by Chris Potter
In the end, it wasn't even close: At an organizational meeting of the 19th Ward tonight, longtime chair Pete Wagner trounced challenger Anthony Coghill, 44 to 30. Turnout was heavy: All but two eligible commiteepeople were on hand to vote.
"Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated," Wagner told me after the vote. "And I think you know just what I mean." I kinda got the feeling he meant I was the one who'd exaggerated them.
Coghill, whose supporters had been expecting a close outcome, admitted being "disappointed" by the margin. "I truly believed it was within three votes either way," he said. "But there are a lot of variables out there."
Nearly 100 people were on hand in the Brookline Elementary cafeteria at the outset of the evening, when both Coghill and Wagner made four-minute speeches. Wagner used his speech to outline the long history between the two men. In Wagner's telling, that history involved Wagner mentoring the younger man, who lost a city council race in 2001 and again in 2005, despite "the campaign that was run for him."
Coghill, meanwhile, touted his success at attracting new candidates to run for committee and an ability to work with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, county executive Dan Onorato, and state Senator Wayne Fontana. None of those men are particularly close to the Wagner clan. "My opponent has no relationship with any of those officials," Coghill said.
After the speeches, commiteefolk were called up, two by two, to vote. The votes were counted and read aloud to the audience by Jim Burn, who chairs the Allegheny County Committee and was on hand to ensure order.
As things turned out, it might have been better if Burn had been in the parking lot instead.
After the votes were counted -- one was cast for "Mr. Wagner" -- Coghill congratulated his opponent, who made a speech pledging to work with all the committee people, including the 30 who hadn't supported him. He also pointedly praised "Kimmy Cagni" -- a committeewoman whose residency is being challenged by Coghill supporter Bob McLaughlin. "You are the greatest," Wagner said. But if there was any hope that old wounds would heal, it disappeared a few minutes later.
As Coghill commiserated with McLaughlin and other supporters in the parking lot outside, Kimberly Cagni's brother, Kevin, confronted them about McLaughlin's residency challenge. Soon, supporters of each faction -- including members of the Wagner family -- were involved in the argument. Over the next few minutes, each side traded barbs, and accused the other of unfairly casting aspersions on relatives. (Bob McLaughlin's brother is Charles McLaughlin, a former district justice in the neighborhood.)
Eventually, passions cooled, perhaps partly because of efforts to keep Coghill and Kevin Cagni physically separated. In the cafeteria, commitee members turned to choosing a ward vice-chair. (Again, the incumbent, Jean Cianca, won.)
Kimberly Cagni, who was on hand tonight and whose right to vote was not challenged, declined to comment about the residency issue. Her brother Kevin, though, told me that she does live in the 19th ward, and that he owns numerous homes in the area. The residency challenge "wasn't justified, and [McLaughlin] is wrong," he said.
That issue still remains for Jim Burn to decide. And here's a prediction: It ain't the last you've heard from Coghill and his supporters.
Until then, though, I'm gonna stick to less divisive issues. Like putting treehouse-themed playspaces in city parks.