Poised for progress: W.Pa. women score primary night wins | Analysis

By: - June 8, 2020 10:49 am

Members and supporters of WTF Pittsburgh, a political action committee that raises money for, and supports, women candidates in western Pennsylvania (Photo courtesy of WTF Pittsburgh/Jann Chirdon).

For the second spring primary in a row, all of the candidates endorsed by Women for the Future of Pittsburgh, a political action committee focused on electing progressive women in Allegheny County, won or are poised to win their primary elections. 

The same is true for the UNITE PAC, which supports progressives with a focus on women, people of color and LGBTQ candidates: all four of its endorsed candidates won their primaries as well, according to unofficial returns.

WTF was not deterred by the extraordinary circumstances surrounding this year’s elections, endorsing its nine candidates via Zoom conference calls. It donated $12,500 to its candidates in this election cycle, for a total of $62,500 in donations since its inception in 2017.

Organizers say it’s an impressive showing for the new organizations — WTF Pittsburgh is not quite three years old, and UNITE was founded in 2019 — and it may signal a shift away from politics-as-usual in western Pennsylvania. 

“WTF contributed to my campaign early, and that really helped with credibility,” said Jessica Benham, who won a four-way primary to represent the 36th House District which includes Carrick, South Side and Mount Washington in the city of Pittsburgh, and several southern suburbs.

These W.Pa. women pols asked ‘WTF Pittsburgh?’ so they started a PAC to do something about it

Benham  also had UNITE’s endorsement.

 “I’ve been around Allegheny County politics long enough that I knew someone like me wouldn’t be welcomed by political insiders,” said Benham, who has autism and identifies as bisexual. “But that’s OK. I wasn’t trying to impress a small group of people.”

That small group of people she refers to is part of the traditional path for candidates in Allegheny County: by seeking and winning the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. 

Candidates pay a $2,500 fee to vie for the endorsement from committee members in their (legislative?) district, If they’re selected, get their names added to a slate card that is mailed to the entire county committee. 

But the county party came under criticism in this election cycle for several of its endorsements. In Benham’s primary, four candidates were vying for the seat being vacated by retiring Rep. Harry Readshaw. 

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Benham lost the endorsement to Heather Kass, despite Kass’s inflammatory social media posts and past support of President Donald Trump. 

The party later withdrew its support of Kass, but not before her name was printed on the slate card that went out to voters. Benham is the apparent winner in the 36th District seat that Readshaw has held since 1995, taking almost 42 percent of the vote. Kass was a distant third, at 15 percent, according to unofficial tallies.

The ACDC also declined to endorse Rep. Summer Lee, of  Swissvale, the incumbent in the 34th House District, and the first black woman elected to the Legislature in the southwestern corner of the state. Lee is a progressive who was endorsed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. 

Instead, the committee backed North Braddock Borough Councilor Chris Roland, a white man. Lee, who had the backing of WTF and co-founded the UNITE PAC, easily beat Roland in the primary, winning nearly 76 percent of the vote, according to unofficial tallies.

Like Lee and Benham, Emily Kinkead had the support of WTF and UNITE in her bid for the 20th District but did not win the ACDC endorsement. The committee endorsed incumbent Adam Ravenstahl, but Kinkead says she wasn’t all that concerned.

“Nobody really cares about the ACDC endorsement anymore, it doesn’t really change anyone’s opinion about who they’re going to vote for,” Kinkead said. “It’s an incredibly expensive endorsement that is effectively meaningless.” 

Kinkead won the primary with about 56 percent of the vote, unofficial returns showed. She says the county party is making itself irrelevant by putting the same people in positions of authority. 

“These are seats that get passed down through families,” she said. “I heard constantly ‘I’m a friend of the Ravenstahls’ which, that’s great but that’s not necessarily a reason to support someone for office. They need people on hat committee who recognize that personal relationships aren’t always the best way to meet the political needs of voters.

They have to have a willingness to evolve on that front.

The ACDC did not respond to a request for comment from the Capital-Star.WTF co-founder, and former Pittsburgh City Councilor Natalia Rudiak, says the county party’s s practice of charging a fee for candidates to seek its endorsement is unusual among local committees, which typically offer candidates financial support as well as manpower, knocking doors and whipping votes. 

“I’ve questioned whether the ACDC has been relevant for the past 15 years,” Rudiak said. She points out that in 2010, the first year she was on Pittsburgh City Council, the majority of council members had not received ACDC endorsements. “What was giving it some credibility still, was the men in power who chased after the endorsement, which made it seem more legitimate.” 

Rudiak says the ongoing conversation among progressive candidates in Allegheny County is whether to try to reform the county party from the inside, or ignore it altogether. 

“We are winning elections now, but we need to start thinking: what is our relationship to this committee? Do we let it die or do we revive it?”

For her part, Benham says it’s important to note that organizations such as  WTF and UNITE are not a new version of machine politics. “These organizations are not disconnected from voters,” she said. “They recognize that the real power lies with the people.” 

Correspondent Kim Lyons covers Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @SocialKimLy.

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications.