Do political endorsement fees in Allegheny County deter candidate diversity?

‘As a group, Black and brown people are at the bottom economically in this country. [The fees are] a prohibition for people from these groups to seek this endorsement,’ an advocate said

By: - March 13, 2023 6:30 am

(Getty Images)

By Jamie Wiggan

PITTSBURGH —  Two Black Democrats hope to become Allegheny County’s next chief executive. Neither sought their party’s endorsement to help them get there.

Instead, four white candidates with considerable campaign stashes made up the Democratic committee’s slate of executive hopefuls on Sunday, and the winner — John Weinstein — has more cash than most of his opponents combined. This is, according to advocates with Pittsburgh Black Empowerment Project, a reflection of the $7,500 price tag that many candidates of color find cost prohibitive.

“We are an economically deprived community,” PBEP’s CEO, Tim Stevens, told Pittsburgh City Paper. “As a group, Black and brown people are at the bottom economically in this country. [The fees are] a prohibition for people from these groups to seek this endorsement.”

Meet the Democrats running for Allegheny County Executive (so far)

Liv Bennet, an incumbent Allegheny County councilor and the first Black woman to run for county executive, had just $2,500 on hand at the end of last year, campaign finance records show. Weinstein, meanwhile, closed out 2022 with nearly $500,000. Another Black executive candidate, William Parker, did not appear to file campaign disclosures for last year.

Bennet issued a statement before the endorsement explaining why she did not enter.

Allegheny Co. Dems split the difference on 2023 primary endorsements

“The [Allegheny County Democratic Committee] fees are an example of how public office has been designed for people of means and not those who are impoverished or the working class,” her statement read. “Though they have been lowered, they’re still out of reach for many Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), working class and candidates from other marginalized populations.”

The county Democratic party charges candidates $7,500 for a shot at the endorsement for countywide offices, including executive, treasurer, controller, and judges in common pleas court. Endorsement bids for other offices are priced on a sliding scale, with Pittsburgh City Council and Pittsburgh Public School Board posts costing $500 at the lower end and citywide offices like mayor and controller costing $2,000.

Stevens says he met with members of the committee shortly before blasting them during a press conference last week. His goal, he says, was to persuade them to drop these fees altogether.

“The economic disparities based on race and gender are rooted deeply in this society, regionally and nationally,” Stevens said. “And that affects who feels they can run for office.

County Democratic Chairperson Sam Hans-Greco  said he’s historically supported fee reforms but noted, since he was made chair last year, that he feels he needs to balance this with a responsibility for fulfilling the endorsement procedures spelled out in the bylaws.

“I’ve been a vocal advocate for change in the past,” Hans-Greco told City Paper. “But we have to follow the rules.”

During his first year at the helm, Hans-Greco said he’s ushered in change by lowering endorsement fees for most offices and adopting a new approach to spending the funds raised through endorsements.

Instead of investing the proceeds directly in the winning candidate’s campaign, Hans-Greco says, this year most will be spent on developing and distributing voter guides detailing information about all candidates. He says this move has even prompted blowback from some endorsement winners.

“I think ACDC has an obligation to provide information to the voters,” he said. “And I think the voter guide will be a vehicle that does that.”

Asked about possible cost prohibitions, Hans-Greco said the fees are reasonable relative to size of the office and the realistic costs of campaigning.

“I think there’s a certain price, a certain cost of running a campaign,” Hans-Greco said. “I don’t think this is so widely exorbitant — especially compared to what we used to charge.

While this year’s slate might lack diversity, Hans-Greco said the recent elections of Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, U.S Rep. Summer Lee, D-12th District, and a handful of Black women judges suggest the tide is moving in the right direction.

“I think you would have to look at the bigger picture,” he said. “To me I think Allegheny County has been remarkable in elevating African Americans to higher office.”

Hans-Greco said he expects discussions about fees will resurface during an upcoming meeting about the bylaws.

Stevens said he’s still holding out for change.

“My hope is they will reconsider by the time the next primary comes,” he says.

Jamie Wiggan is the news editor of Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.

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