Today’s special election in the 35th State Legislative District will have two names on the ballot. Both arrived there not through traditional primaries but rather through a process headed by party committees — the normally unnoticed workhorses of partisan politics.
It’s been the same story in ongoing Pittsburgh-area special elections for former U.S. Congressman Tim Murphy’s vacant 18th Congressional District seat and the Pittsburgh race to replace former District 8 Pittsburgh City Council Member Dan Gilman. In all three cases, Democratic and Republican committees, each comprised of groups of core party members, have chosen their respective nominees, selected the people to do the choosing or made joint nominating decisions with their counterparts in neighboring counties.
In the race for the 35th, Democrat Austin Davis was nominated by the members of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee within that district. (Davis is executive assistant to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and vice chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.) He is running against McKeesport City Councilor Fawn Walker-Montgomery, a Republican, who was selected by Republican committee members in a November meeting.
In the race for Pennsylvania’s 18th U.S. Congressional District, meanwhile, it was county-level committees in Allegheny and three surrounding counties that chose the party’s nominee or, in the case of Republicans, a group of conferees who made the final call. In the end, former federal prosecutor Conor Lamb was chosen to represent the Dems, while firebrand and current state Rep. Rick Saccone was chosen to represent Republicans in the March 13 election.
And in Pittsburgh, the nominating process for the District 8 City Council seat saw county Democratic committee members choose to back Dinette owner and political activist Sonja Finn for the March 6 special election ballot. Republican Remley Rennick was nominated by the county’s Republican Committee members to run against her and former Democratic candidates Erika Strassburger and Marty Healey who are now running as independents.
No traditional primary process. No popular vote. In cases like these, committee members decide — either directly or indirectly — who voters will see on the ballot.
So, given the power these committees wield in situations like this — just 554 Democratic committee members from Allegheny and surrounding counties selected Lamb to run for Murphy’s open seat in a race with national implications and President Donald Trump’s attention — you may be wondering how these committees work or how you can join. Here’s what we found.
What is a county committee, and what does it do?
A county committee is a local outpost of political party structures at the state and national level.
For example, the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s membership is comprised of members of the party, with chairpeople in charge of each ward and a chairperson at the top. (Not all wards have active committees, though.)
The committee’s normal functions include officially endorsing candidates, helping with fundraising, voter outreach and party-building activities.
In special elections, like those for Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, 8th Pittsburgh City Council District and 35th State Legislative District, Democratic committee members vote on who to nominate directly.
Republican Committee of Allegheny County members do the same, but handled the nominating vote for the 18th Congressional District race a little differently. In that case, Republican committee members — in accordance with state party bylaws — voted to elect a group of roughly 250 delegates, or “conferees,” who then chose the party’s special election nominee.
Dave Majernik, vice chair of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, said that’s because Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District spans parts of four neighboring counties and only committee members in the applicable parts of those counties would be able to vote.
“Being that [all committee members in those counties] couldn’t participate in the process, we picked people to represent committee members, and we call them conferees. They were chosen by county chairs and local municipal chairs.”
The state Republican Party determined the number of conferees for each county committee based on the number of votes earned by President Donald Trump in each county, ending up with a total of around 250.
Democrats called their nominating process in the 18th Congressional District, one that saw votes cast by roughly 500 committee members, “more open than the one employed by Republicans,” the Post-Gazette reported.
But Majernik disagreed that there was greater distance between Republican committee people on the ground and the GOP’s nominating vote in the 18th, saying, “Most of the conferees were also committee people.”
Additionally, because the 35th State Legislative District is located wholly within Allegheny County, every Republican committee person could vote for the party’s nominee in that special election race.
“It wasn’t as complicated because it didn’t cross county lines,” Majernik added.
How do committees work in Allegheny County?
According to Section 807 of the Allegheny County Election Code, “there may be in each county a county committee for each political party.” Each of those committees consists of members who are elected at the Spring primary, or appointed, “as the rules of the respective parties within the county may provide.” The committees can adopt or alter their own rules as long as they don’t violate the law or the state rules of the party.
