Two Well-Known Names Battle in Pittsburgh House Race

Oct 31, 2014

In his campaign to unseat incumbent Rep. Jake Wheatley (D- Allegheny), Mark Brentley, Sr. is touting his lifelong history as a resident and activist in the 19th House district.

The problem, however, is that Wheatley has held the 19th district seat for 12 years — so he does not suffer from a lack experience working in the district that covers much of the North Side, Hill District, East End and Beltzhoover .

And he isn’t lacking on local support, either.

But Brentley is undaunted by the six-term representative Wheatley, and he believes that his chances of a victory next week stand at “50 percent.” Brentley is running as an independent but has run in past elections as a Democrat.

“I’m committed this region,” Brentley said. “We [the 19th district] want an opportunity to move in a different direction.”

Brentley is a longtime board member of the Pittsburgh Public School District and has a reputation of being a fiery advocate for economic and racial equality in the public school system. He has been pegged as opinionated and stubborn, but has garnered support for his uncompromising beliefs.

During his tenure as a state representative, Wheatley has often made education a salient issue as well.

Wheatley said that during this latest campaign effort, he’s “talked about things that we can do to transform this system, to be a 21st century education system.”

Wheatley has been ridiculed at times for supporting the growth of charter schools within Pittsburgh. But he does not see his efforts as an attack on public schools. He sees it as an innovative way to look at education that looks beyond “the current funding struggles” that the city faces.

“I cannot speak about his [Brentley’s] personal record, but I will tell you I have one,” he said.

That record includes “voting to support additional resources” for education, Wheatley said proudly. “Although we have resources, they are not equitably distributed.”

That is something he has tried to change since entering office back in 2002.

Wheatley speaks with confidence and talks like an incumbent running a campaign with a large base of support. He tamps down questions regarding his opponent, deciding to focus more on the issues and his constituents' concerns.

“Rarely are campaigns about the other people in the race. They are about the people we are primed to serve. So I have talked to them about what I’ve done and what I plan to do more of in that capacity for them,” Wheatley said.

Brentley, on the other hand, is running a different campaign. As a notable local figure in the district who has not fared well running for state office, he ran for the seat in 1994 and 1998 as a Democrat and lost in the primary both times. He is focusing on the incumbent’s shortcomings and how he would be different.

Referring to Wheatley as a “divisive” leader, Brentley pledged to represent the district in a different way. “When we are talking about an entire district that stretches into Hazelwood, large part of the Northside, Beltzhoover, we do not need a divisive kind of leader in that position.”

“We need more” from a state representative, he said.

Brentley cited “incidents of violence” and “lack of employment” as serious issues in his district that need to be addressed. He also stressed that he would continue to support public education.

Brentley is running as an Independent; his party ticket is Families for Brentley.

“I’m an independent on my decisions and my voting choices, but I am also a registered Democrat,” he said. “I believe in a lot of the principles of the Democratic Party, but for this race I decided to run as an Independent.”

This is not the first time Brentley has run for the seat as an Independent. He did so  in 1996 and lost to Democratic incumbent William Robinson in the general election.

Regarding his party ticket name, Brentley said, “I think [families] are the most important thing that we have to advocate for in the 19th district.”

Brentley also stressed the need to support local entrepreneurs to help spur innovation.  

At times it is hard to tell the difference between the two candidates. Their feud could be linked to the long-simmering fight between opposing factions in the city's African American community. That feud most recently bubbled to the surface when the Penguins worked with a group of Hill residents lead by City Councilman Daniel Lavelle to build a master plan for the redevelopment of the old civic arena site. As soon as the plan was announced the Hill District Consensus Group lead by Carl Redwood came out against the plan saying the residents of the neighborhood were never consulted. 

The 19th House district includes Downtown, Uptown, the Hill District, Allentown, and Knoxville areas, as well as parts of the North Side, Oakland, South Side, Mount Washington, Beltzhoover, Hazelwood and Glen Hazel.