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Local election results suggest new strength — and new opportunity — for Black candidates

Ed Gainey speaks to supporters at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts after winning the election for mayor of Pittsburgh during his election night returns watch party, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Pittsburgh. Democrat Gainey beat Republican candidate Tony Moreno. Gainey will become the first Black mayor of Pittsburgh.
Keith Srakocic
Ed Gainey speaks to supporters at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts after winning the election for mayor of Pittsburgh during his election night returns watch party, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

Last week’s off-year elections suggested that, in Allegheny County at least, Black candidates have never been more electable. And partly because of those results, there will be more opportunity for local Black candidates in the months ahead.

Ed Gainey’s win as mayor of Pittsburgh — the first Black official to hold that position in the city’s history — drew the most attention locally and nationally. But there was good news for Black candidates elsewhere on the Allegheny County ballot. Four of the top vote-getters seeking a Common Pleas Court judgeship are black: Nicola Henry-Taylor, Elliot Howsie, Tiffany Sizemore, and Wrenna Watson. Lori Dumas, meanwhile, won the most local votes in a four-way race for Commonwealth Court judge, besting even fellow Democrat David Spurgeon in his home county.

“America’s changing. And because America is changing, we’re seeing a change in belief,” said Gainey. “You’re seeing a change in acceptance. We’re still not there yet, in terms of not hating each other for the color of skin, or gender or who you love. But we’re moving in that direction. That’s obvious in these races.”

“I’m ecstatic,” said Ashley Comans, who will be seeking to replace Gainey in Harrisburg once he takes office as Mayor. “I had tears on Tuesday night [from] the joy that it brought me to see that people get it.”

‘The change that people want to see’

Gainey’s success, and the aspirations of other Black elected officials, don’t just reflect expanded prospects for Black leaders: They create opportunities for a new crop of hopefuls.

Comans is a former Wilkinsburg school board member who has been active in Unite, a political committee established by state Rep. Summer Lee, who is running for Congress to replace Mike Doyle next year. Comans declared her candidacy in the New Pittsburgh Courier in August, but she likely won’t be alone in seeking Gainey’s 24th District seat, which represents eastern areas of Pittsburgh and nearby areas like Wilkinsburg.

Also rumored as a potential candidate to replace Gainey is Martell Covington, an aide to state Senator Jay Costa. Covington declined to speak about any plans for the future but said, “For people to consider me for that role, or see me as up-and-coming leadership in my community is an honor.”

Covington, a lifelong Homewood resident, said “I was in Washington D.C. when President Obama was elected, and to be here in Pittsburgh when Ed Gainey was elected — I feel really fortunate to have witnessed history at the national and local level.”

Gainey himself has yet to pick a favorite in the race to replace him: Due to the rigors of campaigning, he told WESA’S The Confluence last week, “I haven’t even had time to think about it.”

Nor is Gainey’s seat the only one that may be open next year: Lee, for one, has not said whether she will give up a re-election bid for her state House seat to focus on her Congressional run. Of perhaps more immediate interest: state Rep. Jake Wheatley is said to be taking a top position in the Gainey administration. And as with Gainey’s move to Grant Street, Wheatley’s departure from Harrisburg would prompt a special election to replace him.

And though neither he nor Gainey has confirmed his appointment yet, already at least two candidates — both familiar names in Pittsburgh -- have confirmed their interest.

Aerion Abney, who has run against Wheatley three times before, already planned to challenge him again. “Our campaign will be agile and ready to adapt to whatever the political realities are,” he said. “I’m very familiar with the district, and a lot of the issues are still the same — quality education, quality of life.” Gainey’s win, he said, “Speaks volumes to the change that people in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County want to see.”

Abney is likely to face a formidable, if a first-time, challenger: the Rev. Glenn Grayson of Wesley Center AME Zion Church. Grayson, who is one of the city’s most prominent faith leaders and active in a number of community causes, confirmed to WESA Sunday that he was running to “hear and represent the concerns of the entire 19th district.

“I’m ecstatic about having a new beginning for a new mayor,” he added, calling it a “good season” for Black candidates. “If you have qualified people stepping up, folks will see their work and their credibility.”

Both Gainey and Wheatley would be replaced in a special election which would be scheduled by the Speaker of the House. Crucial to that race will be a decision by the Democratic Party about who to name as a nominee. For a House race, members of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee who represent wards and precincts within each House district will convene and recommend a candidate. That choice would then almost certainly be ratified by the executive committee of the state party and become the party’s nominee.

‘We're in a season of transition’

State Rep. Austin Davis wasn’t on the ballot last week, but he too is considering his options: He expects to make a decision about running for lieutenant governor “in the next few weeks.”

In the meantime, he said, last week’s elections reflect a new reality. “African Americans can compete anywhere, right? There are many places and many non-traditional communities that you can be successful and lead..”

One factor driving that, Davis said, is the changing demographics of the Democratic Party.

"The coalition of our party is made up primarily now of people of color, of working-class folks, which creates a lot of opportunity for more diverse candidates,” he said.

But candidates of color didn’t find success just in Allegheny County, or even just among Democrats. In Virginia, Republican Winsome Sears reached the highest office a Black woman has attained in state history by being elected lieutenant governor. New York City elected its second Black mayor, and Asian-American candidates also posted historic wins.

“I think there’s also more opportunity from an age perspective,” said Davis, who noted that the vast majority of legislators from Allegheny County were either under age 35 or over the age of 60. “Because the folks in that space are younger, it gives them an opportunity to think about things that weren’t possible 15 or 20 years ago.”

And while Davis says that situation presents challenges as well as opportunities. For one thing, in Harrisburg especially, seniority counts for a lot — and Allegheny County’s influence has already been on the wane. And he worried that if Democrats appeared to be locked out of the majority in both the House and Senate for the foreseeable future, many good potential candidates would simply opt to do something else.

“We are losing members who have significant seniority,” he said, noting that Wheatley was a top Democrat on the Finance committee and that Gainey was in line for a chairmanship next term. “We will have a very young delegation, and that will be a factor,” said Davis, who himself is 32. “The Philadelphia delegation has members that have been there a lot longer.”

And Davis noted that while the Gainey and Wheatley seats were all but certain to produce a Black leader, neither his seat nor Lee’s was as certain. Both took the seat from white predecessors.

Still, he said, all that change means “You stand to get new voices, and fresh perspectives. And that ultimately is a benefit. We're in a season of transition, and I think transition means growth. I think it's going to lead to a stronger region.”

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.