by Chris Potter
Never mind this year's gubernatorial race. Forget the Erin Moclhany/Harry Readshaw match-up. The real political drama this spring is shaping up to be … the BATTLE FOR CONTROL OF THE 19TH WARD DEMOCRATIC COMMITTEE.
Wait! Don't go away! What if I told you that the 19th Ward, which is centered in Beechview, is the political domain of one of Pittsburgh's most storied political families — the Wagners? And what if I told you that the last time the Wagners' rule there was challenged, a fracas nearly broke out in an elementary-school parking lot? And that this time around, the battle includes court filings that allege violations of racketeering laws?
Ok, it's not exactly the Red Wedding. But work with me here, people.
Anyway: Although you could easily live a fulfilling life without ever realizing it, every four years, the Democratic Party holds elections for its committeepeople. These are the party's foot soldiers, the ones who are supposed to help turn out voters on Election Day, as well as serve as a liaison between residents and the party. It's also committeepeople who vote in the party's endorsement, the pre-primary ritual in which party elders give a stamp of approval to a favored Dem. Commiteepeole are elected by voting precinct, and those who share the same ward choose a Ward chair to head up local activities.
Usually, these races attract few candidates, and even less attention. But this time — as in 2010 — longtime 19th Ward chair Pete Wagner is facing a familiar foe.
Wagner is of course the father of County Controller Chelsa Wagner, and the brother of Jack Wagner, the former state auditor general who ran unsuccessfully for mayor last year. But in 2010, Tony Coghill, a Beechview roofer, recruited a slate of challengers in hopes that they would get elected and oust Wagner as ward chair. Coghill was a one-time Wagner loyalist who felt jilted when Wagner backed another candidate in the 2007 city council race ultimately won by Natalia Rudiak. Wagner turned Coghill's challenge aside fairly easily, though it was obvious that the battle was far from over: Shortly after Wagner was re-elected as chair, ill feelings spilled over into a parking lot next to a school cafeteria.
And now Coghill is back -- with a vengeance. This time, Coghill says, "We've put a lot more people into these races."
Ward 19, one of the city's largest, has 76 committee slots up for grabs. A candidate list provided by the county Democratic committee suggests that 59 of them will be competitive. Compare that to 2010, when there were 48 contested races — in itself an almost unprecedented number.
Coghill swears 2014 will be his year. "Things have changed. Back then, everyone thought Jack [Wagner] would be governor" — Wagner was running in the Democratic primary back then too, and finished a distant second. "But last year, he lost for mayor. And I've got a lot of people behind me."
In fact, since his 2010 defeat, Coghill has forged a perhaps-unlikely partnership with Rudiak and State Rep. Erin Molchany, both of whom are allied with Mayor Bill Peduto -- who, of course, beat Jack Wagner last year.
Still, Coghill was similarly optimistic back in 2010. And after being firmly reinstalled as Ward chair, Wagner told me, icily, that "Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated." It was pretty clear he thought that my reporting on Coghill's challenge had been responsible for exaggerating them.
In any case, at least one thing hasn't changed since 2010: the level of rancor. Tomorrow morning, the two sides will square off in a courtroom battle over nominating petitions -- and Wagner's legal briefs are accusing Coghill of racketeering.
Coghill is trying to remove three presumed Wagner loyalists from the ballot; his attorney, Chuck Pascal, is also pursuing separate complaints against two others. Wagner, meanwhile, is trying to remove three of Coghill's. Such challenges are part of the election process, and for the most part, the Ward 19 challenges — which will be argued before Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph James tomorrow morning — are typical. Team Coghill is accusing its targeted candidates of having too few legitimate signatures, while Team Wagner is accusing Coghill — who circulated the petitions for the three challenged candidates — of submitting petitions on which some signatures were dated after the petition was notarized ... and of then trying to alter the dates.
But Wagner and his fellow complainant, Kevin Cagni, have added some fuel to the fire. Their legal filings, filed by attorney Charles Fedel, allege that Coghill has violated not just election rules but the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
RICO laws are generally deployed in cases involving organized syndicates who are allegedly engaged in ongoing criminal activity. In this case, the petitions contend, the flaws in the petitions are "nearly identically committed," and all three petitions were circulated by Coghill and notarized by the same person. "In all three cases," the petitions assert, "the alleged fraud could not have been committed without the cooperation" of both men.
Fedel says that the petitions are not alleging criminal activity, but the petitioners are "alleging that something is wrong with these petitions," and that the same parties were involved in each case.
Pascal calls the allegation "the most outrageous thing I've ever seen in an election complaint. If they would make that allegation in any other place than a legal pleading, it would subject them to a slander suit. This is typical 19th ward political intimidation."
And this, it seems, is shaping up to be a typical 19th ward political fight.