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Pittsburgh attorney Steve Irwin joins race to replace Doyle

Jesse Irwin
Steve Irwin has joined the race to replace retiring Congressman Mike Doyle next year, offering himself as a pragmatist in a field that includes Jerry Dickinson and Summer Lee.

A third Democrat is entering the race to replace retiring Congressman Mike Doyle next year: Squirrel Hill attorney Steve Irwin.

“All Pittsburghers need somebody who has the experience and the understanding and the compassion and the work ethic to represent us,” he said. “I want to be that champion.”

Irwin had been laying the groundwork for a lieutenant governor run next year but said Doyle’s decision to retire represented both an “imperative” and a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

Between the coronavirus pandemic and mounting economic stress on working- and middle-class families, he said, “We're facing challenges that we've never seen in my lifetime, and we need a Congressperson in Pittsburgh who can get things done.”

“We live in a region that is so much better off than we were 25 years ago, and a lot of that is the hard work Mike Doyle did,” Irwin said. “But we need to find a way to be sure that everybody can reap those benefits.”

Professionally, Irwin is a partner at the Leech Tishman law firm, where he specializes in business and labor law with a focus on the financial sector. But he’s also been active in politics and government, having worked as an aide to the late Senator Arlen Specter and served on public commissions on topics ranging from infrastructure to civil rights. Irwin has been a fundraiser and committeeman in local Democratic circles.

Such connections may not always seem helpful at a time when outsider credentials are valued. And the field to replace Doyle is already occupied by two staunchly progressive candidates: University of Pittsburgh law professor Jerry Dickinson and state Representative Summer Lee. But Irwin says his experience and years of connections could benefit the region on issues like public transit.

“Our Port Authority is built on a system that's dependent on hundreds of thousands more riders than we're getting right now,” he said. That makes federal aid crucial, and he notes he worked in Specter’s office “to get the money for our LRT. So I understand transportation and infrastructure.” Work for nonprofit agencies focused on healthcare policy has also steeped him in that issue as well, he said.

In a race that includes two avowed progressives who have been critical of the party establishment, Irwin would seem a more moderate choice. Irwin hailed both Dickinson and Lee, and said good candidates “will lift all boats.” But voters, he predicted, will “go deep, beyond the surface. And they’ll be able to tell who has the experience, the judgment … and is there to get things done. I think I’m that person.”

“People don't want polarization. They want something more geared toward the middle of the road,” he added. “I'm somebody who has progressive values, and I'm also someone who understands ways to get things done that are going to move the ball for families that are just trying to have opportunities.”

Asked how he would respond to those who saw his campaign as a bid to blunt the progressive momentum behind a candidate like Lee, Irwin said that “it seems like yesterday I was on the front edge of the revolution. We had a machine politics situation in Pittsburgh ... and I did exactly what this next generation of folks is doing.”

Irwin touts ties to Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal advocacy group, and his own progressive philosophy on economic concerns as well as social issues like abortion, LGBT rights and gun control. He has served as a cantor at Tree of Life, and while he wasn’t there for the mass shooting that took place there in 2018, “I lost friends in that tragedy. … There’s things we can do to minimize the chances that such horrible things like that tragedy can recur.”

Irwin has been active in a number of civic organizations, having held leadership posts in groups like Big Brothers Big Sisters, Sustainable Pittsburgh, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation and a regional chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.

He also plays the accordion in public performances, though he jokes that among the reasons he moved to Pittsburgh was that it was a place “where the accordion would actually be accepted and would not hold me back” from a political career.

“I've been encouraged very strongly by people in the labor movement,” Irwin said. “I've been encouraged by people in office. I've been encouraged by people that I've worked with in the community. … They saw what I've been able to accomplish [and] that I care about everybody at the table.”

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.