In the past Pittsburgh incumbent city council members have won the Democratic Party endorsements even while under indictment. So when four incumbents lose the endorsement battle, it turns heads.
Three of the four, Bruce Kraus, Patrick Dowd and Council President Darlene Harris have battled against various parts of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl’s agenda. The fourth, Rev. Ricky Burgess, a Ravenstahl supporter, narrowly lost to challenger Phyllis Copeland-Mitchell.
Additionally, councilman Doug Shields, who opted not to battle the son of his former boss and late Mayor Bob O’Connor in a District 5 re-election bid, lost the endorsement for a district justice seat to Hugh McGough. Corey O’Connor easily won the council endorsement.
Even though Ravenstahl said he supports Burgess over the endorsed Copeland–Mitchell, and the endorsed challengers to Dowd, Kraus and Harris, it does not mean committee members are doing his bidding.
In District 3, Kraus lost to Jeff Koch, who held the seat on an interim basis prior to Kraus’ win two years ago. Dowd lost in District 7 to Anthony Ceoffee, who like the mayor is the son of a sitting district justice.
Only Harris, who occupies the seat Ravenstahl held before becoming mayor, may be feeling direct pressure. Even so, city Democratic Party Chair Ed Gainey said it’s a district-specific battle she lost 50-25 to Public Works Department employee Vincent Pallus.
“These are about neighborhood issues, and the committee members are speaking about who they want to represent them,” Gainey said. “I think most committee people want to see party unity and strength going into the general election.”
Gainey said he thought the party endorsement at the city level doesn’t carry the clout it did 40 years ago, it still means added support for the winning candidate, even when endorsement losers—especially incumbents—rarely drop out of the race.
“When the endorsed candidate wins, it makes it even more meaningful,” he said.
At the county level, Allegheny County Council President Rich Fitzgerald defeated County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty by less than one percent of the vote. Flaherty called the 15 vote margin “a virtual tie” and will stay in the race.
Valerie McDonald Roberts said she too is staying in the race for Flaherty’s soon to be vacant post despite coming in 344 votes behind winner Chelsa Wagner in a three-way contest. Former Clerk of Courts George Matta finished second, 231 votes ahead of Roberts 411 votes.
“It’s full steam ahead. I filed petitions with more than 1,500 names yesterday to get on the ballot, and will file more,” she said. “Those 411 votes were significant. It showed people want a change. They’re looking at the person, the caliber and track record. I’m telling them their support and confidence will not be in vain.”
A week prior to the endorsement vote, Roberts stirred up controversy with a letter to all committee members reminding them Matta cost the county more than $400,000 after being sued for making racial remarks to an employee while serving as clerk of courts.
County and State Democratic Chair Jim Burn said he thought the letter was “disgraceful.”
“It was a shot below the belt and it gave artillery to the Republican Party,” he said.
On the whole though, he said, the endorsement meeting was very positive with about a 76 percent turnout.
“It shows the party is very engaged in these races. I think the anti-incumbent vote in city council races is a reflection of the gridlock, especially on the pension funding issue,” he said. “I support the endorsed candidates, but I urge all, if they stay in the race to focus on issues, not personalities.”
The Primary Election is scheduled for May 17.
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