By Charlie Deitch
Allegheny County’s Democratic Committee is facing criticism after the party voted to endorse a candidate who’s spoken favorably of President Donald Trump, and passed on endorsing the region’s only Black woman member of the state House of Representatives.
The county party voted 49-19 on Sunday to endorse House hopeful Heather Kass, who’s used social media to belittle trans people; decried the Affordable Care Act; mocked common-sense gun legislation; called people on public assistance “lazy, no-good idiots,” said that drug addicts need to “OD” so there is “less **** in the world,” and openly supported President Donald Trump.
Kass is running for Allegheny County’s 36th House District seat, which opened up with the retirement of veteran state Rep. Harry Readshaw. Jessica Benham, a disability rights advocate, is also seeking the Democratic nomination for the seat.
The Pittsburgh Current first reported on Kass’ controversial posts in mid-January, a day after she paid her $2,500 fee to compete for the committee’s endorsement. At the time, Kass had the backing of both Readshaw and Pittsburgh City Councilmember Anthony Coghill.
Benham told the Pittsburgh Current she intends to continue her campaign.
“As we’ve seen in past elections, the county Democratic Committee endorsement doesn’t always represent the views of the electorate,” Benham said. “We’ve witnessed that in the past few election cycles. Today’s result is not at all reflective of my ability to win this primary.
“What’s not acceptable, is that today the [county party] voted to endorse a Trump supporter in a district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 by 17 points. To me, that means the party today voted to support Donald Trump and that makes me incredibly disappointed in the party,” she said.
Benham, a bisexual, is a member of the LGBTQ community. Autistic herself, Benham works as an advocate for people living with Autism.
“I do take it personally as someone with a preexisting condition that the endorsement goes to someone who calls themselves a Democrat and rails against the Affordable Care Act, something that allows me to have health insurance,” Benham said. “She knocks people who aren’t straight, mocks people who believe in common-sense gun laws and supports Donald Trump. So, yes, I take what happened today very personally.
“I am disappointed in what the Allegheny County Democratic Party has become,” Benham said.
A failure to change with the times?
The county party in the past has come under fire for not changing along with the ideals of the electorate. That mostly comes from an archaic political machine that is controlled ward by ward by long-time factions whose main goal has been voting in their best political interests. As a result, more unendorsed candidates have won election.
In the last two or three election cycles endorsed candidates, usually incumbents, have found themselves unemployed after Election Day.
Two years ago, now Democratic Reps. Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato ousted two long-time incumbents from the state House. Last fall, Democrat Bethany Hallam beat a 20-year incumbent to win the at-large seat on Allegheny County Council.
Hallam has been a critic of the party and the endorsement system for some time, but more so since she ran for office last year.
This concern was echoed by another well-known party member familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely share their opinion.
“The idea is that if Kass can pull at least some party support from Benham then Coghiil’s candidate can possibly sneak in,” the source said. “But it’s odd that [Coghill] says he won’t support Heather Kass but he’ll use her for his own political agenda. And apparently that agenda is sending a 60-year-old white man to Harrisburg to stop a young, progressive woman candidate.”
Hallam added: “If you look at the comments that Heather Kass made, they weren’t 25 years ago, they’re recent. She says things like this, supports Trump and she blows Jess out of the water? We have candidates outwardly spewing anti-Democratic Party values getting the endorsement. [Kass] thinks gender identity is a joke, thinks people with substance abuse issues deserve to die and she gets the endorsement. We should all be taking this personally. What the fuck is going on here?”
Hallam called Sunday’s meeting a step backwards for the party.
Two years ago, when the committee didn’t endorse Lee and others, the reasoning was a desire to back incumbents. However, despite being an incumbent this year, Lee, the only Black woman representative from this region, lost the endorsement vote to political newcomer Christopher Roland, who had the backing of some labor groups and Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
2nd time running. Won 1st time w/68%, increased voter turnout, supported new dems, voted more “dem” than they do
Now even as the incumbent, the @AlleghenyDems have refused again to endorse the only Black woman to EVER be elected from this region. Seat at the table where?
— Summer Lee (@SummerForPA) February 16, 2020
“It’s disgusting,” Hallam said. “They’re all about backing incumbents until it’s time to support an outspoken woman. “Summer told me today. and it’s true, that if she had Chris Roland’s resume she would have been laughed out of the room. We need someone like her in office and in leadership.
“Today was a bad look for the Democratic Party. When we talk about the party endorsement not being relevant, these are the reasons why. I’d love to hear from party leadership how they feel about Heather Kass being their endorsed candidate.”
County Democratic Party Chairwoman Eileen Kelly and executive director Elizabeth Casertano did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Nor did Kass and Coghill.
Charlie Deitch is the editor of the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.