Yet Parkinson and others plugged into the right-wing meme sphere remain members in good standing of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. The controversy over that highlights the national party’s dilemma in Pennsylvania and other swing states such as Michigan and Wisconsin: voters who consider themselves loyal Democrats but also may be attracted to Trump.
Here in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh and surrounding communities such as West Mifflin, an effort to boot some of those members has created a bitter schism. U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle is among several elected officials who’ve called for Chair Eileen Kelly to step down. State Rep. Austin Davis resigned his committee vice chairmanship, citing Kelly’s inaction over members he deemed “Democrats for Trump.”
“It’s an organization that’s supposed to support Democrats,” Davis said. “If you are supporting another candidate, that’s grounds for dismissal.”
Such splits could be exacerbated by the divide over Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, further challenging Democratic organizers who for now can’t even contact voters in person.
Participation in Allegheny County’s party committee has never been based exclusively on ideology. The organization has 2,400 elected member positions spread over 1,200 districts, most of them tiny wards or voting precincts. The title of committee member comes with a small role and a smidgen of power in a vast political machine, traditionally run by blue-collar, union-household Democrats whose involvement often resembles a kind of old-fashioned civic engagement.
The recent internal conflicts surfaced publicly after images of old Facebook posts by committee member Heather Kass appeared in the Pittsburgh Current, an alternative newspaper.
“AS I HAVE SAID BEFORE I HATE OBAMACARE,” she wrote in 2015, blaming her own health-care costs on “NO GOOD IDIOTS SUCKING THE SYSTEM DRY.” The message, previously visible only to her friends, included the line “GO TRUMP!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Kass, a medical worker who is running for the legislature with the backing of her district’s retiring incumbent, subsequently expressed regret over her posts. The following month, the other committee members in the district endorsed her by a wide margin — at a meeting where a local Democratic officeholder sported a red Make American Great Again hat.
“I wore it to show my disgust with the Democratic Party,” said Nick Viglione, a councilman in the small borough of Mount Oliver. He voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but plans to cast a ballot for Trump in 2020. “So this Kass didn’t like Obamacare? So didn’t a lot of people.”
The outcome that day only hardened divisions and raised the stakes, according to committee member Bethany Hallam, who also serves on the Allegheny County Council.
“Now there’s a consequence,” said Hallam, one of the committee’s younger, more liberal activists. “Someone had gotten the endorsement.” The only appropriate response, she felt, was to cull Trump support from the ranks.
Another alternative newspaper, the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, also jumped in and published an article with a compilation of other members’ pro-Trump content. (It continues to collect and post such images on Twitter.) One image showed Jeffrey Anesin, a ward chairman in the city’s working-class neighborhood of Troy Hill, posing in a Trump hat with the caption “2020 Trump Train!”
The county committee chairwoman, who works for the Pittsburgh city controller, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. In a news conference after the Kass endorsement, Kelly said, “There are no Trump supporters in the committee.” She dismissed the Anesin photo, too. “Well, you have to know this gentleman,” she said. “He was doing it out of fun.”
The issue is particularly exasperating to James Rizzo, who ran for a committee seat in 2018 because the member for his voting precinct in Troy Hill was posting pro-Trump content on Facebook. “I did not want to be represented, at the most local level, by a Trump supporter,” he said.
He feels just as strongly about Kelly’s pleas for party unity, calling them “the height of dishonesty when what we are trying to draw attention to is the presence, perhaps significant presence, of people who will not and cannot unify in November.”
Reached by phone, Anesin said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” and hung up. Kass, who still faces an opponent in the upcoming Democratic primary, responded to two emails asking for an interview and then stopped communicating.
The controversy raises a key question: Who is a Trump supporter? The state party’s bylaws allow for the ejection of an officer who “by voice, vote, financial support or otherwise” supported a candidate “opposed to the duly nominated candidate of the Democratic Party” within the past two years. Has a committee member who declares “Go Trump” on Facebook clearly broken that rule?
“One can circulate right-wing memes and fall short of an electoral endorsement,” Rizzo said. “For me, the red line, and it’s specified in the county and state party bylaws, is electoral advocacy of a candidate opposing the Democrat. And ‘Trump Train 2020!’ is that.”
Hallam agreed. “First we kick off all the MAGA hats, and then we’ll talk about what’s next,” she said.
In her view, the county Democratic committee has been lax in upholding core principles. “I think people see it as a social club. They say, ‘I get invited to candidates’ parties. I have a line to public officials.’ ”
She believes the party should be more stringent with “anyone who goes against Democratic ideals, anyone who is working against what we are working for, anyone who is anti-choice, anti-union, anti-living wage.”
Though the emotional pitch has subsided amid the pandemic, it’s sure to heat up again soon. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has ordered all Pennsylvanians to stay at home through the end of the month and moved the state primary from April 28 to June 2.
That’s when the signs of partisanship are likely to reappear in places such as West Mifflin, a borough situated along a bend of the Monongahela River that once was populated by union members who worked the region’s steel mills. Today it’s a bedroom community of modest but tidy homes where Trump came within several dozen votes of beating Clinton, largely because of people such as Rudy and Ruth Antoncic — lifelong Democrats but fervent Trump fans.
The couple intends to cast another ballot for him in November.
Parkinson didn’t know about the efforts to eject the president’s ostensible supporters from the county party committee. She rolled her eyes at the notion that she might be for Trump — neither he nor Clinton got her vote four years ago, she said — and conceded that her Facebook jabs might have gone too far. “Maybe I am too loud,” she allowed.
The retired administrative assistant can recount decades of work for local and state Democrats’ campaigns, printing candidates’ brochures, distributing them at the polls and then hosting pizza parties for volunteers on election night. Her generation is used to hard political footwork, she noted.
“I don’t know who they could find to replace me,” Parkinson said. “If they kicked me out, it would be their loss, not mine.”
Jeff Swensen contributed to this report.