In district 7 race, party tensions emerging

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Whatever else it may be, the District 7 City Council race is shaping up as a battle within the ranks of the Democratic Party, with one candidate and some city party leaders accusing County Chair Nancy Patton Mills of playing fast and loose with the rules.

Tony Ceoffe, one of two candidates seeking the District 7 seat, believes that the party's endorsement vote – which is scheduled for this Sunday at Lawrenceville's Teamster Temple – is being hurried.

The time and place of the endorsement vote – the winner of which will be the only Democrat listed on the ballot this November -- were announced just yesterday. "That's three, four days tops to campaign and get people to come out to vote to decide the future of this council district," says Ceoffe.

Election rules state that, if a party wants to have a candidate running on its ticket in a special election, it must submit the name of its champion within 15 days after the county files a writ of election. In this case, that would give Democrats until nearly the end of the month to endorse a candidate. Holding the vote a week later -- on July 28 -- would still meet that deadline, Ceoffe notes. "There is just no reason to restrict this vote to four days notice," he says.

Ceoffe is also concerned because in recent weeks, the party has filled five vacant committee slots within the district. Committeepeople are the ones who vote on who to endorse, and Ceoffe says he finds the timing suspicious: "I've been a committee member a long time, and I know how long seats normally sit open."

The names of the five new committeepeople were submitted by Grant Gittlin, who previously worked on the election campaign of mayoral nominee Bill Peduto. Peduto and some of his allies, including Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, have endorsed Ceoffe's rival in the race, Deb Gross.

When asked if he thought the committee appointments and the tight scheduling of the endorsement vote were efforts to run the table for Gross, Ceoffe says, "It definitely leaves a lot of questions for your imagination." He told City Paper last night that he may formally challenge the moves by the end of today.

County Democratic Chair Nancy Patton Mills says that there's nothing suspicious about the scheduling of the endorsement vote. "We didn't want to wait until the last possible weekend, because if something went wrong, we wouldn't have a candidate on the ballot."

She notes that Dowd's departure has been no secret – he announced his intent to step down in June, though he didn't formally resign until last week. "From the moment Patrick announced his plans, Anthony and the other candidates have been able to campaign," Patton Mills says.

Patton Mills acknowledges that in recent weeks, she has appointed five committee people to wards covered by the 7th district; three from the 8th ward, and two from the 2nd ward. Patton Mills says she took those steps in consultation with the ward chairs. "We wouldn't go over the head of the chair," she says.

That's not how Vanessa Turpin, who is currently the acting chair of the 8th ward, sees it. "Not only did they go over my head, they went over the head of Eileen Kelly, the [acting] chair of the city committee," she says. Turpin calls it an "outrageously, egregiously disrespectful move."

(Kelly also says she wasn't consulted over the appointments, something she says "should probably have been done as a courtesy.")

"I didn't even know the people who were appointed," Turpin adds. "I can't tell you how upsetting this is. The Democratic Party is supposed to be about giving people a seat at the table. To shut people out like this … and for what reason?"

Turpin's daughter, Rita, had previously considered running for Dowd's seast, but Turpin says "she's no longer in contention." Her daughter is studying to take the bar exam at the end of the month, she says, making it impossible to campaign for the seat on the party's timetable. Vanessa Turpin is now backing Ceoffe, who she says is "the best candidate for the regular Joe, for the people who do most of the heavy lifting, and the living and the dying in this city."

Ceoffe, Turpin and Kelly all say that the new committeefolk should be barred from voting on Sunday. A party rule bars committeepeople from being appointed less than 30 days prior to an endorsement -- an effort to prevent "packing" the committee with allies before a vote. But Emma Shoucair, who is the county Democratic committee's current executive director, says that rule applies only to endorsements before the spring primary. Since special elections are by definition difficult to plan in advance, the 30-day limit doesn't apply there. "I can't predict the future," Shoucair says. "I can hardly institute a freeze 30 days before an endorsement meeting that hasn't been scheduled … Patrick Dowd didn't tell me when he was going to officially step down."

Shoucair also flatly denies that Turpin was shut out of the appointment process. While Turpin didn't submit the names, Shoucair says, she did approve them and "was absolutely kept in the loop and consulted about these appointments."

As we noted here yesterday, the District 7 special election is happening against a backdrop in which Peduto and Fitzgerald are poised to become the top two elected officials in the region … a status which could give them ample opportunity to influence the party structure itself. The tensions you're seeing here aren't just about who the next District 7 councilperson should be. They're about what direction the party is going to take.

We'll have more on this story as it develops.

Charlie Deitch contributed reporting to this story.

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