Why Pittsburgh’s top Democrat is supporting an independent city council candidate

“When there’s only one political party, you have no party. It becomes factions,” the mayor said.

Mayor Bill Peduto at The Incline and WESA's mayoral forum.

Mayor Bill Peduto at The Incline and WESA's mayoral forum.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, the city’s top Democrat, says his backing of an independent city council candidate — one who launched her indy run after failing to garner the Democratic Party’s nomination in the ongoing District 8 special election — shouldn’t come as a surprise given his track record.

Peduto insists it also says nothing of his feelings for the party’s official nominee or another independent candidate who did not get the Democratic nod. Instead, the second-term mayor and former city council member cites a personal history of backing candidates without the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s official support.

“The progressive movement in this town has not had the support of the committee in city council races in nearly 20 years,” Peduto told The Incline.

That hints at what some might call the balkanization of the party here, a shift that has left its local bastion increasingly — or at least continually — out of step with the party’s most powerful local politician.

Nancy Mills, chairperson with the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, said, “The committee and the elected officials are two separate entities. I have no responsibility at all over the people who are not on the committee, and they are free to support any candidate that they wish to support.

“As far as whether the committee is in step with the electorate — last year I was 100 percent successful, the committee-endorsed candidates all won. Whether that will happen in this particular race, I cannot predict.”

A “council tribal feud”?

In the race for District 8, Peduto has thrown his support behind Erika Strassburger who is running to fill the seat vacated by former Council Member Dan Gilman. Gilman resigned council last month to take a job as Peduto’s chief of staff, triggering the special election currently underway. Strassburger is Gilman’s former chief of staff and has had a long-term working relationship with the mayor. She also has the support of Gilman, who was Peduto’s chief of staff when the mayor was on council.

“I have a proven working history with Erika, and I found her to be … beyond work there was also a loyalty there,” Peduto said.

Strassburger began the special election campaign as a Democratic candidate. But after she failed to secure the party’s nomination on Jan. 14 in a whirlwind vote by just under four dozen Allegheny County Democratic Committee members from District 8, she filed to run as an independent on Jan. 18.

“This doesn’t really change anything about what I was already planning to do,” Strassburger told The Incline of her independent bid. Strassburger said she secured more than 300 signatures in support of her independent run, well above the 113 needed to land a spot on the ballot.

“Obviously for a special election, the people who will turn out are going to be choosing between candidates that they care about. That’s who’s turning out. It really just matters that I meet as many voters as possible and get them to turn out at the polls and that I continue to focus on the groundwork. There’s no change. We’re going to be pounding the pavement and reaching out, that’s going to continue,” Strassburger said.

It was Sonja Finn, a political activist, James Beard-nominated chef and owner of East Liberty’s Dinette restaurant, who won the Democratic committee’s nomination and who will now appear on the March 6 ballot under the party’s banner.

A third candidate, Marty Healey, chief financial officer of Healey Company and a member of the Delta Foundation’s board, is also running as an independent now after failing to secure the Democratic committee’s nod. Healey’s campaign said he secured 205 signatures in support of his independent run. Republican Rennick Remley has also entered the race, though his eligibility for the office is currently being challenged in court. All four candidates are expected to attend a forum at 1 p.m. Sunday at Chatham.

And while Peduto said his support for Strassburger hinges in part on his commitment to progressive candidates, it’s important to note that Healey and Finn would also both claim that label for themselves.

“This is not an indictment against anybody,” Peduto said. “I’ve know Sonja since she came back to Pittsburgh, and I helped her with Dinette and some building issues that she was having. And I’ve known Marty Healey and his brother since I was in the seventh grade. We grew up playing hockey together.”

Meanwhile, Marty Marks, a spokesperson for Healey’s campaign, cited a “political feud” between pro-Peduto and anti-Peduto factions inside city and county government that he said explains the current dynamic of this race.

“This is not about policy as the mayor has stated to you. These are three progressives who probably agree on pretty much every issue. There is a political dynamic at play here. Erika and Sonja are both backed by different factions — one made up of pro-Peduto allies and the other made up of anti-Peduto allies, [respectively] — so there is a bit of a council tribal feud that is making its way into this particular election. Again, these aren’t people of bad will, they just have political differences,” Marks said.

As one might expect, Marks believes this sets Healey apart, adding, “He shares donors with both the pro-Peduto forces and the anti-Peduto forces … and one of the strengths of his candidacy is that he’s not a part of all that.”

In case it wasn’t clear, “all that” refers to an alleged proxy war between those supporting Finn’s campaign, like Allegheny County Controller and longtime Peduto critic Chelsa Wagner, and those supporting Strassburger, namely the mayor and others in his corner.

Peduto said, “I’m not sure if it is a proxy war, more of old East End Democratic cliques being tempered by the winds of political opportunism. The citywide proxy war was last year: It was called the mayor’s race. […] These divisions between the old guard and the Progressives have been around for my 30 years of active politics. They will be here 30 years from today. When you have a one party system, you have no party — you pick sides.”

