Deconstructing the ACDC, part 3
Many know that the big Allegheny County Democratic Committee (ACDC) endorsement vote is today. People get awfully conflicted over what these endorsement votes mean or do not mean. Who gets to vote are the folks that themselves get elected every 4 years (plus those who are appointed to fill empty positions of course). But we’ve been over that. Once elected, this is what they do. Folks get upset thinking the committees don’t represent them, but it’s often the people who shun this whole process that dislike it the most. Thus what you have seen happening in some local elections are people trying to create ad hoc endorsement processes to select pseudo-endorsed candidates. The problem with such ad hoc processes is that you really have no idea how representative they are. So at the end of the day, the process by which the committee people on either side are selected has the advantage of being run by the county elections office and is as open as the elections are in general. Last I went to one of these election confabs, the voting within the committees were themselves run with the same voting machines used in the elections themselves.
But what does it all mean? I still believe the debates over that are more based on false premises and myths if anything else.
Myth 1, the ‘machine’ controls local politics.
Little could be further from the truth. The list of folks who have been elected either without the endorsement, or the complete antipathy of the ACDC is long. Anyone remember some unknown fellow named Pete Flaherty who not only ran against the ACDC endorsed Judge Kramer to win election as mayor…. Flaherty would not even be the endorsed mayoral candidate as the incumbent 4 years later which is awfully remarkable. He still won easily in both primary and general. Tom Flaherty was the city Democratic Party chairman yet when he ran for mayor he came in 4th. He would have likely done better if he had not been endorsed. And we won’t even begin to mention Caliguiri who won as an independent in his first race for mayor. Granted he was the incumbent at the time because Flaherty had resigned to be the Deputy Attorney General, but he clearly had plenty of otherwise lever-pulling support. If those examples are far too long ago for you to count, more recently folks like Dowd, Rudiak, Costa (Dom), Bennington and Lamb to name just some who won without ACDC endorsement.
Myth 2, the machine always supports the old farts
People really don’t believe me on this one. But let’s go through some current pols and their political histories. Bill Peduto.. elected to office originally as the endorsed Democrat and the youngest candidate against several older candidates, some long time ACDC stalwarts even. I honestly doubt he would have won if the lever pullers had gone with one of the other candidates in that race. A lot of recent local political history could have been awfully different if that one endorsement vote within that one district had gone differently. Even the folks you might think were sponsored by ACDC endorsements were not. The new District Justice Jim Motznik is an interesting example. When he was elected to city council he not only wasn’t the endorsed by the ACDC but he ran against the endorsed Democrat as an independent even which borders on sacrilegious in those circles. Yet won.
Myth: you can’t get elected to the ACDC.
I think we have addressed that quantitatively now to a large degree, but it goes beyond that. In an awful lot of cases just filing would get you into the ACDC directly. In the vast majority the competition is minimal. So why does nothing seem to change? Remember Seth Hufford? 4 years ago this effort to get young people elected to the committee seemed quiescent, but 8 years ago there was a lot more noise along those lines. Seth was the prime, maybe even the sole, example of a young person who chose to dive in to one of these committeeperson races in a district which had a long time incumbent no less. Just happens to be my district as a coincidence. But Seth had a classic little micro-campaign. Sent out little postcards which were cute and worked the polls all day and in the end eeked out a victory over the ‘incumbent’ who most likely had no idea there as an insurgent campaign to unseat him. …
Which all really begs the bigger question. Was Hufford the vanguard of changes to come? There was this little problem in that not long after being elected Seth picked up and moved out of town as young people are wont to do. It’s America, he was allowed to move. But that right there is one of the key problems. Politics really is local and a lot of the politics here is indeed driven by folks who have lived in their communities a long time and if they take a risk on someone it creates a lot of blow back if they then disappear. So it is actually quite counterproductive if the folks who break the barrier to get elected to offices wind up not sticking with it for the longer haul... or any haul for that matter.
Of course, it all begs the question of why we still have endorsement votes. The real question is why we have primaries actually. If you compare the US to the rest of the Western world, I would argue the endorsement process is closer to what happens. The actual primary election is a very American construct that is not replicated in a lot of other democracies. Think about that some.
But there is an answer to some of that. The Primary system as we know it actually got started here in Western Pennsylvania. Unsurprisingly because of infighting among local Democrats. Mentioned before, but for more see: The Origin of the Direct Primary: The Crawford County System. By Paul Giddens. The Western Pennsylvania Historical Review. Vol. 60 No. 2. April 1977