Monday, April 15, 2013

Itkin Vs. Coyne - The Contentious 1995 Club Endorsement, or "Three Coynes and a' Countin'" (apologies to Sammy Cahn)

With the club's endorsement meeting less than a week away, and a controversy bubbling around a candidate paying dues for new club members, I thought I'd detail a fractious club endorsement that occurred 18 years ago in a race for Allegheny County Clerk of Courts involving Joyce Lee Itkin, Jim Ellenbogen, Dennis Coyne, and the incumbent, Carol Coyne (no relation to Dennis).

Joyce, and particularly her husband, Ivan Itkin, were very active party and club members (see a photo of Joyce chairing a club fundraiser around 1984). Joyce ran for city council in 1991, prior to the clerk of courts contest. Ivan was the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania governor in 1998 and served in the state house from 1973 to 1998. (See his Wikipedia page.)

Not even a nuclear scientist could beat the party machine. [click on image for larger version]
According to the articles above, Itkin ran unsuccessfully for the state senate with the club's endorsement in 1968. In 1970, as club president, he led an effort to unseat the 14th Ward chair by running club-backed candidates for ward committee slots. (The attempted coup was precipitated by Mayor Pete Flaherty losing the ward by one vote to the Republican mayoral candidate that year, even though the ward's Democrats had a 2-1 voter registration edge.)

Fast forward to 1995. The Associated Press provided some context for the club's disputed clerk of courts endorsement, reporting that 14th Ward chair and club board member Eric Marchbein accused Dennis Coyne, a truck driver with no political experience, of being a "spoiler" in the race--placed on the ballot to create name confusion with the incumbent Coyne.

"Marchbein said he was reconsidering his support for Joyce Lee Itkin, a clerk of courts candidate, because he suspects an Itkin supporter was behind Dennis Coyne's recruitment," according to the AP.

(For further context, William J. "Bill" Coyne was the congressman at the time for the state's 14th Congressional District, which included the 14th Ward. No relation to Carol or Dennis, I'm told.)

An Allegheny County political power couple.
In the club's initial endorsement ballot count, Coyne beat Itkin by three votes. But the matter was far from settled. Itkin supporters charged that three club members were prevented from voting, in contravention of common practice, if not the club's bylaws. At issue was whether the members had paid their dues up to two years prior to the meeting. If not, they had to have paid at least 30 days prior to the meeting to be eligible to vote. While the rule was on the books, it was rarely enforced; members often paid their dues on endorsement day and were permitted to vote.

Two of Itkin's supporters who were denied the vote subsequently produced canceled checks proving that they had paid their dues within two years. Another Itkin supporter submitted a signed and notarized affidavit saying that she had paid her dues in cash within the two-year period but had not received a receipt.

The club archives contain numerous letters from Itkin supporters, including one from three past club presidents resigning their club memberships, as well as a statement from then-club president John Burke and lengthy post-endorsement board meeting minutes that included plans for revising the by-laws.

Despite protestations from Itkin supporters that the vote was actually tied and that the outcome should be nullified, Burke sent a letter to members affirming that two Itkin supporters were improperly prevented from voting and were permitted to vote, but that their votes did not alter the outcome. While the club's slate card was printed and distributed with Coyne listed as the endorsed candidate, Itkin, who had the party's backing, went on to win the primary. Four years later she lost a re-election bid to George Matta, with Carol Coyne finishing third.

According to the June 11, 1995 board meeting minutes, Kathie Smith, the club's current president, "said she was concerned about the attempt to undermine the voters guide that was done at the expense of the other Club endorsed candidates. Endorsed candidates count on the integrity of the voters guide and its impact and it is inconsistent with Club policy to try to minimize it."


  1. From board member Ron Gaydos: In which Ivan Itkin singlehandedly stopped casino gambling in PA! ...albeit for only 10 years...

    He spent his House Majority Campaign Fund heavily on Joyce's campaign for Clerk of Courts, lost the Democratic majority in the PA House, and the resulting Republican majority shut down gambling in PA until the house majority went back to the Democrats in 2006. Funny how things work out...

  2. From board member Barbara Daly Danko: Ron's comment sparked a memory of one of my first Pittsburgh letters to the editor which I looked up in my husband's files last night. The letter (published on July 14, 1995) was titled "Squandered clout" and was written in response to a July 3rd article called "Region Loses Capitol Clout." To quote from the article, "Last week, as minority whip, Itkin watched helplessly as the Pittsburgh Public Schools lost all of that money." 1994 was the year that the Ds lost their one vote majority in the State House (Itkin then no longer the Majority Leader). Instead of shoring up D races in 1994, Itkin "loaned" his wife's (Joyce Lee Itkin) $85,000 for her Clerk of Courts race. And that's "the rest of the story."