Pittsburgh Democrats assemble Sunday to endorse May primary candidates

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Democratic Party activists will gather Sunday for the closely watched, and often expensive, ritual of anointing their choices for the May primary elections.

Suspense was drained from the marquee contest on the party ballot when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl declined to seek re-election. That left city Controller Michael Lamb as the only candidate for the endorsement by the party's elected committee members.

Though a leading contender for the Democratic nomination in the primary, city Councilman Bill Peduto made a tactical decision not to enter the preliminary party competition. By the time Mr. Ravenstahl made his surprise decision, the filing deadline for the endorsements had passed, locking out the lengthening line of mayoral contenders who have emerged since.

But the committee men and women, elected or appointed from each of the county's voting districts, still will vote on contested races for Common Pleas Court and city and county councils.

As is so often the case in American politics, this exercise in democracy is also an exercise in writing checks. The party assesses a sliding scale of fees for candidates who wish to be listed on the ballot. His now uncontested bid for the endorsement cost Mr. Lamb $7,000. The 15 contenders for spots on the bench each forked over $3,500 to be listed on the ballot. For city council, it was $2,000 and county council, $1,000.

Those fees have all been boosted since the last local endorsement cycles. In 2009, the last time the mayor's office was on the ballot, the assessment was $3,500. Would-be judges paid $2,500 the last time around.

Nancy Patton Mills, the county chairwoman, said the fees are used to support party operations in support of the winning candidates, including the costs of headquarters, staff, and general election activity.

"We're doing a lot for candidates and a lot more than we've done before," she said, citing upgrades to the party's digital infrastructure and voter outreach efforts.

At a recent meeting of the 19th Ward's committee, in the city's South Hills, Pete Wagner, the ward chairman, questioned the amounts assessed by the county organization and was particularly critical of the separate speaking fees demanded of candidates by many of the local party committees across the county for candidates appearing before their local gatherings.

"I had no complaints from anyone," Ms. Mills said of the fee increases at the county level. But she acknowledged the grumbling about some of the local groups' assessments.

"It's a very expensive game," said one judicial candidate, who estimated that the court hopefuls could easily incur $4,000 or $5,000 in local speaking fees beyond the $3,500 paid to the county.

Many ward and community Democratic organizations, including larger ones such as Wagner's 19th Ward and Squirrel Hill's 14th Ward, charge nothing for candidates who wish to speak to their members. Others, such as the Chartiers Valley organization and the combined North Side wards in the city, demand $100 or more for a brief appearance.

The candidates are required to report the spending on their expense reports, and the local organizations are similarly required to account for the receipts. Some officials defend the fees as appropriate to defray costs such as meeting room rentals and other election expenses. Others see them as excessive.

"They're making it harder and harder for middle-class candidates," said the court hopeful, who did not want to be identified for fear of alienating committee voters.

In the months preceding the endorsement, the judicial candidates spend their evenings bouncing from meeting to meeting, as many as a half dozen a day, leaving checks behind at many of their stops.

"One weekend I realized I've spent $1,200 just this weekend; it's a bit of a shock," said the judicial candidate. "They deplete your resources before you even have a chance to approach the public ... I think it's appalling."

What they get for their investment is a matter of perennial debate. Generations ago, the Democratic endorsement was tantamount to election in a machine-controlled city and county. Those days are gone, but the committee imprimatur is still coveted, though more in some races than others. The conventional wisdom is that the endorsement is welcome but hardly determinative in higher profile races, such as mayor, where voters have access to plenty of information on the candidates. But it's viewed as more decisive in low visibility races such as Common Pleas Court.

The track record of local court candidates endorsed by the Democratic organization remains fairly strong. For other races, it's a mixed bag. In 2011, all of the incumbent city council members running for re-election were rebuffed by the committee, but each still managed to win re-election. In the 2001 mayoral primary, by contrast, Tom Murphy's narrow endorsement win over Bob O'Connor was a crucial building block of his eventual re-nomination by fewer than 700 votes.

With this year's mayor's race moot in Sunday's balloting, the focus will be on the court races and several contested council contests. Fifteen candidates are vying for the party backing for four openings on Common Pleas Court. There are two contested city council races. In District 6, councilman R. Daniel Lavelle is defending his seat against former Councilwoman Tonya Payne. Dok Harris, the former mayoral candidate, also is running for that seat in the primary, but is not seeking the endorsement.

The seat that Mr. Peduto is relinquishing to run for mayor is the focus of a three-way contest among Jeanne Clark, Dan Gilman and Sam Hens-Greco.

For county council, there are contests for the endorsement in the 9th District, where incumbent Bob Macey is being challenged by Arlene Jabbour, and in the open 3rd District, where Mary Gibson faces Shawn Flaherty.

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Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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