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With House Majority Up For Grabs, Democratic Leader Dermody Faces Energetic Challenge

Pennsylvania House, DelRosso campaign
State Rep. Frank Dermody faces Carrie DelRosso in a district that blends Allegheny River Valley towns with suburbs

Sitting in the late-summer sun at an outdoor restaurant in his hometown of Oakmont, Frank Dermody doesn't look like he has much to worry about. He’s been a state House member for nearly 30 years, and he’s led House Democrats for almost a decade. But if he wants to add to that legacy — and join a potential Democratic majority in the House next year — he'll first have to beat Republican Carrie DelRosso in the election next week.
"It’s gonna be a race, I’m fine with that," Dermody said. "And I’ve got a record that I’m going to stand by and run on."

Dermody's 33rd district includes suburbs like Oakmont and Allegheny River Valley towns like Brackenridge. Dermody can tout a number of accompolishments for the area — like rebuilding the nearby Hulton Bridge and providing public aid for emergency rooms and steel mills. A former prosecutor, he is also pressing for criminal justice reform along with Democratic touchstones like education funding.

"We’ll communicate those issues and others to the voters and see what happens," Dermody said. "I feel good about the election."

But in 2018, Dermody beat a little-known challenger by just 11 percentage points. And his rival this year is far more visible: DelRosso peers out from billboards and from mailings scattered throughout the district.

DelRosso works in communications — her clients have included local school districts — and she sits on Oakmont’s borough council. From a campaign office located next door to a combination cigar store and gun shop, she says the low-key Dermody isn’t visible enough in the district.

"I think he has to take care of his caucus and because of that I think he has lost touch in the community," she said. "There’s a lot of people that still say, ‘But Frank, he’s a nice guy.’ Yeah, he’s a nice guy, but is he up for the fight anymore?"

DelRosso has been endorsed by a handful of unions that usually back Democrats — locals for operating engineers, laborers, and electrical workers. Political insiders say there's some payback at work, thanks partly to grudges over a highway bill passed back in the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett, whose term ended in 2014.

Dermody may also be taking a hit for his party’s energy policy. Earlier this summer, the Boilermakers took part in a rally at the Cheswick power plant — right in the heart of the 33rd district — to oppose Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s efforts to join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. The initiative is a multi-state effort to reduce the threat of climate change by lowering carbon dioxide emissions — such as those that come from coal-fired power plants. 

John Hughes, the business manager for Boilermakers Local 154, said Dermody’s absence from the event was conspicuous.  

"We’re in Frank Dermody’s neighborhood. Where is he?” Hughes said. Dermody, he acknowledged, had actually voted against Wolf’s position on the greenhouse-gas initiative, and in general Dermody “has been good with the building trades his entire career. We just need a voice. We’re not getting a voice out of the Democratic Party."

Dermody says the green-house gas initiative is "not something I am interested in," though he didn’t criticize Wolf, the leader of his own party, directly.

But Darrin Kelly, the top AFL-CIO official in western Pennsylvania, says Dermody has been a longtime ally of labor, even if sometimes unions go their own way on an endorsement.

"There’s definitely different opinions. Each union is entitled to have that,” Kelly said. “But one thing I can say is that Frank Dermody has been very good to the men and women of organized labor. There's no doubt about that. "

Dermody says that a win by DelRosso would empower a party that seeks to undermine unions by making it harder to organize and collect union dues.

"She’ll be part of a caucus that will take their jobs away," he said.  

In fact, DelRosso is backed by some union foes: The Commonwealth Leaders Fund has blanketed the district with mailers attacking Dermody. The fund supports “pro-growth candidates,” and among its biggest supporters is a related committee that takes support from “Students First,” a political committee financed by a handful of hedge-fund managers who back charter schools.

DelRosso also has support from conservatives who oppose gun regulations and abortion rights. But she says she is willing to cross the aisle to get things done.

"When I win I'm going to have to cross that party line, there's no doubt,” she says. “And I embrace it because we learn from each other."

One area that urgently needs a more pragmatic approach, she says, is the state's coronavirus response, which she blames for adding to economic woes.

"The restaurants are shutting down because they can’t keep the staff or they can’t find the staff,” she says. “The staff is collecting unemployment and they can’t get them back to work. Frank is leading that charge with the governor, and it’s not good.”

But Dermody says the last thing Harrisburg needs is another Republican who doesn't take the virus seriously enough.

"We’ve spent all these months facing these reopening bills of our economy,” he said, referring to a long-running battle between Wolf and the Republican-controlled legislature. Republicans, he said, “wanted to open up businesses at a time we couldn’t get nurses protective equipment, we couldn’t get doctors protective equipment. We have to be responsible and we have to base what we’re doing based on the science as we know it at the time."

Politicos say Republicans could lose the state House this fall. That could make Dermody one of the state's most influential Democrats — if he wins Nov. 3.

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.