The Allegheny County Democratic Committee has, by chairperson Nancy Mills’ estimation, a potential 2,600 committee members and up to 400 vacancies at any given time.
“The committee list changes almost everyday,” Mills explained.
At the Republican Committee of Allegheny County, Majernik said there are approximately 2,600 committee seats available county-wide with less than a fourth of those currently occupied.
So what if I want to fill one of these vacancies?
You have two options.
Get 10 signatures to be on the ballot in the precinct where you live and get elected by voters there.
You can also go to the party chair for your ward and ask to be considered for any future or current openings.
“People can run this year, but you have to circulate petitions and file with the election bureau to be on the ballot,” Mills said. Many committee members are also appointed in the space between elections or around a committee’s annual reorganization meeting.
“If the chair has vacancies, they can appoint someone to fill them. […] Throughout the years, if a person moves or dies or exits the committee, a vacant seat may be filled by the chairperson. They send names to us and we keep committee books for every municipality. If you want to be on the committee and you’re interested, call your local chair and ask if they have a slot in your precinct. If they do, they can interview you and talk to you and if you’re suited, they can appoint you. If there’s no position, you can always come in and volunteer and work for the party.”
Here’s a list of contacts for the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s various branches, and here’s one for county Republicans. There are also Allegheny County or Pittsburgh chapters of the Green Party, Libertarian Party, Constitution Party and Democratic Socialists of America, although their roles and processes may vary.
County Democratic committee spots are up for election this year, while county Republican committee spots are up for election in years coinciding with presidential races. Both involve four-year terms.
Who are a committee’s members?
In Allegheny County, Democratic committee members typically include a mix of civilians, city workers and elected officials like school board members, supervisors, local council members and tax collectors.
“It’s so much work that only people who are so dedicated to public service… no one else is really interested,” Mills explained.
Both the Allegheny County Democratic Committee and Republican Committee of Allegheny County’s bylaws require one female and one male per precinct.
Some serve for a lifetime.
“I know people who’ve been on the committee and been elected to the committee for 67 years,” Mills added. “People spend their lives working for the Democratic Party.”
Majernik added, “And while many people don’t want to do it because it’s drudgery and a lot of this stuff isn’t fun to do, there are certain perks and one of them is that you do get to vote in the selection of candidates for special elections, and you also get to select the party leadership, and in some cases, you get a vote in the endorsement process.”
It should be noted here that if you’re interested in a committee spot only to vote on special election nominees, you may be disappointed. First of all, there aren’t usually this many special elections. Second, much of the day-to-day committee work is far more mundane.
“Special elections are pretty rare,” Mills said. “This is the most I’ve had, three in such a short amount of time. From Murphy’s resignation — we didn’t know about Gilman’s resignation until December — this is the most I think we’ve had in this short a time. It’s a record for me.”
Can I effect change from the inside by becoming a committee member?
Mills said the purpose of the committee is to serve the political party.
“Most people who run for the committee are those who understand what it means to be a member of the committee, which is you support only Democrats, and you can’t be Independent and can’t have a PAC — you can’t be in a committee raising money for un-endorsed candidates.”
Mills added, “I think what happens is those people who really want to serve are not people who want to change the party but are people who know the party is what it is. If you’re willing to join the party, run [to become a committee person]. If you want to change the party, working outside is the best way to do it.”
Mills said there is room for reformists, but that a committee is focused on supporting — not overhauling — the existing party structure.
“Independent thought is really important in politics, and we have room for everybody and we have room for committee people and non-elected committee people, volunteers and resistance groups. We want everybody to work with the Democratic Party, and we are working with everybody.”
Across the aisle, Majernik added, “Committee people are an important part of our political process, both for the party because they get out the vote and work the polls on Election Day and make phone calls and things like that, but also because I think our political process, with the way we have it, would not work without committee people. They’re the ones that do most of the work to make the elections and the electoral process work.”