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Political Newcomer Pisciottano Says Mon Valley State House District Ready For Change

Courtesy of Nick Pisciottano for State Representative
Nick Pisciottano says the 38th District is poised for a new era.

The phrases “Monongahela Valley” and “new political blood” are not often found in the same sentence. But if Nick Pisciottano has his way, Democrats will see a generational shift in leadership after the surprise retirement announcement of state Rep. Bill Kortz earlier this month.

“I heard from people within the district, and outside the district, that I should take a look at running,” said the 30-year-old West Mifflin resident. “It felt like an opportunity that I really couldn’t pass up.”

The 38th District includes Mon Valley neighborhoods in places like Dravosburg, Glassport, and West Mifflin, while also incorporating middle-class suburbs like Baldwin, Pleasant Hills, South Park and Whitehall. Pisciottano said his roots there go deep, with a family history in the area that dates back almost to the Civil War. A graduate of Washington and Jefferson College and John Hopkins University, Pisciottano is an accountant at powerhouse firm KPMG. He also leads the West Mifflin Community Foundation, a nonprofit charitable group that serves the district.

Kortz’s decision to retire at the end of his seventh term surprised many Democrats. And while the 65-year-old said it was for health concerns, its timing upset some within the party. Many only learned of his decision when he declined to seek the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement: Instead of his name on the final list of candidates seeking the endorsement, there was the name of West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly, who Kortz was backing. It was by that point too late for anyone else to seek the party’s backing for a run.

But those concerns became less pressing when Kelly withdrew, citing health reasons of his own. Pisciottano had already decided to run, and Kortz is now supporting his bid instead.

“I didn’t know that Bill was planning to retire, and Bill himself didn’t know until the very last minute,” Pisciottano said. “I had decided to run before Mayor Kelly made his decision. Ultimately he decided not to run but [that] was not really the impetus.”

Pisciottano said that the district itself is about to turn a new page, thanks to construction of the Mon-Fayette Expressway toll road. The massive road project has been delayed for over a half-century, but the state’s Turnpike Commission is now purchasing land and preparing for construction of a segment to join Jefferson Hills with Duquesne. One interchange will be within the 38th, the other just outside it. Ultimately the project is slated to connect with the Parkway East in Monroeville

“These big infrastructure projects happen maybe once in a generation,” Pisciottano said. “’It will connect the Mon Valley to Monroeville and the Turnpike and all points east and west.”

He dismissed critics who say the project will never be realized, or that it represents a 20th-century approach to economic growth. “I understand the skepticism because it’s been a long time coming. But it’s going to happen. [And] if you look at some of the areas of Allegheny County that have seen economic booms recently, a lot of that is tied to infrastructure. The I-279 extension has really opened up Cranberry and places like Wexford.”

Still, Pisciottano said that mass transit options also needed investment. “People in this district work Downtown, and it’s key for them to be able to get to jobs there. A lot of that is dependent on public transit. More bus lines, more frequent bus routes [are] key for the development of this region.”

He takes a similarly middle-of-the-road approach to environmental issues within the valley, acknowledging the concerns stemming from industrial facilities like the Clairton Coke Works while also praising employers like US Steel.

“I share the concerns that have been raised about the air quality” he said of long-running controversies over emissions from US Steel facilities. But “US Steel has owned up to its mistakes and … accepted that they are going to invest in their plants to be more environmentally conscious. A lot of people in this district have been here their entire lives and their response is the air is cleaner now than it has been for a long time. We still have a long ways to go, but we’re trending in the right direction.”

Pisciottano said the community’s relationship with local industry was like “a pair of old friends. We can hold each other to very high expectations without risking the end of a friendship or a partnership that has gone on for generations.”

Like fellow lame-duck legislator Harry Readshaw, Kortz has been in many ways an old-school western Pennsylvania Democrat: strong on labor issues, but skewed more moderate to conservative on social questions. Republicans are expected to put forward a candidate of their own in the district, which includes many white working-class communities where Donald Trump fared well in 2016.

Pisciottano said that when put alongside Kortz, “we hold similar views on 80 percent of the questions that face the state legislature,” though he acknowledged that he had different experiences as someone “of a younger generation.”  

Pisciottano would in fact  be even younger than state newcomers like Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, who represents other parts of the Mon Valley. But he was far less likely than the two of them to strike contrasts with the generation of legislators now stepping down from public life. “The key issues in the 38th district have been economic,” he said. “And I think Bill has been spot-on with those.”

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.