Former Miss Pennsylvania & Teacher’s Union Leader Shake Up Western PA Special Election Dem Nomination Contest (Special Newsletter)

Westmoreland County Commissioner and former Miss Pennsylvania Gina Cerilli has emerged as a leading candidate in the race for the Western Pa. Special Election

Greetings from the East End of Pittsburgh where the special election race in the nearby suburban Pennsylvania 18th District is heating up into a three-way battle between Mike Crossey—the retired Pennsylvania State Educators Association president—Gina Cerilli—a Westmoreland County commissioner and former Miss Pennsylvania—and Conor Lamb, a former Marine prosecutor.

But before we get to a special Western PA Special Election Payday Report, we have urgent news out of Houston, Texas, where the lives of hundreds of day laborers are at risk.

31-Year-Old Hurricane Cleanup Worker Killed By Flesh Eating Bacteria Identified

On Monday, Payday Senior Labor Reporter Mike Elk, in an investigative piece published by the Guardian, warned that undocumented workers’ lives were in danger as they worked to cleanup areas of Texas flooded by Hurricane Harvey. The article exposed that the Trump Administration’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is failing to coordinate training with undocumented day laborers engaged in the cleanup work, according to complaints by former top OSHA officials and Latino health and safety organizers on the ground in Texas.

On Tuesday, Payday Report learned that a hurricane clean up worker was killed on the job. `

Now, Payday can confirm that the worker is 31-year-old Josue Zarita, an immigrant from Mexico. Zarita, a carpenter, had worked on several flood-damaged homes that had become infected with the flesh-eating bacteria necrotizing fasciitis.

On October 10, Zarita entered a hospital in Galveston with a seriously infected arm. On Tuesday, he died at the age of 31.

A GoFundMe Page has been set up to help Zurita’s family defray the costs of his medical treatment and burial.

Second SEIU Official Suspended Over Sexual Harassment

Last week, Scott Courtney, the national director of SEIU’s Fight for $15 campaign, was suspended amid allegations of sexual harassment. Early this week, he resigned from SEIU.

Now, the second Fight for $15 official and the leader of the campaign in Chicago, Caleb Jennings, was fired after allegations of misconduct and abuse toward staffers.

Ace Buzzfeed Labor Reporter Cora Lewis has the scoop once again:

In June of 2016, more than 50 union staffers signed a letter addressed to two current and one former president of local SEIU chapters, calling for the removal of Jennings, the Chicago organizing coordinator, saying he allegedly assaulted 28-year-old female staffer Gönül Düzer. Düzer was subsequently fired.

In the letter, reviewed by BuzzFeed News, the staffers describe an incident in which Jennings “became violent, ripping [Düzer’s] work phone out of her hands and subsequently shoving her against a door frame.”

“This incident won’t surprise those familiar with the working conditions at the FF15,” the staffers wrote. “Caleb has made himself well known for creating a toxic work environment… Making it more egregious in this instance is that the FF15 Organizing Coordinator attacked an immigrant and a woman of color, exactly the workers which the FF15’s success depends on.”

Then, in July of 2016, following Düzer’s firing, four top Chicago organizers beneath Jennings wrote an email to SEIU’s president Henry, again calling for his resignation or dismissal.

“The sexist and aggressive attitude of Caleb Jennings has created a toxic environment and fear inside the office of the FF15,” they wrote in the email, reviewed by BuzzFeed News.

To read more, check out Cora’s scoop at BuzzFeed.

Western PA Special Election in Key Swing Seat Set for March 13

This week, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf set the special election date of March 13 to fill the remaining term of resigned GOP Congressman Tim Murphy.

Wolf faced some criticism from Republicans for setting the date on March 13 instead of holding the election on Primary Election day May 15. Republicans charge that holding a stand-alone special election date will drive up turnout by Democrats more eager to get to the polls.

“I think the governor should have set it for the primary,” Mark Harris, a political consultant working for the campaign of the leading Republican candidate, 34-year-old State Senator Guy Reschenthaler told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Republicans will choose their candidate through a special convention involving 260 delegates in November.

