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North Hills Democrats Have Options

Courtesty of Marco for PA and Friends of Lissa
Democrats Marco Attisano (left), of O'Hara, and Lissa Geiger Shulman, of Hampton, are both making their first bid for office in this year's primary for the 30th state House District.

The 30th State House district has long been a Republican bastion. But Democrats in the North Hills district have a choice this primary season between candidates who agree on many issues, but differ over the natural gas and petrochemical industries.

Attorney Marco Attisano and education policy expert Lissa Geiger Shulman both hope to unseat Republican Lori Mizgorski to represent Fox Chapel, Hampton, O’Hara, Richland, and Shaler in Harrisburg.

Geiger Shulman entered the race, in part, to advance her efforts to increase access to early childhood education.

“I’m a former teacher. I care a lot about education and early childhood,” Geiger Shulman told campaign volunteers who had gathered at her Hampton Township home in mid-March to prepare for an afternoon of voter outreach. (Efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus had just gotten underway, so volunteers planned to drop off campaign literature, not knock doors.)

Geiger Shulman taught at Pittsburgh Public middle schools for four years. She then served as chief of staff for Mt. Lebanon Democratic state Rep. Dan Miller, and is now the public policy director for the early learning advocacy nonprofit Trying Together.

She said the state needs to boost funding for early and public education, and divert more dollars to schools in low-income communities.

Attisano, her opponent, agrees. In fact, the two share positions on many issues: They both support abortion rights and tighter gun restrictions, for example, and believe the state should invest in renewable energy.

But Geiger Shulman said that process needs to move faster. She criticized the state for awarding more than $1.6 billion in tax breaks to a plastic plant being built in Beaver County.

“It gives away a lot of public dollars to an industry that we need to be moving away from,” Geiger Shulman said.

Attisano, however, supports the project, in what appears to be the starkest policy rift between the two candidates. The Beaver County plant is expected to create 6,000 temporary construction jobs and 600 permanent positions.

“These jobs put food on people's tables,” Attisano said. “These jobs ensure that children have somewhere to sleep at night.”

Attisano said as a kid, he himself didn’t always know where he would lay his head. His single mother struggled to afford housing, and the family at one point lived in a women’s crisis shelter. Attisano says he still remembers one day when he was called to his elementary school principal’s office, where he found his mother waiting.

“She was there to tell us we were being evicted, and I couldn't come home to where we were living already on the school bus like I would every other day,” Attisano said.

Attisano now lives in O’Hara Township and practices law. He previously served in the U.S. Navy for six years, and later became an assistant Allegheny County District Attorney. Like Geiger Shulman, this year’s race is his first run for office, although he previously served as Democratic U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb’s campaign treasurer.

Attisano has received endorsements from the Allegheny County Democratic Committee and most local unions. His campaign chair, Betsy Monroe, ran for the seat in 2018. She lost to the Republican incumbent, Mizgorski, but said Attisano’s moderate approach should help him win a traditionally Republican area.

“This district is not looking for revolution,” she said. “It’s just looking for solid representation of their own priorities. And … that’s what Marco is really offering.”

Last year, Attisano raised about $1.60 in campaign support for every dollar Geiger Shulman brought in, giving him a total of just over $75,000.

Geiger Shulman, meanwhile, has been endorsed by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and Emily’s List, which backs female candidates who support abortion rights. She also has the support of Democratic state Senator Lindsey Williams, whose district overlaps with the 30th.

Williams won her seat in 2018 running as a progressive. She said her victory proves a candidate like Geiger Shulman can be bold and still beat Mizgorski in November.

“I think her passion is what the constituents in House District 30 are really looking for,” Williams said. “They’re looking for a bold leader on issues they care about, and that’s Lissa.”

The primary was originally set to take place April 28, although in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Harrisburg officials are moving to delay it until June.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.