Pittsburgh Democratic leaders talk policy, issues over coffee and doughnuts

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It's something more than a coffee klatch but much less -- its members insist -- than a cabal.

For the past several years, a group of senior Allegheny County Democrats have been getting together semi-regularly, often on Saturday mornings, to thrash out policy and political issues over coffee and doughnuts. Its core members have leadership roles at different layers of government. They include U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and the Democratic leaders of the two legislative chambers, Sen. Jay Costa of Forest Hills and Rep. Frank Dermody of Oakmont.

They're often joined by a shifting cast of other Democrats, such as state Sen. Wayne Fontana of Brookline, and state Reps. Dan Frankel of Squirrel Hill and Ed Gainey of Lincoln-Lemington, and the county party's chairwoman, Nancy Patton Mills.

"We have a nucleus of leaders ... people in elected leadership who all get along with one another. We sort of share a similar vision for the [region]," said Mr. Doyle. "We just thought it would be a good idea to get together from time to time and see what's on each others' radar screen."

"It's hard to describe; it's not a formal group. It certainly is a group of people who have been like-minded," said Mr. Fitzgerald. "Most of it is kind of common issues we work on together. We're kind of good friends as much as anything. We talk about common issues."

The group meets most often at Democratic Party headquarters Downtown. They've also gathered at other spots, including an Eat'n Park in Homestead and a Starbucks in Squirrel Hill.

"Sometimes we'll meet a couple of times in a month, and sometimes we'll go a couple of months without meeting," said Mr. Fitzgerald.

"The last meeting was at the headquarters early in the morning," said Mr. Doyle. "Someone brought coffee and doughnuts. ... We usually convene around something going on. It's not a structured kind of situation, more of an as-needed situation. The last meeting was more than a month ago. We're already talking about a meeting at the end of this month to talk about Alcosan.''

He and other participants cited the Environmental Protection Agency's multibillion-dollar consent decree with Alcosan as an example of the kind of issue that crosses the different governmental jurisdictions represented by the group. The deliberations over transportation legislation that divided the Legislature through much of the Corbett administration was another recurring focus of the group's discussions.

And, of course, there is politics.

This group has been the focus of new attention in the context of the crowded competition for the Democratic nomination for governor. Its members have discussed the possibility of combining their influence and the region's clout by issuing a joint endorsement in a field dominated by candidates from the eastern part of the state. But while acknowledging those discussions, some of the leading Democrats predicted that achieving a consensus could prove difficult.

"That would carry some weight in Western Pennsylvania," said Mr. Doyle. "But the thing is that each of the members of that group is a strong-willed independent figure in their own right."

Mr. Costa has said he is leaning toward supporting U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County but has held off on an individual endorsement out of deference to the group's continuing discussions. Another member said the group is split among three candidates in the May primary.

"I'm sure that will be part of the conversation the next time we meet," said Mr. Peduto.

No groupthink on politics

The fact that they have yet to coalesce behind a gubernatorial candidate is a reminder that this is a group that, for all their common interests, has often divided on politics as well as on policy.

Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Peduto tried for months last year to persuade Mr. Doyle to endorse Mr. Peduto's mayoral candidacy, but the congressman remained publicly neutral in the primary. In the same election cycle, while Mr. Fitzgerald was Mr. Peduto's most prominent ally, they went in different directions in the battle to fill Mr. Peduto's former council seat. The mayor backed his longtime aide, Dan Gilman, while Mr. Fitzgerald and Ms. Mills endorsed one of his opponents, Jeanne Clark.

In a coming legislative primary Mr. Peduto and Mr. Fitzgerald are strongly backing state Rep. Erin Molchany of Mount Washington against another incumbent, Rep. Harry Readshaw of Carrick, while other members of the group are likely to remain neutral in the looming intra-party battle in the city's southern neighborhoods and suburbs.

In a party that prizes diversity, this informal group is largely a middle-aged white guys club.

"It does concern me to a certain extent," Mr. Peduto acknowledged. "It does speak to the bigger issue and it's also why some of us think it's important to get behind Molchany.

"This group's job needs to be to help pull up women and minority candidates.''

Mr. Fitzgerald also acknowledged the leaders' lack of diversity, but said that fact is partially a function of who ended up in the leadership positions that dominate the group.

"I understand; I get it," he said. "We elected a white male county executive, a white male mayor, a white male congressman; I get that. That's why we want to make sure that people are coming up through the party. It isn't just about diversity. It's also about people who want to move the region."

Mr. Doyle said the impetus for the group came in 2011, as Mr. Fitzgerald's election as county executive followed Mr. Costa's and Mr. Dermody's selection the previous year as the Democratic leaders of the state Senate and House.

"Rich and I were talking one day about how we have a nucleus of leaders ... people in elected leadership who all get along with one another," he said. "It is new and it is different. From my perspective, it's sort of a nice thing to have. For the longest time the stars just didn't align. Recently, what's changed all that is the stars have aligned for Allegheny County in terms of having key people in key positions."

But, the veteran congressman resisted the suggestion that the informal meetings were evidence of a latter-day version of backroom politics.

"Those old days are gone where the machine picks candidates," Mr. Doyle said. "Every one of those people we're talking about has their own campaign organization, their own ability to raise money ... there is no political boss in Allegheny County.

"I like being part of a team that wants to work together and move forward," he added. "[But] there's going to be times when we're going to be on different pages."

"There's so much leadership from one side of the aisle in Western Pennsylvania," said Mr. Peduto. "If we didn't have these meetings, if we weren't taking advantage of helping each other, we would have lost an opportunity.''

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

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