Democrats will also host a special convention that month, involving approximately 800 locally elected Democratic committee members. Approximately 100 local committee spots that are eligible to vote in the convention are currently vacant, leading to a rush among candidates to place their committee members.

Former Miss Pennsylvania and Teachers Union Leader Shake Up Dem Special Election

Early on, many suspected that former Marine prosecutor Conor Lamb would be the leading contender to win the Democratic Primary nod. However, Lamb has faced competition on his right flank from a former Miss Pennsylvania turned Westmoreland County Commissioner, 31-year-old Gina Cerilli, and on his left flank from 66-year-old Mike Crossey, the former head of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

All three camps are claiming that they have the political edge in the race and are drawing support from different bases. At this time, it remains unclear who has a base of support, but nearly all the camps expect the special convention to go several ballots deep.

Pro-Life Gina Cerilli Looking to Wedge Trump Democrats

Cerilli has a deep base of support in Westmoreland County, which has the population of 365,000. It is expected that more than a third of the votes at the convention will come from Westmoreland.

Not only does she hold support among Westmoreland County Democrats, but also among conservatives, as she is a devout anti-abortion activist. Cerilli has the potential to win the special convention as she also holds high name recognition throughout the district from her time as Miss Pennsylvania.

Cerilli had drawn criticism for her refusal to run on coordinated tickets with other Democrats in Westmoreland when she ran for county commissioner in 2015. At the time, Cerilli, who campaigns on being both “pro-life” and “pro-business,” said that she wanted to define herself as separate from the Democratic Party by running as an independent.

As a former Miss Pennsylvania who participated in the banquet run by Donald Trump, Cerilli has been loathe to criticize Trump. Recently, she drew criticism for appearing at the White House with the all-white Pittsburgh Penguins to celebrate their Stanley Cup win.

“Once in a lifetime experience being invited to the White House for the Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup Celebration with my sissy!” tweeted Cerilli at the time.

Many civil rights activists had called on the Pittsburgh Penguins to boycott the appearance, as athletes of both the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors and Super Bowl champs New England Patriots protested the event.

People’s House Project Endorses Teacher Union Leader Mike Crossey

Meanwhile, Crossey, the retired Pennsylvania State Education Association president and former Allegheny County councilman, has staked out a position on the left flank of the primary. He has come out strong for Medicare-for-All and a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Crossey says that he also supports the #BlackLivesMatter movement and Colin Kaepernick’s right to protest despite being in a district that is nearly 90 percent white.

Meanwhile, supporters of Crossey have criticized 33-year-old Conor Lamb for not issuing policy positions yet. Lamb has pledged to run as an Robert Kennedy-style progressive Democrat.

Lamb’s camp counters that up until two-and-a-half weeks ago, Lamb was a U.S. assistant attorney and did not have time to get together a platform. Currently, they say Lamb is meeting with Democratic committeemen throughout the district, which is comprised of some of Pittsburgh’s most affluent suburbs, as he develops his platform and plans to issue it in coming weeks.

In multiple requests over a two-week period, Lamb’s campaign did not lay out any policy positions of their campaign, but assured Payday that when they do that they will contact us. 

Lamb’s silence was enough to force People’s House Project President Krystal Ball to endorse Crossey.

“[Crossey] has spent his career, his life, and his spare time fighting for working families. He is not afraid to say where he stands on the issues. He is going to put working people at the center for his campaign and, when he gets to Washington, he is going to fight like hell for them,” says Ball.

(Full Disclosure: Payday Senior Labor Reporter Mike Elk and Krystal Ball are personal friends from his time living in Louisville.)

Crossey Endorsed Hillary Clinton Without Letting His Members Vote on Process

As the retired president of the state’s teachers union, Crossey had the union, the largest in the state, endorse Hillary Clinton without letting any of his 180,000 members vote on it. A study done by Zaid Jilani of The Intercept showed that unions, which allowed their members to vote directly on the endorsement as CWA did, all endorsed Bernie Sanders, whereas, unions that did not let their members vote endorsed Clinton.

Crossey’s camp refused multiple requests to comment on what lessons, if any, Crossey has learned from endorsing Hillary without a membership vote. Crossey’s camp also refused to answer questions about his feelings on union executive salary reform, after it was discovered that he made more than $200,000 as leader of the PSEA.

