Ordinarily, judicial candidates don't generate much election-year excitement: Many voters don't even think about those races until they are standing in the voting booth.
Hugh McGough, though, has been having a positively Obama-like effect on some voters.
"I decided to change my registration to vote for him," says Shirley Kreidwise, who remembers seeing McGough campaign for a seat on the Court of Common Pleas in 2007. "I really think he has feelings for people who don't have a lot of money. I remember thinking, 'This is just a good man.'"
McGough also represents an increasingly diverse generation of political leadership. He is the first openly gay judicial candidate in Allegheny County, though he downplays its significance. It's "old information," he says. "And it's not what I expect voters to judge me by."
Gay-rights advocates agree. McGough won the endorsement of the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, which supports the political interests of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. But "what's most important to us," says Dana Elmendorf, the group's president, "is that Hugh is really well qualified to consider issues of concern -- including issues of concern to our community."
Still, there is palpable enthusiasm among LGBT activists. "It's all very exciting," says Lance Friedman, a Stonewall Democrats board member. "If he's elected, it would prove that Allegheny County is more progressive than people think."
There is good reason for hope. Of the 15 candidates running for five open spots on the Common Pleas bench, McGough is one of only four to receive the county bar association's highest rating, and the only one who lives in the city. In addition to the Stonewall Democrats and other LGBT activist groups, several labor groups have endorsed him, as has the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Allegheny County Democratic Committee did not endorse him, but McGough notes he does have an all-important qualification: "I'm a Pittsburgher for many generations."
McGough, 53, of Shadyside, began his career in broadcasting, producing a KDKA news show. But he became a lawyer to affect the outcome of major issues, he says.
His 17-year legal career includes a stint as a city labor and employment attorney, a post McGough left in 2007 after working for the past three mayors. In that capacity, he wrote the non-discrimination policy governing city employees. His major focus, though, was helping to implement a federal consent decree that previously governed complaints of police misconduct.
McGough also played a key role in a dispute between police Commander Catherine McNeilly and the then-fledgling administration of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. McNeilly charged that the city had interfered with disciplining a police officer connected to the mayor's inner circle. She was later demoted for broadcasting her charges in an e-mail she sent to city council. McGough was compelled to testify in a subsequent hearing before federal judge Donetta Ambrose. McGough testified that McNeilly's efforts to discipline the officer were flawed, and that he tried to advise her so.
Ambrose reversed McNeilly's demotion, which became an early flashpoint for criticism of the mayor. McGough says little about the case today, noting that he was merely giving advice to McNeilly and Dom Costa, who had been placed in charge of the department shortly before. In any case, McGough hasn't shied from politically sensitive matters since then.
In private practice, he represented three city councilors who fought a Downtown electronic billboard backed by Ravenstahl. He's also represented unions and workers in labor disputes, including one involving local unionized janitors.
A trained mediator, McGough says he'd like to push the county court to institute mediation and other alternative dispute resolution methods. Such an approach has "proven effective in speeding the resolution of cases and reducing backlog on the docket," he says.
It won't be easy for McGough to win without the party endorsement. (The Fraternal Order of Police also declined to endorse him.) But being a judge, he says, "is a dream. And I think it's an achievable dream."
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