The Next Page: The 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club, Pittsburgh's mavericks

The history of the East End's self-described outpost of progressivism


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BEFORE Pete Flaherty was "Nobody's Boy" he was somebody's boy, and the newly formed 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club didn't like it.

It was 1965, and the future two-term Pittsburgh mayor and gubernatorial candidate was running for city council. Flaherty, a political novice, had been handpicked by party bosses to fill a seat being vacated by a man named Gallagher. In those days, ethnic loyalties ran deep and largely determined which candidates would fill certain council seats.

The year-old club backed all of the Democratic Party's endorsed council candidates that year, except Flaherty. Board member Nat Hershey diplomatically told the press that Flaherty's "chief virtues were represented by party reliability and ethnic continuity."

In the end, Flaherty won the council seat -- but received the lowest vote total among party-endorsed candidates in the 14th Ward. The club did back Flaherty a few years later when he dubbed himself "Nobody's Boy" and ran for mayor as a party outsider.

Billed as "the oldest continuously-operating independent Democratic club in the country," the 14th Ward Club, an outpost of political and social progressivism in the city's politically hyperactive East End, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Although all members are Democrats, the club is not officially a part of the Democratic Party, which, throughout Allegheny County, is organized around a series of wards.

At times, the club has fought with -- and overthrown -- party leaders in the name of political reform and better government. And each year, regardless of who the party decides to support in the primary, the club endorses its own slate of Democratic candidates who (usually) share the club's progressive values -- peace, justice, economic equity, civil rights, equal rights, good government and other traditional Democratic ideals.

The club's distinctive yellow slate card is mailed to voters in Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, North Point Breeze, Regent Square and Swisshelm Park. With about 18,000 registered Democrats, the ward is a large voting bloc, containing more Democratic voters than many Pennsylvania counties.

The mailings are financed by membership dues and an annual fundraiser that in recent years has featured guest appearances by political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz and Aasif Mandvi of "The Daily Show."

The club has a long history of maverick behavior. The Flaherty council race is a case in point. Another is the club's 1990 endorsement of Philip J. Berg, an attorney from the Philadelphia suburbs, over sitting Democratic Gov. Bob Casey Sr.

Today, Mr. Berg is best known as an equal-opportunity conspiracy theorist who has filed lawsuits against both George W. Bush, charging him with complicity in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Barack Obama, challenging his eligibility to be president.

So why did the club back Mr. Berg? Probably because he wasn't Casey. Despite Casey's working-class roots and party dedication, his staunch pro-life position was an absolute no-no for most club members. (Two years after the election, the Supreme Court decided Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a major case that upheld almost all the abortion prohibitions Casey signed into law.)

During the 2010 gubernatorial primary, the club co-hosted the race's first debate. All four candidates -- including then-Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and then-state Auditor General and Beechview resident Jack Wagner -- participated.

Despite the candidacies of two local heavy hitters, the club ended up throwing its support behind Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, whom the club had also endorsed in 2004 for U.S. Senate. Mr. Hoeffel lost the primary to Mr. Onorato, finishing fourth in the four-person field.

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THE PRESS FRAMED the club's 1964 formation as a wake-up call to party leaders, with headlines announcing: "New 14th Ward Club Surprises Democrats" and "Democrats Face 14th Ward Threat."

That year, the club coalesced around a state legislative campaign by feminist Molly Yard. It also made an unsuccessful effort to seize control of the 14th Ward by running a slate of candidates for Democratic Committee seats.

Yard, a friend of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the eighth president of the National Organization for Women, had moved to Pittsburgh in 1953. She worked on the campaigns of David L. Lawrence, John F. Kennedy and George McGovern and led an unsuccessful effort to secure a Democratic congressional nomination for local NAACP President Byrd Brown.

In her own race, Yard won the party endorsement over the opposition of party bosses -- thanks in part to the club's assistance -- but she lost the general election.

Despite Yard's loss and the club's failure to take over the ward, the die had been cast for an upheaval within the ranks. In press coverage a year later, club Chairman Eugene Sucov asserted that the club aimed to take the party away "from tired old bosses and give it back to the people," and he called some of the party's endorsed candidates "incompetent, low-caliber hacks."

Helping the club in those early years was a political neophyte who went on to become the nation's "nuclear waste czar."

Ivan Itkin was a New York transplant and a nuclear scientist, working for the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory while completing his doctorate in mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh. His political career began when one of the club's founders, Celeste Behrend, asked him to help find people to run for the county Democratic Committee. Mr. Itkin figured that he needed some time away from his studies at Pitt to clear his head and that reform politics would be a good outlet.

"The new Turks were going to take over. The Lawrence-Barr machine was tired," Mr. Itkin recalled, referring to the political apparatus of Lawrence, mayor from 1946 to 1959, and Joe Barr, mayor from 1959 to 1970.

By 1968, Mr. Itkin made an unsuccessful bid for state Senate with the club's endorsement. Two years later, as club president, he became ward chair by running club-backed candidates for committee slots. (The coup was precipitated by Mayor Flaherty losing the ward by one vote to the Republican mayoral candidate, even though the ward's Democrats had a 2-1 voter registration edge.)

In 1972, Mr. Itkin was elected to the state House, serving until 1998 when he made a principled but doomed run for governor against the much-better-funded incumbent, Republican Tom Ridge.

"I just knew that somebody had to get up to the plate and represent the party," he said.

In 1999, President Bill Clinton appointed Mr. Itkin director of the Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management in the Department of Energy (the "nuclear waste czar," as he put it). With George W. Bush's election, however, the political tide turned and Mr. Itkin's federal posting ended after 15 months.

Today, the Florida resident is president of the GO-GO Democrats -- the Galt Ocean Grassroots Organization Democratic Club, which bills itself as "a group of active citizens on the Galt Ocean Mile in Fort Lauderdale."

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WHILE 14TH WARD Club membership has waxed and waned -- it's been as high as about 400 -- local elections still can generate heat. Last year, club membership jumped nearly 30 percent, thanks to interest stirred by the mayoral race, a three-way contest in city council District 8 and four open seats on the Common Pleas Court bench.

Through the years, party stalwarts pushed back hard against club members. Cyril Wecht, the forensic pathologist, former county coroner and one-time head of the county Democratic Committee, threw some of the sharpest elbows.

During a 1977 tussle, Dr. Wecht lashed out at the club's endorsement of Frank Lucchino for mayor over party pick Tom Foerster, labeling the club a group of "pseudo-sophisticated, quasi-intellectuals who were elected by no one and represent no one" and predicted that those opposed to the party ticket "will be drowned out and left standing in oblivion" after the primary. Democratic Mayor Richard Caliguiri ultimately won election that year, running as an independent.

Club board member Eric Marchbein led his own takeover of the ward in 1990. Since then, two others (Barbara Daly Danko and, currently, Sam Hens-Greco) have done double duty as club board members and ward chair.

Some argue that the club's integration into the main party undermines its role as a counterweight to what remains of the party machine. Molly Yard addressed the issue in 1977.

"Some [club members] view it as a completely 'independent' club with no real ties or responsibility to the Democratic Party, whereas I view the club as made up of Democrats who want to influence the development of the party in the 14th Ward and in Allegheny County, as well as influence the selection of candidates by the party for public office."

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In Tuesday's gubernatorial primary, the club endorsed state Treasurer Rob McCord, who finished third in a four-way race. Squirrel Hill resident Chris Zurawsky (chris.zurawsky@gmail.com) is a past president and current secretary of the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club. For more club history, visit 14thwardclubarchives.blogspot.com.


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