Pete Wagner, the longtime chair of the 19th Ward Democratic committee, can say this much: He was never defeated by his longtime political nemesis, Anthony Coghill. Instead, Wagner withdrew rather than face a vote by commiteemembers in a reorganization meeting last night.
Such reorganizations take place partywide every four years, after the party elects new committeepeople in the primary. But in an address to the audience at Brookline's American Legion Hall, Wagner said that younger committee members -- many of whom were elected on a pro-Coghill slate this spring-- saw him as "a dinosaur." And while Wagner disputed that characterization, he nevertheless announced, "I will not be a candidate for chairman."
"This ward, as I leave it, is very respected," he added.
With that -- and with a cry of "No it's not!" from foes -- Wagner brought to a close his nearly three-decade-long tenure as ward chair. It also marked another setback for one of Pittsburgh's last great political dynasties. Pete's brother Jack Wagner lost a bid for mayor last year, and gave up an abortive gubernatorial campaign this past spring. Now only Chelsa Wagner, the county controller, remains in public life.
Coghill, who unsuccessfully challenged Wagner for the chair in 2010, easily captured the seat after Wagner's withdrawal this time. Coghill bested Jim Sheppard, who ran in Wagner's stead, by a vote of 46 to 28. (There was 1 vote, presumably sentimental, for Wagner.)
To be sure, Wagner did not go quietly. Prior to withdrawing, he charged that Coghill was challenging him solely because Wagner declined to back him in a 2009 City Council race. The whole campaign, Wagner said, was "Mr. Coghill's way of getting back at Pete Wagner for not supporting him." It was, he added, "a personal situation that each and every one of you has been drawn into."
Wagner also produced a tweet posted earlier in the day which accused Coghill of referring to Wagner with homophobic slurs. Coghill stridently denied the allegation: Allies noted that the Twitter account only had a single follower and a single tweet to its name when Wagner brought it to light, raising questions about whether it was a plant by Coghill foes.
Wagner was clearly facing a hostile crowd. One committeeman faulted him for previously holding not one but two "candidates nights" for the race, the scheduling of which "ruined my birthday." (Coghill declined to attend either.) Rob Frank, a fixture of South Hills politics, thundered at Wagner, "How dare you insult the integrity of the committepeople?" by suggesting the contest was a purely personal grievance. "This isn't about Coghill or you. This is about the Democratic Party."
"That's a good campaign speech," Wagner responded wryly.
"I'm not running for anything. Today," Frank replied.
Committee insiders said there had been rumors that Wagner planned to step down, in hopes of electing Sheppard when Wagner realized he couldn't get the votes himself. Sheppard denied that, saying he'd only planned to run for ward secretary. Wagner himself did not comment: Asked on his way out the door about whether he'd planned to withdraw, he said only "28 years is enough," before leaving.
But friends of Wagner said that even though he lost the fight, the passions aroused by it were, in their own way, proof of his legacy. Elsewhere in the city, many committee seats are vacant for lack of anyone willing to compete for them. But people still care enough about the 19th ward to fight for it: Of the 76 committeepeople eligible to vote for a ward chair, 75 cast a ballot last night.
"I think this is the last of the battles -- the good old fights," Eileen Kelly, who chairs the citywide Democratic Committee, said after the vote. And while she said she hoped to "stop the infighting within the ward," she added that "in a way, I'm going to miss" the strong feelings aroused, because "it gets the people here to say what they want to say."
Coghill himself faced some sharp questions. One committee member accused Coghill of "harassing" him. ("You're a big guy," Coghill responded. "I can't harass you.") Others brought up a long-standing rumor that Coghill's candidacy was an effort to set him up for a challenge of local magistrate Jim Motznik. Asked by City Paper if he had such plans, Coghill said, "Absolutely not." He noted he'd been seeking the ward chair spot for years, and that he'd have to step down if he won a magistrate's seat. "What would I tell all these people if I did that?" he asked. (Many people I've spoken with, including some Coghill allies, have their doubts about that. But we'll know soon enough: Motznik's six-year term is up for reelection next year.)
For that matter, Coghill denied that his candidacy was motivated by revenge. "This job pays zero dollars," he said. "Even if I were a vengeful person, I wouldn't spend all this effort on a job that doesn't pay anything." His only motive, he said, was a desire to strengthen the party and the 19th ward.
Coghill's victory is a bright spot for Mayor Bill Peduto and his allies, who have supported Coghill but have otherwise had a rough year. This may, progressives lost two primary fights in state House battles, including the defeat of Erin Molchany in the South Hills itself. And after a vote this weekend, the city committee is in the hands of Eileen Kelly and Kevin Quigley, two party regulars who are not in Peduto's corner.
But in the 19th ward, Coghill was able to attract a slew of young committeepeople, as Wagner acknowledged. Prior to the vote, Coghill told the audience that he'd "energized" the party's ranks. "I am the future of this committee," he proclaimed.
Wagner meanwhile, may have been tripped up in part by his own past. Committeeman Rob Frank recalled after the vote that he'd first met Wagner when Frank was a teenager, at a fundraiser for 1980s-era Congressman Doug Walgren. Frank says Wagner looked at him and said, "Isn't that nice -- a little kid getting involved in politics."
"I swore that some day he would regret those words, and today was that day," Frank said. Though I'm pretty sure he was joking. At least partly.