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Challenger To State Rep Lee Builds Ample War Chest — Thanks To Building Trades Support

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

A challenger in what will likely be among the most closely-watched Democratic primaries in western Pennsylvania has amassed a considerable war chest in his bid to topple state Rep. Summer Lee. And building-trades unions are already playing a notable role in the Monongahela Valley-based terrain of state House District 34.   

Chris Roland, who announced his campaign in early December, quickly raised $77,635 within the last several weeks of the year according to year-end campaign-finance records. That nearly doubled Lee’s fundraising for the year, though she still starts 2020 with a healthy $55,679.84 in her account.

For every dollar Roland raised, 87 cents came from political committees tied to unions – mostly building-trades unions that skew more conservative. Among the biggest givers was a committee tied to Steamfitters Local 449, which gave Roland $20,000. Steamfitters members have benefited from pipelines and other infrastructure related to the fracking industry, of which Lee has been a vocal critic.

A PAC tied to the politically strong Laborers union also gave $20,000 and local unions that represent electrical workers and plumbers gave $10,000 apiece. A handful of other unions gave three- and four-digit sums.

Roland did not immediately respond to a call and text Friday morning, but Democrats and union leaders have predicted he would have little difficulty drawing support from locals upset by Lee's platform. Lee said she wasn’t surprised at his totals.

“We knew this would happen,” said Lee Friday morning. “People don’t even always know his name, but they knew there was a building-trades guy in the race. When you come for industries that have had unfettered support and access to the halls of power, you can expect there will be blowback.”

For her part, Lee raised $42,557.50 last year: Not surprisingly, given her status as a progressive standard-bearer, she received money from a number of local activists. But far and away her largest supporter was a political committee tied to SEIU Healthcare, a service-workers union that gave her a total of $12,500 last year. Sharpsburg resident Rachelle Regner was another top giver, having donated $5,350 in three separate contributions last year.

“We’re not hurting for money,” Lee  said, noting that she had been badly outgunned – at first – when she ran against incumbent Paul Costa to win the seat two years ago. “There is so much more to see, and I’m excited by who we will be bringing on.”

Year-end fundraising totals in other legislative races suggest there may be other notable fights this spring.

In state House District 20, attorney Emily Kinkead is hoping to reprise Lee’s 2018 success by mounting a progressive challenge against Adam Ravenstahl. (Another would-be challenger, Emily Marburger, decided not to run.) They’ll do battle in a district that includes Pittsburgh neighborhoods like Lawrenceville and the North Side, as well as Ohio Valley river towns nearby.

Kinkead raised $35,320.52 in the waning days of 2019, an amount swelled by support from her family and over $16,300 she has loaned to her own effort. Her largest outside donation was a $9,000 check from a committee tied to former County Council candidate and Democratic Committeeman Jacob George, of Pittsburgh’s Summer Hill neighborhood.

Kinkead spent just under $12,000 ramping up her bid, and started 2020 with $23,326.54 in the bank.

Ravenstahl raised $16,000 last year, almost all of which came from political committees tied to labor and other interests, led by a $2,000 contribution from an anesthesiologists’ committee. Ravenstahl began the year with slightly less than $35,000 in the bank: Factoring in that money and expenditures he made in 2019, he begins the election year with $41,442.61.

Three Democrats are vying for a chance to take on Rep. Lori Mizgorski, a Republican, in House District 30, which includes North Hills suburbs including Hampton, Fox Chapel, and Shaler. Mizgorski finished 2019 with a modest $12,451.42.

Marco Attisano raised $75,305 in his bid to be the Democratic nominee to challenge Mizgorski. Even considering that $27,500 of that was financed by the candidate’s own household, it is an impressive sum. Democratic rival Lissa Geiger Shulman also reported a healthy $46,786.42, $10,000 of which she donated herself. A third Democratic contender, Serra Heck, entered the race after the year-end filing deadline, so no financial information is available.

Attisano, a defense attorney, tapped a professional network for much of his support, and his biggest donors include criminal defense lawyers David Shrager ($5,000) and Phil DiLucente ($2,500).

Shulman, a former educator and legislative staffer who went on to become an advocate for early childhood education, drew $5,000 from a political committee tied to the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, and another $5,000 from South Hills state Rep. Dan Miller, her former boss. State Senator Lindsey Williams, whose district overlays the 30th District, also contributed $1,000.

Jessica Benham planned to challenge longtime House District 36 incumbent Harry Readshaw in this district that includes Carrick, Brentwood and other working-class areas in the city and South Hills. And while Readshaw made a surprise decision to withdraw from the race and retire at the end of his turn, Benham began this year with a $28,845.60 head start in the race to replace him.

Benham raised $36,528.24 in 2019 (and spent nearly $7,700 of it), much of which came from progressive Democratic allies including City Councilor Bruce Kraus ($1,000) and state Sen. Lindsey Williams ($1,000). Women for The Future Pittsburgh, which supports progressive female candidates, gave her $2,500. Benham’s largest single donation was a $9,000 check from Squirrel Hill resident Janet Anti, a longtime supporter of progressive campaigns. Benham also reported $7,000 in free video editing services.

Benham’s only declared rival, Heather Kass, did not enter the race until Readshaw’s retirement announcement last month. Accordingly, she did not have a report to file for 2019. She will have ground to make up financially, but she has received Readshaw’s backing and may be able to draw on some of the $20,330.83 he reported in his campaign committee at the end of 2019.

Allegheny County Republicans will also have some choices this spring, perhaps none more notable than in state Senate District 37. The fight for this district, which ranges from the South Hills of Pittsburgh to airport-area suburbs, figures be one of the state’s most closely watched battles this year. Republicans Jeff Neff and Devlin Robinson are both seeking to challenge Democrat Pam Iovino, who won the seat in a special election last spring. Control of the state Senate next year may well depend on the outcome this fall.

Robinson got in the race early and toted up $71,120 in contributions: Minus his spending last year, he begins 2020 with $ 61,939.64.  Perhaps his most notable support was a $10,000 check from a political committee tied to former Congressman Tim Murphy, for whom Robinson once worked as a district representative. He also received $5,000 apiece from committees tied to the highway-construction company Trumbull Corporation and the PA Future Fund, a GOP stalwart whose chair is longtime Republican Party fixture Bob Asher.

Neff, of Sewickley, was a later entrant but jump-started his campaign with just under $16,000 in self-financing. In all, he brought in $26,765.61 with support from conservatives including former state Rep. Rick Saccone, who donated $500 from a campaign committee. Neff spent in a hurry too, however, and started 2020 with $6,410.75.

Meanwhile, Iovino only won her seat in a special election last April, but has wasted little time replenishing her coffers. She awaits her challenger with $116,679.17 in the bank at the beginning of the year. She was able to raise money in the fall and winter with support from heavy-hitters in organized labor: An operating engineers PAC gave her $25,000, and a carpenters’ local gave her $15,000, while locals that represent plumbers and electrical workers gave her $10,000 apiece.