Faced with a breakneck party vote, Democratic candidates for Pittsburgh’s vacant District 8 city council seat eye a fallback

Democrats will choose their candidate Sunday.

Democratic contenders: Sonja Finn, Marty Healey and Erika Strassburger

Democratic contenders: Sonja Finn, Marty Healey and Erika Strassburger

Courtesy of Laura Petrilla | Courtesy of martyhealey.com | Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Updated 4:26 p.m.

The race for District 8’s vacant city council seat could have been decided as soon as Sunday, with only Democratic candidates declared and the party’s members set to make their decision then about who they want to represent them in the March 6 special election.

The party vote has been the source of its own internal discord, as first reported by the Post-Gazette. It’s also been a highly expedited process, with just 15 days between the date of the election being announced and the nominating deadline. This has led some in the party to question the effectiveness and fairness of related vetting and deliberative procedures. It’s also led to no shortage of grumbling in Democratic circles.

Meanwhile, with three Democratic candidates declared and only one capable of getting the party’s nod, some are already preparing contingencies as they seek the seat left behind with former council member Dan Gilman’s resignation late last month. (He’s now serving as chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto.)

Sonja Finn — political activist, Dinette restaurant owner and candidate for the District 8 vacancy — said she’s planning to run as an independent if the Democrats choose someone else on Sunday. Like Democrats and Republicans, independent candidates have until Jan. 18 to file their nominating papers in this race. Unlike Democrats and Republicans, independent candidates only have to file nomination papers containing the signatures of 113 registered electors (regardless of party affiliation) to get their name printed on the ballot.

“I plan to run with signatures if Sunday’s vote doesn’t go my way,” Finn added.

A representative for Marty Healey — another Democratic District 8 candidate, who is also chief financial officer of the Healey Company and a Delta Foundation board member — said of the possibility of a fallback run as an independent, “That is an option that is being seriously considered.”

An attempt to reach the third candidate, Erika Strassburger, Gilman’s former chief of staff, was unsuccessful Tuesday. (Update: Strassburger tells The Incline that while she also intends to circulate nomination papers for an independent run, her “primary focus this week is to earn the Democratic nomination.”) 

All three have said they will be in attendance at a candidate forum at Chatham University on Jan. 28, two weeks after the expected Democratic Party vote and more than a week after the nominating deadline. It’s further proof that the current crop of candidates is likely to outlast whatever decision the Democratic Party makes later this week.

That forum is set for 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28 at Chatham University’s Eddy Theater and was organized by the Pittsburgh 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club as part of its annual meeting, according to a Facebook post.

“We’re gonna hold it regardless” of how the Democratic Party votes, forum organizer Ron Gaydos told The Incline. “Often, when we have candidates in forums, we hold an endorsement afterward. This time we won’t, just because it’s likely that some candidates are going to continue under other nominations than Democrat. But we want to make sure voters are as well informed as possible.”

Meet District 8 city council candidates

Hear from candidates vying for the vacant District 8 city council seat at this forum. They will answer questions from moderators and the public about their positions on the issues and reasons for running.

Where:Eddy Theater at Chatham University at Woodland Road (Squirrel Hill North)

When:January 28, 2018 from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.

How much:Free admission

District 8 includes the East End neighborhoods of Oakland, Point Breeze, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill.

The race to find Gilman’s replacement — much like the upcoming special election to fill disgraced former Congressman Tim Murphy’s vacant seat — won’t involve a traditional primary. Instead, party committee members in District 8 will decide which candidate to nominate.

But the pace of the process has unnerved some.

Marty Marks, who is managing Healey’s campaign, told the Post-Gazette it’s “an unfortunate and undemocratic process,” adding, “It’s unfortunate that a candidate doesn’t have the opportunity to present their case to the committee in any kind of serious way. But it’s not particularly the fault of anyone, and we’re going to make the best of a bad situation.”

Gaydos, organizer of the Jan. 28 candidate forum at Chatham, added, in speaking with The Incline, “The county rules seem to be what’s driving the speed of this. Everybody got really apprehensive thinking there’s some backroom party stuff going on, but really it’s just the county rules.”

Per the city’s Home Rule Charter, Council President Bruce Kraus had three calendar days from the date of Gilman’s resignation to instruct the city clerk to issue the writ of election.

The clerk then had four calendar days to issue the writ to the county Elections Division, which she did on Jan. 3, officially setting the date of the election and, in doing so, starting a 15-day clock for the nominations process.