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Flaherty backers swamp LGBT group

Aaron Aupperlee
| Tuesday, April 7, 2015, 10:15 p.m.

The Steel City Stonewall Democrats received a flood of new members, netting the political group devoted to equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people thousands of dollars in dues, but angering some of the group's leaders.

At least two officers on the group's board tried unsuccessfully to bar new members from voting in Sunday's endorsement, concerned that people had joined solely to sway the vote in favor of Allegheny County controller candidate Mark Patrick Flaherty.

Flaherty, 53, of Mt. Lebanon, a former county controller, is challenging incumbent Chelsa Wagner, 37, of Point Breeze for the Democratic nomination. The primary is May 19.

New members included Flaherty supporters; members of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald's family; Jennifer Liptak, Fitzgerald's chief of staff; county Manager William McKain; county Solicitor Andrew Szefi; and other top county officials, said Jim Sheppard, president of the Stonewall Democrats.

“These are people that have been involved in the political realm for many years, and before (Monday) night, at 9:30, expressed no interest whatsoever in the Stonewall Democrats,” Sheppard said. “It just seems a little odd.”

Sheppard supports Wagner's candidacy and works in the controller's office. He said he doesn't work for Wagner's campaign.

Mike Mikus, head of Flaherty's election bid, said the campaign called supporters and asked them to join the organization.

Mikus said Fitzgerald and members of his family have been members in the past. Fitzgerald declined comment.

“Shame on them,” said Brad Korinski, spokesman for Wagner's campaign. “The LGBT community deserves better, and the work the Stonewall Democrats have done deserves better.”

Mikus said Flaherty supporters followed rules on the Stonewall Democrats' website for joining.

“For the Wagner campaign to criticize us for trying to grow an organization supportive of the LGBT community, shame on them,” Mikus said.

The Stonewall Democrats set an 11:59 p.m. Monday deadline for new members to join and be eligible to vote on the group's endorsement Sunday. Sheppard said the group's treasurer received about 100 paper membership applications and cash to cover dues about 9:30 p.m. Monday.

Levi Hahn, the group's communications chair, proposed barring new members from the vote, according to an email he sent to the board. Sheppard supported the proposal. The rest of the board rejected it, said Membership Chair DJ Ryan, an employee of Better Jobs, Better Future, a political committee that supports the Flaherty campaign.

Hahn resigned from the group's board Tuesday, according to an email, calling the membership surge “extremely unethical.”

“There's always been that tension. It all came to a head last night,” Ryan said. “I don't think it's worth it to throw the organization under the bus or throw our new members under the bus.”

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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