very compelling argument for why doing away with ACDC isn’t the answer. To that end, hallam has been collecting signatures for over a year now to call for a full committee meeting, which hasn’t happened in years. “It shouldn’t be up to me on how we reform, but I want to help get us into the same room to discuss.” She said, “Bylaws need to be addressed. That could include setting more appropriate candidate fees, amending or abolishing the endorsement altogether, creating a more transparent process.”
Some ACDC Committee wards are doing exactly what they were formed to do: be representatives and liaisons of their communities. A few notable committees have been doing some serious work. Ross Township now holds 8 of 9 commissioner seats. Thanks to the work of the Franklin Park Democratic Committee, three anti-fracking Democrats were elected this year. New County Councillor Tom Duerr defeated an incumbent because of the organization of the committee folks in Mount Lebanon and Bethel Park.
Democratic committees are supposed to be the boots-on-the-ground for elections. The places mentioned above and others including McCandless, Fox Chapel, and the North Allegheny School Board all saw big wins this past cycle. We have examples of places that were historically Republican strongholds that have full, active Democratic Committees and we see what happens – we flip red seats.
I confessed to Councilwoman Hallam that when I ran for office, I didn’t reach out to my committee. I felt disillusioned after what I’d seen, but I won on my own. “Great, but wouldn’t it have been nice if you’d had a whole committee behind you?”