Want to get into a time machine? Spend some time around local Democratic committee politics.
One of the oldest tricks in the book this time of year -- when establishment Dems are pleading for the committee's endorsement before the primary -- is to ask candidates for uncompromising fealty. It goes like this: candidates stand before a room of committeepeople (usually sitting on folding chairs in a school gym, or an Elks Lodge) and tells them how much the party means to them. Inevitably a committeeperson says "if that's the case, then will you promise to drop out of the race if we don't endorse you?"
Back in the day -- and we're talking decades ago -- the committee's endorsement in a city packed with straight-lever Democratic voters could nearly guarantee you a win. So back then the answer to this question would be easy: Yes, because you weren't going to win without the endorsement anyway.
It ain't that way anymore. Hasn't been for a long time.
Beloved Pittsburgh mayors Richard Caliguiri and Sophie Masloff were both elected without the committee's nod -- former controller Tom Flaherty had it in the 1989 mayor's race and placed fifth. Tom Murphy twice got the nod over Bob O'Connor in 1997 and 2001 (there are still many, many city employees in the committee ranks) and just barely got past the then councilman the second time.
Yet -- maybe it's the sugar high from the cookies and coffee served at these things -- committee people persist with the question. Chris Young at City Paper went to a 27th Ward meeting in Brighton Heights Tuesday night where incumbent District 1 councilwoman (and Luke Ravenstahl foe) Darlene faced off against Vince Pallus, who has ties to the mayor. When the old question was put to Pallus by the ward's chairman Kevin Quigley -- a friend of the mayor and high-ranking Public Works official -- the political newcomer said he wouldn't run without the endorsement. Harris replied the way most candidates do -- she said she had not made a decision.
After the meeting, Quigley told CP he is frustrated by Harris' refusal to commit to dropping out. "That is disappointing to me," he said. "It just doesn't make sense. If you don't receive the endorsement, drop out."
It gets complicated in a typical Pittsburgh way. Another major ward chairman in the district is John Klinger, another influential Public Works official (he oversees asphalt and paving for the city). Another ward chair is Harris herself.
So shouldn't Harris get out of the race if she doesn't get the committee's endorsement, since she's not just a candidate, but a committee chair? Ask Tonya Payne.
Payne, the incumbent District 6 councilwoman in 2009, crushed Daniel Lavelle in that year's committee vote. But Lavelle stayed in the race and beat her in the primary. Nevertheless she was part of a 11th hour write-in campaign against Lavelle (the Democratic party's nominee) that fall -- during a time when Jim Burn (now the chair of the state Dem party) had appointed her the chairwoman of the entire city committee.
The payback? She's still the party's 1st Ward chair.
Even Jeff Koch -- the 16th Ward chair and another Public Works employee -- won't commit to dropping from the District 3 council race without the endorsement. More on that and rumors the Ravenstahl administration is pushing him into running here from Chris Potter.