Wagner also wrote off the idea before saying of the mayor’s decision not to support the Democratic nominee: “[Peduto’s] alignment with or against the Democratic candidates is always self-serving and has shown nothing to do with ‘progressivism.’ … His opposition to Sonja isn’t about progressivism, it is about power, and is particularly anti-democratic at that.”

Kristin Kanthak, an associate professor of political science at Pitt and co-editor of the State Politics & Policy Quarterly, said parties always want a unified front — but in some cases can afford not to have one.

“Generally, parties would prefer to be united rather than divided, so in that sense, it is a bad thing for the party. In this case, though, I think it is more an indication that people think the seat is a safe Democratic seat,” Kanthak said. “I think the division is indicative that the party thinks it will retain the seat even if it has [multiple] candidates. Otherwise, the stakes would be much higher and the party would be much more likely to fall in line. If Peduto’s support meant the seat would go to a Republican, that is a much bigger deal, and he would be less likely to do that.”

The county committee chairperson, Mills, seemed to confirm this in a phone conversation Friday, saying, “I’m not a policy maker, and I support all of my elected officials, and I support Sonja Finn if she wins this, and I’ll support Erika Strassburger or Marty if they win.”

Democratic contenders: Sonja Finn, Marty Healey and Erika Strassburger

District 8 Democratic nominee Sonja Finn, left, with independent District 8 candidates Marty Healey and Erika Strassburger

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

What does this mean for council?

Pittsburgh’s nine-member City Council will be rounded out following the March 6 special election, with Gilman’s successor joining another newcomer, District 4’s Anthony Coghill. The eight seated council members are Democrats.

Meri Long, a professor of political science at Pitt, added of Peduto’s support for Strassburger, “I don’t think it’s that odd.”

Long continued, “I think Peduto was sort of running as an outsider when he first ran for mayor, and even though he is viewed as ‘establishment’ now, he might still not really be an insider.  Beyond that, I think it makes sense for Peduto to endorse Erika because she has worked for Dan for a while, and Dan is friends with Peduto.”

When asked if she would be a guaranteed council vote for the mayor’s agenda, Strassburger said, “I’m running because I love serving the constituents of Shadyside, Oakland, Squirrel Hill and Point Breeze. It has been my honor to work for them for the last four years and it would be a privilege to continue that service if I’m elected.”

Finn, in an email to The Incline, said she was disappointed not to have the mayor’s backing, adding, “As a resident and business owner in Pittsburgh, I have always been supportive of Mayor Peduto. Now, I find it disturbing that he seems unwelcoming of me as the Democratic Nominee simply because I have a voice. I am offering critical thought, which should be perceived as a benefit by anyone whose goal is to make this city, through legislation and initiatives, the best it can be.”

Finn continued, “In this case, the Democratic Committee did choose the proven progressive leader, me, as their nominee. […] Truly, it is not for Mayor Peduto to try to trump the elected committee’s vote via Twitter. It is solely up to District 8 voters to choose their representative on City Council. As a District 8 resident, the mayor can cast his one vote, like the rest of us, on March 6th.”

Peduto said his support of Strassburger doesn’t equal opposition to Finn or Healey, acknowledging there are “three progressive candidates running.” He said committee members who did not support Strassburger also did not support him during his runs for office.

“The fact that I was opposed by the committee as a proven progressive council member is the defining point of all the other council members running without [the committee’s] endorsement [and] with my support.”

And so, he said, his willingness to split with “the party” is longstanding. In fact, he calls this race the latest example of that.

“I was a big supporter of [Council President] Bruce Kraus, and he wasn’t endorsed by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. [Former Council Member Natalia] Rudiak wasn’t endorsed. [Council Member Daniel] Lavelle wasn’t endorsed by the Democratic Party. I supported the candidate that ran against [Council Member Darlene] Harris, who didn’t have the party’s endorsement. I supported Patrick Dowd, and he didn’t have the committee’s endorsement.”

Harris, who ran against Peduto in last year’s Democratic mayoral primary, criticized his decision not to back his party’s nominee. “I am a Democrat and I will go with the Democrat in any case,” she said.

The Democratic committee endorsed Peduto in that mayoral race. “I think I could safely say the mayor won by a resounding victory in the last election, and we were very proud to endorse him,” Mills said. Peduto did not seek the committee’s endorsement the first time he ran for the office.

Meanwhile, Peduto summed up the state of things — and maybe the Democratic Party — thusly:

“When there’s only one political party, you have no party. It becomes factions, and in the East End politics of the Democratic committee you do have several factions, and the folks that Erika had were most of the same people I had support from in the past and that Dan Gilman had support from, and if you look at our numbers in the election you see overwhelmingly the East End has supported us — but the committee there hasn’t.”

Peduto concluded, “There is an old political adage regarding endorsements, you get half the friends and all the enemies.”