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Dems pick Covington as their champion in special election to complete Gainey's state House term

Martell Covington hugs supporter
Chris Potter
Martell Covington celebrates with supporters on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022.

Members of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee have named Martell Covington as the candidate they’d like to represent their party in a special election this spring for state House District 24. The committee’s vote this Saturday at the Kingsley Center in East Liberty has put Covington in a strong position to fill the seat once held by Ed Gainey, who stepped down from the post to serve as mayor of Pittsburgh.

“I feel relieved,” said Covington, who received 40 of the 101 votes cast by committee members Saturday. “It was a busy week of forums and talking to committee members, but you don’t know what they expect. I am excited and grateful.”

Covington is an aide to state Senator Jay Costa, vice-president of the county’s Young Democrats chapter and an active presence in Homewood and environs. Many considered him to be the front runner in the six-person field. But he said he would be campaigning actively.

Committee people and party ward officers who represent areas within the district were allowed to vote: 101 of the 169 eligible to vote turned out Saturday

In all, six candidates soughtthe party’s nod on Saturday, a robust field that included a number of younger and first-time candidates.

Technically, Saturday’s pick is only a recommendation that must be approved by the executive committee of the state party. But that approval is typically only a formality. Should the state party accept the pick of committee members, Covington will be the only candidate on the ballot April 5 to run with a “D” beside his name. Other candidates may still appear on the ballot as independents or champions of other parties.

Although a process that will reconfigure legislative districts has been underway this winter, the special election will be fought out along the battle lines of Gainey’s old district, which includes Wilkinsburg and eastern neighborhoods of the city such as Homewood, East Hills, Lincoln-Larimer and Highland Park.

The other candidates who sought the party’s nomination in District 24 included

  • Will Anderson, a longtime Democratic activist and frequent political candidate who has repeatedly challenged Gainey for the seat in the past
  • Lamar Blackwell, who heads the Pittsburgh office of the criminal re-entry nonprofit Center for Employment Opportunities
  • La’Tasha Mayes, a longtime reproductive rights activist
  • Randall Taylor, a community activist and former Pittsburgh Public Schools board member
  • NaTisha Washington, an environmental-justice organizer with activist group OnePA

Each paid a $1,000 filing fee to be considered for the party’s nomination: The levying of such fees has been controversial, but committee chair Eileen Kelly said it was necessary to cover the party’s costs, including those of the event itself.

Mayes finished second in the balloting, with 24 votes, while Taylor, the most veteran of the candidates, finished third with 16. Washington, Blackwell and Anderson posted totals of 10, 6 and 5, respectively.

Kelly and other committee members praised the strength of the field overall, saying it included a new generation of potential leaders who were already showing a sophisticated approach to politics.

“My committee was impressed with all six of them,” said Jim Ferlo, a former city councilor and state Senator who chairs the city’s 11th Ward committee. In a Zoom meeting with committee members, he said that while Taylor, in particular, had experience in government, “They were all really knowledgeable.”

The special election will be the last chance for some candidates and committee people – as well as for some voters – to have a voice in the 24th district. New district lines passed by a state redistricting commission Friday will reconfigure the district for the next regular election. Assuming those lines survive any court challenges, the district will no longer include Wilkinsburg but will expand westward to include portions of the Hill District, picking up Bloomfield and other neighborhoods on the way.

Already one candidate, Wilkinsburg resident Ashley Comans, has shelved her campaign in part because of the new lines. Washington also is a Wilkinsburg resident: On Saturday, she said she would not run for a full two-year term but would consider another potential special election run — if Summer Lee, whose 34th district will include Wilkinsburg under the new map, wins her bid for Congress.

Until then, Washington said, “I’ll be supporting Summer in her journey.”

The April 5 special election itself will be alongside a similar contest to replace former state Rep. Jake Wheatley, who stepped down from his 19th District seat to serve as Gainey’s chief of staff. (Democrats will choose their nominee in that contest on Feb. 10, with interested candidates obliged to submit letters of intent and a filing fee by Feb. 7.)

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.