Allegheny County has a new Democratic Party

The old 'machine' is gone, replaced by a more diverse and open party leadership

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Ever since Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto pulled out of the primary race with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, many have attributed the fact that Mayor Ravenstahl has no primary opposition to the local Democratic Committee instead of Mr. Ravenstahl's proven popularity. Several radio talk-show hosts and news and public affairs programs have voiced concern that a small group of the city's population is deciding the outcomes of our elections. And, of course, there are cries that "the Democratic machine" is back, controlling events in local politics. Nothing could be further from the truth.


Jim Burn chairs the Allegheny County Democratic Committee (www.alleghenydemocrats.com).


A close examination of the facts will help shed light on an emerging reality here in Allegheny County. We are attempting to reorganize the Democratic Committee in such a way that committee members will have the tools, training and technology to better engage voters on the issues and to become more involved with their communities. Committee members must be more than a face people see only twice a year on Election Day if the party is to strengthen its credibility.

With a leadership change 10 months ago, the party set about to work directly with many of the local municipal committees, which themselves are bringing in new leadership. The party now has young, capable leaders actively energizing local committees in places like Ross, Mt. Lebanon and several of the city wards, among others.

Party leaders have been filling vacant committee slots in their communities, and the party was proactive in the November elections. New members did much to support the successful candidacies of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, and we wish to build on that momentum. It is many of these new faces that Mr. Peduto and other prospective office holders now must court to gain the party endorsement.

The purpose of the Democratic Committee's endorsement process is to give the most active, faithful and engaged Democrats a vehicle to meet with candidates and vote for their favorites. But the outcome of the process does not guarantee a primary or general-election win for those who gain the committee's approval.

Bill Peduto won his first City Council election after defeating a party-endorsed candidate in the Democratic primary. This time, in running for mayor, he saw the potential added value in campaigning with the party's endorsement and dropped out after failing to win it. Perhaps he recognized the positive changes our committee is making.

Another reflection of respect for the committee's endorsement process was evident in the city controller's race. Controller Tony Pecora, after losing the endorsement by one vote to Prothonotary Michael Lamb, went to court seeking to have the result overturned. He lost the case and Mr. Lamb was endorsed, but he clearly recognized the value to voters of being identified with the new Democratic Party.

Among its other new initiatives, the Democratic Committee is reaching out to a wider array of constituencies. For years, the party leadership had taken its knocks for not bringing women and minorities into the fold. We now are holding constituency forums seeking members and input from women, African Americans, veterans, young people, gays and lesbians and seniors.

Observers may say they have not seen significant differences in the party so far. They must understand that the process we are implementing and the agenda for change we are pursuing will take time. Nothing like this has been done in recent memory.

We are confident, however, that the Democratic Party of Allegheny County will continue its rebirth, growth and progression into the 21st century as an organization that speaks for all the needs, concerns and values of those who carry the Democratic banner.


Correction/Clarification: (Published May 10, 2007) This opinion article by Allegheny County Democratic Chair Jim Burn as originally published May 9, 2007 named the wrong person as the Democratic Party-endorsed candidate for City Controller in the May 15 primary. The endorsed candidate is the current county prothonotary, Michael Lamb.


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