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Incumbent's Surprise Retirement Sets Up Battle Between Mizgorski, Monroe In State House District 30

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Democrat Betsy Monre (l) and Republican Lori Mizgorski (r) face each other in the North Hills on November 6

Incumbent state House member Hal English shocked many North Hills voters this summer by deciding not to run for re-election after winning the Republican primary. Among the District 30 constituents who were surprised by the decision, which English announced shortly before the Fourth of July, was aide Lori Mizgorski.

“It was a surprise, definitely,” said Mizgorksi, who worked for English for five years. “And I had just a few days to think about if I wanted to run for the nomination.”

Mizgorski, who already served on the Shaler Township board of commissioners, quickly decided to campaign for her boss’ seat in the district, which includes Fox Chapel, Hampton, O'Hara, Richland, and Shaler. Party leaders selected her as their nominee at the end of July, where she will face Democrat Betsy Monroe.

Monroe, too, was surprised by English’s withdrawal, but she said it hasn’t changed her approach to a race in which she has a months-long head start in campaigning.

“Back in January I was looking at a race against a Republican incumbent who had not had an opponent in the last two cycles,” she said.

House District 30 is made up of the kind of prosperous suburb that Democrats are hoping to conquer this election: Monroe herself called it “the prototypical description of the Blue Wave,” where people with advanced degrees – especially women – who never cottoned to President Donald Trump “are really looking for a change in the direction we are going.”

Monroe herself moved to Fox Chapel in 2012. She's worked for insurance giant Highmark. She said that Harrisburg needs people with health care experience, and wants to heal the breach between Highmark and UPMC by adopting “any willing payer” legislation.

Such a law would bar health care providers from refusing to accept qualified insurance coverage, as UPMC began seeking to do once Highmark affiliated with its own hospital network.

Monroe supports a number of progressive causes, including an immediate minimum wage hike to $12 an hour, with plans for a future increase to $15. She balks, however, at more sweeping reforms like a “single payer” health care system in which the government provides insurance coverage.

Monroe said that being a first-time candidate is an asset.

"I think people are looking for change and I represent that. We have enough lawyers in Harrisburg. We have enough politicians in Harrisburg. We need more people who have lived in and worked in the real world."

Mizgorski takes a much different approach, stressing her lifelong roots in the community and her work alongside Democrats and Republicans as a Shaler commissioner. Among her successes there, she touts spinning off the community water department into a separate water authority that serves the area and nearby Hampton.

"I've lived here, I was raised here,” Mizgorski said. “I've had the interactions with people in our area, and I want to take that ability to work with both sides and take that experience to Harrisburg."

Mizgorski praised English’s “conservative ideals [and] the way he very compassionately deals with people.” She cited some common concerns, among them the cost of health care benefits for legislators and other state employees. “I think public-sector employees could be paying more toward their benefit,” she said. “It is a benefit that not your neighbor necessarily has.”

She said that her own background in local governance marked a difference with English, however. “Being a mother and being a female, there will be certain issues that I will see a little bit differently than he does,” though she couldn’t cite specific examples.

Mizgorski allowed that “national-level politics is filtering down” to local races, at least to some extent. But she added, “In my own door-knocking, I’m getting a positive result because people in our area tend to base [their vote] on the individual person. … [T]here is still a main core of people who are in the middle, whether they are Democrat, Republican or independent. It’s not extreme, although right now we’re hearing from the extremes.”

In a recent League of Women Voters debate, Mizgorski struck moderate notes, favoring “incremental” hikes to the state minimum wage, for example, and saying she opposed “right-to-work” rules that would make it harder for unions to organize workplaces. Citing her own family’s union ties, she said, “I would not do anything to harm a union.”

Monroe took a bolder stance on several issues.  While Mizgorski backed additional funding for state regulators to monitor natural-gas drilling, Monroe favors a severance tax on the gas industry. Monroe would use that money to provide more funds to struggling school districts, and reduce reliance on local tax revenue for education. Mizgorski warned that could reduce local control in prosperous districts like those in District 30.

The debate was largely cordial, and the race has been mostly quiet. There were flashes of animus, however. Mizgorksi complained repeatedly about mailers sent out by the PA Fund for Change, an independent-spending group that has charged Mizgorski of seeking to cut education. That was false, Mizgorksi said, and she held Monroe responsible.

“Part of transparency is letting the voters know when you are accepting money from an outside [group], and allowing that money to be used in a negative campaign against your opponent,” she said.

Monroe said that while “I’m not a career politician,” she had “been advised that I have no control of over the efforts [of] organizations … outside my campaign.”

She later took what appeared to be a veiled swipe at Mizgorski.  

“I didn’t enter this race to save my job,” she said. “I gave up my jobs because it is so important to me that we are represented well."

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.