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Three Republicans Now Vying For Turzai's Seat In 28th House District

Matt Rourke

Three Republican candidates are now hoping to replace outgoing House Speaker Mike Turzai in the 28th District, making for the first competitive contest the district has seen in years. Michael Heckmann and Libby Blackburn will join Rob Mercuri on the ballot in April.
Heckmann and Blackburn are both native to the district, which spans several affluent North Hills suburbs, including McCandless, Pine Township, and Franklin Park, and tout their own proximity to public office as reason to elect them.

“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, you’re the school board member who answers the phone and who actually calls back,’” said Blackburn, of McCandless, who has served as a board member for the North Allegheny school district for eight years. “I’m very responsive. I’m most proud of my honesty and transparency toward everyone.”

Blackburn, who has lived in the district for more than 50 years, broadly outlined her support for school choice, fiscal responsibility, term limits for elected officials, and bringing jobs to the region as important facets of her candidacy. She said it’s her record and service as a school board member that makes her stick out from the other two Republicans in the race.

“I am an elected official,” she said. “I don’t think the other candidates have a voting record. So, while we can all hope and guess, I’m the one that people know where I stand on issues and know that I’m going to represent them.”

Heckmann, of Wexford, currently works on education policy in Turzai’s office in Harrisburg and has also worked on issues like redistricting. He took a leave of absence to run for office, and believes his familiarity with the state House, and his roots in the district, would be assets.

“As the 28th District transitions from having the Speaker of the House to having a freshman legislator, I hope to offer that I’ll be able to step into both sides of that role very effectively,” Heckmann said.

Similar to his boss, Heckmann emphasized the importance of school choice and his anti-abortion beliefs, but said there were areas where he differs from Turzai.

“I think in particular he’s been a substantial opponent to any type of marijuana legalization,” Heckmann said. (Turzai reportedly wept while discussing his opposition to medical marijuana in a 2015 meeting with fellow Republicans.) “I’m not really a supporter but I’m not as opposed,” he said, adding that Pennsylvania has the benefit of watching how other states handle legalization before doing anything in the Commonwealth.

Turzai announced his plans to retire and seek work in the private sector in January. Mercuri, who announced his bid just one day later, is a PNC Bank vice president and financial risk manager who led a military intelligence unit in Iraq. He was awarded a Bronze Star, which his campaign said was not a combat decoration but a recognition of his lifesaving intelligence work.

Turzai has backed Mercuri, though both Heckmann and Blackburn said they’re not concerned his endorsement.

“[Turzai] told me it was because he was always going to choose a veteran over anyone else,” Blackburn said. “I think that’s wonderful that someone served our country, but it doesn’t necessarily make for the best candidate. Part of a democracy is that people get to choose the candidate representing them.”

“I would have loved to have [Turzai’s endorsement],” Heckmann said. “But I’m also 29, so if I don’t win, I don’t think it will be my last race.”

The winner of the April 28 primary will likley face Democrat Emily Skopov, who is running unopposed on the Democratic ticket, in November.

Lucy Perkins is an editor and also reports on federal government and elections for the Government and Accountability team. Before joining the WESA newsroom, she was an NPR producer in Washington, D.C., working on news programs like All Things Considered and Weekend Edition. You can reach her at lperkins@wesa.fm.
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