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Readshaw Announces Retirement, And Challengers Eye A Suddenly Open Seat

Pennsylvania State House
Harry Readshaw announced his plans to retire at the end of the year on Tuesday

State Rep. Harry Readshaw, who has represented portions of Pittsburgh and nearby suburbs for a quarter-century, announced that this year would be his last in Harrisburg. And already there are hopefuls seeking to replace him. 

Readshaw, who is 78, cited age considerations as the reason for his decision to retire at the end of 2020. “In two more years, I’d be 81. Although I think I am in pretty good shape, the reality of those numbers sort of grabs you.”

Readshaw represents the 36th District, which includes Carrick and other south Pittsburgh neighborhoods, as well as Brentwood, Mount Oliver, and parts of Baldwin. First elected in 1994, he led Democrats on the House Professional Licensure Committee, which handles matters related to 29 board and commissions under the jurisdiction of the Pennsylvania Department of State. Readshaw himself is the third-generation owner of a family funeral home in Carrick. He said he was especially proud of bringing home state grants and other financial support for his district over the years.  

Readshaw is also among a dwindling number of “old-school Democrats,” as he calls them: strong supporters of unions and labor, but often opposed to abortion rights and gun control.

The number of such Democrats has shrunk in recent years, as a progressives have mounted challenges to more conservative Pittsburgh-area representatives like Dom Costa. Readshaw himself was facing a challenge from Jessica Benham, of the South Side Slopes.

Readshaw said the challenge from Benham – who earlier in the day announced the backing of City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith – was not a factor in his decision. He easily brushed back a progressive foe in Erin Molchany back in 2014. “I’ve had opponents before, that certainly doesn’t annoy or frighten me,” Readshaw said. “It’s called politics.” He also dismissed the possibility that his district would be redrawn or eliminated after the 2020 Census: Democrats have speculated that he would step down after a final term, to make it easier to sacrifice a district as the region continues to lose clout. 

But he allowed that Pittsburgh, and Democratic politics, were changing to at least some extent.

“There’s been a dramatic change in some areas. There has been change in the 36th District, but I do believe even to this date that it is more moderate than liberal in its make-up," he said. "There are more younger people in the district now than probably ever has been. ... But compared to some city districts, it's stayed pretty moderate in its political philosophy."

He lamented that fact that both parties had become more ideological. “For the government to work, there needs to be compromise,” he said. "I would hope whoever follows me does in fact have the word 'compromise' in their vocabulary, and would be concerned about good government as opposed to good politics.”

In addition to Benham, Heather Kass of the 29th Ward Democratic Committee has also declared a bid. Kass, who works in medical research and lives in Carrick, said this would be her first run for an office higher than committee. She said a key issue was opioid addiction, and while she wanted more aggressive policing of those who sell the drugs, she advocated a more compassionate approach to addicts.  

Philosophically, she said she fell somewhere between Readshaw and Benham. Like Readshaw, she said she backed unions and was skeptical of gun-control regulations, including those the city of Pittsburgh has sought to impose within its boundaries.

"If you get different areas trying to change laws, if I go through from one [community] to another, I don't know what your laws are."

But she said that abortion was "kind of hard for me" as an issue. While she wouldn't choose an abortion for herself, "as a woman it's hard for me to make that choice for someone else. I don't support using abortion as birth control, but as far as [abortions in the case of threats to] a woman's health, or rape or incest -- I have a right to do that." She said she would also seek to reflect her district's wishes on that and other issues.

Kass said she'd be doing a grassroots campaign which involved "doorknocking in the areas I grew up" -- the city's Arlington and South Side Slopes neighborhoods. "A lot of people are so used to Harry, who had such a great reputation and who I love. I didn't want to do anything until Harry announced."

As for Benham, she thanked Readshaw for his work as a legislator. “I wasn’t running because of just one person. So I am looking forward to a robust primary of engagement with voters whether or not we end up with anyone else in the race. Whether it's the frontrunner, underdog — whatever status I have, where my heart is one-on-one conversations with people.”

Still, Benham observed, “It did take a lot of courage to step up and run when it wasn’t an open seat. I’m hopeful that voters will see that as reflective of the courage that I will take with me to Harrisburg."

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.