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Ballot challenges filed in city council, district judge races

The deadline for challenging election petitions for the spring primary expired Tuesday, though most Pittsburghers can be forgiven for not noticing. None of the three Democrats running for mayor — incumbent Bill Peduto, Councilwoman Darlene Harris and minister John Welch — faces legal challenges to stay on the May 16 ballot.

But changes are afoot in the hotly contested race for City Council District 4, where one candidate said he was withdrawing. And a potentially bitter race is forming over a magisterial district judge seat, where the incumbent says a rival’s criminal record bars him from holding the office.

Since election petitions were filed last week, political foes have been scouring rivals’ filings for invalid signatures and other problems. First-time candidate Gary McBurney is dropping out of the District 4 race in the face of two such challenges.

Council candidates need 100 signatures to appear on the ballot: Mr. McBurney had 112, but resident Raymond Ackerman was challenging 67 signers, often for not being properly registered as Democrats in the district.

Another resident, Jennifer Grab, filed similar objections to Mr. McBurney’s petitions on behalf of candidate Ashleigh Deemer, chief of staff for outgoing District 4 incumbent Natalia Rudiak.

Mr. McBurney, who owns a vape shop on the South Side, said he was dropping out and backing rival Anthony Coghill. Mr. Coghill “came down to the shop the other day and talked to me,” he said. While “I had to think for awhile” about dropping out, “I’m going to support Anthony Coghill.”

Mr. Coghill, as well as Ms. Grab, also is challenging another candidate, Beechview resident Mark Johnson. In his legal challenge, Mr. Coghill says 94 of Mr. Johnson’s 173 signatures were invalid, frequently because the signers did not live in District 4, which includes South Hills neighborhoods including Beechview, Brookline, Carrick and Overbrook. Ms. Grab’s challenge has a slightly different accounting, 87 signatures.

“It’s certainly possible that some [signers] are outside the district,” said Mr. Johnson. Voters, he said, “get excited and may not realize what district they are in.”

Still, he said, “I’m hopeful that we did the hard work needed to move forward.”

“We scoured the petitions pretty closely,” Mr. Coghill said. “And I think we’ll prove to be right.”

Jacob Redfern, the campaign manager for Ms. Deemer, confirmed her campaign was supporting Ms. Grab’s efforts to remove the two men. Mr. Redfern said a two-person race with Mr. Coghill “will present a very stark contrast to voters.”

Another tempest is brewing in a race for the Magisterial District Judge in district 05-2-27, which includes the South Side and portions of Oakland. Incumbent Eugene Ricciardi, a former city council member, is challenging the eligibility of his rival, Oakland resident Jeffrey Woodard.

Mr. Ricciardi’s legal filing notes that Mr. Woodard had a 1992 conviction in Erie County for impersonating a public servant. That offense was among the reasons Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala successfully asked the court to remove Mr. Woodard as a constable in 2005.

Court rulings have held that politicians can be removed if they’ve committed a crime that “involves a charge of falsehood and affect[s] the public administration of justice.” Citing that precedent, Mr. Ricciardi’s filing argues that “Mr. Woodard’s conviction … disqualifies him from holding the office.”

Mr. Woodard unsuccessfully appealed the 1992 conviction, which involved harassing phone calls to an Erie household by someone identifying himself as a policeman. Mr. Woodard said the caller “was not me. I never met [the victims].” While he acknowledged being removed as a constable, he said he had “no felony offenses whatsoever.”

Mr. Woodard said voters should “look at the whole person,” which in his case included teaching college-level courses and garnering multiple degrees.

District judges handle summary offenses, landlord-tenant disputes and minor civil cases, and hold preliminary hearings in criminal cases. By law, Mr. Zappala cannot remove a candidate from the ballot, and a spokesman for Mr. Zappala declined to say whether the office would seek to remove Mr. Woodard if he won.

But Philadelphia election attorney Adam Bonin said that after being elected, an official could be removed for “any crimes that involved falsehood,” including impersonation. If Mr. Woodard had been removed once before, he added, “There’s no reason to believe the result would be any different this time.”

The ballot challenges are to be heard March 22 by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James.

Chris Potter: cpotter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.