In recent years, excessive union salaries have become a contentious issue with union reformers. In 2010, upon taking over control of the Chicago Teacher’s Union, the first move Karen Lewis made was to cut her executive salary in order to focus more resources on organizing.

Lamb Attracting Support from Young Reformers in Organized Labor

In the five months that Mike Crossey has been the race, his spokesman Nick Bonessa told Payday that he raised $25,000. With little more than two weeks in the race, Conor Lamb has raised approximately $67,000, according to the Lamb campaign.

(Full Disclosure: Conor Lamb’s treasurer, Marco Attisano, was previously an intern for Payday Senior Labor Reporter Elk, when Elk was employed as the Obama Field Organizer for Crawford County in 2008. Attisano and Elk have remained close personal friends since then.)

Despite Lamb’s slow process in ruling out his policy positions, many young labor leaders say that Lamb is a solidly pro-union choice.

Many young reformers within the party and organized labor say that they are backing Lamb because they see a desperate need for a change in the leadership of Western Pennsylvania Democratic politics. They say that electing Crossey would just allow the same labor leaders, who backed Hillary and lost power, to continue business-as-usual.

“This election is about more than policy positions on any one issue,” said one senior labor leader, who requested anonymity as his union is planning to sit out the pre-special convention process. “This is about who is going to rebuild the Democratic Party organization in this district. Are we going to hand the keys back over to the same old labor leaders, who got us in this mess in the first place, or are we gonna elect someone young like Conor who has the energy to get out there and rebuild the party in Western PA?”

Payday Pledges to Remain Objective, Calls on Crossey, Lamb, & Cerilli To Be More Transparent with Media

Payday Senior Labor Reporter Mike Elk, a native of Westmoreland County, finds himself challenged in his ability to remain objective. His close personal friend and political associate Krystal Ball is backing Mike Crossey, while his close friend Marco Attisano is backing Lamb.

Despite what personal loyalties Elk feels toward the various parties involved in this Western PA Special Primary Election, we pledge to remain as objective as possible. 

If you have any questions that you think we should ask the camps, please email us at [email protected]. We will continue to let you know what questions they don’t answer and keep pushing Lamb, Cerilli, and Crossey to expand their access to the press.

Weekend Reads

— The Richmond Times-Dispatch covers how Virginia Democrats have abandoned a key race for a top seat in the Virginia state legislature:

Carter, 30, a former Marine who grew up in Elizabeth City, N.C., is the kind of rogue candidate that gives an apparatus like the Democratic Party of Virginia a fit as the party makes an offensive against Republican House of Delegates incumbents across Northern Virginia and in a few other parts of the state.

The Democratic Party establishment is aligned with Dominion Energy, a regulated monopoly, and supportive of Dominion’s desire to build the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline across Virginia. Like their GOP counterparts, the Democrats are recipients of the cash Virginia’s top corporate political contributor pumps into the system, and the Democratic Party of Virginia received $125,000 in 2016, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Carter opposes its plan for a natural gas pipeline and opposed its plan for a high-voltage transmission line that was to go through residential neighborhoods in Prince William County; the plan has stalled under local resistance. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline plan, with some questioning whether Atlantic Coast is necessary for Virginia’s power needs.

“I’m to the left of them on economic policy,” Carter said of his party. “I am unabashedly pro-union, pro-worker. I’m openly fighting against the large corporate interests. That’s something that you don’t see a lot of politicians in either party do very much of, and that’s something that Virginia frankly has not seen very much of since the days of Henry Howell.”

Howell was the progressive populist state senator and lieutenant governor in the 1960s and 1970s who made three runs for governor and challenged corporate power — including Dominion — using the slogan, “Keep the big boys honest.”

— The New Yorker reissues its 1959 profile of playwright Lorraine Hansberry.

— The Santa Fe New Mexican profiles independent filmmaker John Sayles, director of Matewan, and producer Maggie Renzi, Sayles’ wife, ahead of their receiving lifetime achievement awards and shooting a new movie


About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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