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Martell Covington enters race to fill Gainey's state House seat

Courtesy the Covington campaign
Martell Covington

The contest to fill Mayor Ed Gainey’s state House seat got an election date on Monday. It will get a new candidate today, as state Senate aide and community worker Martell Covington launches his bid for the seat. 

“I want people to be able to see somebody of the community, from the community, taking a big step and doing it for the district,” Covington told WESA. 

District 24 ranges across Wilkinsburg through the eastern Pittsburgh neighborhoods like Homewood, Garfield, Highland Park and East Liberty. And Covington stresses his connections to, and longtime community work for, the area. 

Recalled the 34-year-old of his decision to run, "I lost loved ones to COVID, and I lost loved ones to gun violence,” including the shooting death of 15-year-old Jafar Brooks two years ago. And amid the pandemic, he said, "I realized that I needed to do more. I needed to make a greater impact to uplift our community, especially in the names of the people that were no longer here.”

Covington attended Holy Rosary School and Central Catholic High School, and is a graduate of Howard University. He has longstanding ties to a number of community groups, starting with the anti-violence Community Empowerment Association. Founded by his family, the organization serves at-risk youth and families.

For the past three years, Covington has worked as a legislative aide to state Senator Jay Costa, for whom he does constituent service in his district office. That kind of work attracts few headlines, but Covington said it can make a tangible difference, and his background in it would serve him well were he elected to office himself. 

Whether it’s helping a resident access Social Security benefits or obtain a driver’s license, “Constituent services is something that’s really, really important in this district,” Covington said.  “Sometimes people don’t believe that they can get help from our government offices [but] we can really make things happen.”

More broadly, Covington said he hoped to continue Gainey’s advocacy for progressive causes on issues like criminal justice reform. But he added that he would likely bring an additional focus to environmental causes and immigration issues — an interest he ascribed partly to work with a sports program in Cameroon.

Harrisburg has proven a difficult place to advance those ideas, largely because Republicans hold both houses of the legislature. Asked how he would transcend that partisan divide, Covington said, “Politics is personal,” and cited a bipartisan After-School Caucus meant to advance the cause of afterschool programs.

As “a kid who grew up in after-school programs,” he said, he could find common ground with GOP members of the caucus, and, “Maybe that will lead to some other things that we’ll be able to work on.”

Covington is not the first candidate to announce his interest in the seat: Communications professional Ashley Comans expressed her intentions last summer, and environmental justice advocate NaTisha Washington announced a bid this past fall. 

And there are essentially two races for Gainey’s seat underway. The first is the special election to fill out the remainder of this year’s legislative term: State House Speaker Bryan Cutler has scheduled that election for April 5th. The second election will be for a full two-year term to start in 2023. And that race will be in a district whose lines are still being negotiated in a contentious redistricting process. 

Covington says he intends to run in both those contests, and that he’s well positioned to do so.

In the special election, Democratic Party committeepeople will decide which candidate gets to run with a “D” by his or her name. Covington should be familiar to many in the party, in part because he is a vice-president of the Allegheny County chapter of the Young Democrats. 

The contours of the regular election, like those of the legislative district map that will shape it, are harder to judge. The new map may well not include present-day district communities like Wilkinsburg. But Covington figures that the Homewood area will be at the heart of the 24th, and of his bid to represent it. 

“You're getting somebody who is from this area, who is of this area,” he said, “and who is able to share their lived and professional experiences to better it.”

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.