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City Democrats deadlock over leader

| Saturday, June 29, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

One of the first major tasks of the new chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee will be to appoint a new chairperson for the Pittsburgh Democratic Committee — a job made necessary after city Democrats deadlocked Friday night over who should be their leader.

Ben Woods — a rising political star in Pittsburgh in the 1980s before his career was shattered by a federal conviction on corruption charges — got the most votes on four successive ballots but fell short on each ballot of the 49-vote "constitutional majority" he needed to seal the victory.

The final vote was 40 for Woods, of the North Side; 38 for Barbara J. Ernsberger, of Shadyside; three blank ballots; and one invalid ballot. The chairs, vice chairs and secretaries of each of Pittsburgh's 32 wards were eligible to vote. Of the 96 potential voters, there were 82 present last night and the winner had to receive at least 49 votes.

"That's the way things happen sometimes," Woods said after the reorganization meeting at Schenley High School in Oakland was adjourned without selecting a chairperson.

Leading up to and following the final vote, a heated debate developed between Woods and Ernsberger factions over whether the outgoing county chairman, state Sen. Leonard Bodack Jr., of Lawrenceville, was empowered to appoint a city chairperson because of the deadlock. Bodack, whose term ends today, maintained from the podium that a legal interpretation he received from the party's solicitor, Ira Weiss, gave him the authority to appoint.

The outgoing city chairman, Pittsburgh Controller Tom Flaherty, who is a candidate for county chairman in a reorganization election scheduled to be held today, said that party rules clearly state that if the city committee failed to elect a new chair, that position would be filled by appointment after 15 days by the county chair.

John Posteraro, a Pennsbury Village councilman, also is a candidate for county chairman.

After Pittsburgh City Councilman Jim Ferlo called for an adjournment — adding the matter would wind up in Common Pleas Court if an appointment were made last night — and an impassioned plea for party unity from Flaherty, the group adjourned.

Flaherty told his fellow party members that argument over the issue was not good for the party and could hurt the Democratic gubernatorial slate in the fall election.

"It was all about the rule book and the rules prevailed," Flaherty told reporters following that adjournment, adding that he didn't know who he would pick for city chairman if he wins the race for county chairman.

But Bodack said he was unhappy with the adjournment and would have appointed Woods the chairman if the meeting had continued.

"The specific purpose of being here was to elect a chair of the city committee. Ben Woods led that on four ballots," he said. "It's obvious a majority of the city committee want him to be their chair, and I certainly would have honored that."

Woods, elected to Pittsburgh City Council in 1981, was forced to resign in 1989, while council president, after he was convicted in federal court on 17 counts of racketeering, income tax evasion, extortion and conspiracy.

He served three years in minimum-security federal prisons and was released from a halfway house in June 1993. In 1998, Woods was elected Democratic chairman of the city's 27th Ward.

In November, Woods lost a bid to become city chairman when Flaherty was elected in a special reorganization meeting to fill the post of longtime city Democratic Chairman Sam Tiglio of Banksville.

Ernsberger, the city committee's 7th ward chairwoman, also is a member of the state Democratic committee.

Voting in the countywide reorganization is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today at the IBEW union hall on the South Side.

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