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ER physician launches bid for swing-seat district in North Hills

Arvind Venkat
Courtesy Venkat campaign
Arvind Venkat

Arvind Venkat is an emergency-room doctor who says he wants to go to Harrisburg — in hopes that he can practice some preventive care for a change.

"I hope to bring my perspective as an ER doc and as someone who has been on the frontlines of these issues to advocate for my communities in order to get more resources for these public services and build a better future,” said Venkat, a McCandless Democrat who on Thursday becomes the first declared candidate for the newly drawn 30th state House District.

A Detroit native and graduate of Harvard University and Yale University School of Medicine, Venkat is an emergency physician with Allegheny Health Network, and in recent months has appeared on local TV news broadcasts to discuss the coronavirus. And while the virus’ severity seems to be ebbing for the time being, Venkat says its effects have been magnified by chronic weaknesses in public institutions.

“For me, the root cause of what we've seen in all of this over the last two years is that our public services — our schools, our EMS services, our police departments or fire departments — are very under-resourced. And as a result, our response has been, ‘We can't overwhelm them. We needed to shut things down.’ And I just think that's not right.”

Venkat says the state needs to invest in such services to avoid similar disruptions should the virus, or another health threat, rise up yet again. Volunteer fire departments and community ambulance services are cash-strapped, he said, while school buildings have long been in need of better ventilation and funding for staff.

And while he said the need for interventions like a mask mandate in schools has declined for now along with the prevalence of the virus, officials can’t be complacent: “Right now, we're in a far better place, but we need to use this time in order to prepare.

“That’s really what I'm focused on,” he added: “How do we build a better future and get us back to normal?”

This will be Venkat’s first run for office, but then almost everything about the district is new. As created by new legislative maps crafted since the 2020 Census, the district includes a number of college-educated suburbs in the North Hills and along the Ohio River, ranging from Franklin Park through McCandless and western Hampton down through Ohio Township to Kllbuck, Emsworth and Ben Avon and Ben Avon Heights.

Portions of the district have seen sweeping demographic changes. Fully 11 percent of Franklin Park residents are foreign-born — nearly twice the county average — and the district has a burgeoning population of college-educated Asian Americans like Venkat himself.

Meanwhile, there is no incumbent to topple: First-term Republican Lori Mizgorski had represented the district, but her home lies outside its new boundaries. The competition to replace her figures to be among the most competitive in the state, with Democrats holding an almost imperceptible voter registration edge of less than 1 percent. A handful of Republicans are said to be pondering runs of their own, though court disputes over the new political maps have kept candidates on the sidelines.

The stakes for the contest could be high: Republicans currently control the legislature, and if they can maintain that hold and win the governor’s mansion, Pennsylvanians could see dramatic changes on issues like abortion rights as well as ballot access.

“There are a number of political leaders in the opposition party who have advocated for measures that would, in my opinion, take away from the voice of the voters,” Venkat said. “I think preparing for a better future, investing in our communities and making sure that our democracy is preserved in Pennsylvania and through Pennsylvania for the rest of the country is very, very important.”

As for reproductive rights, Venkat recalls a non-English speaking patient who came in suffering the apparent effects of a backroom abortion — potentially because she was unaware that legal abortion was available. “Having lived this experience as a health care provider, I strongly believe that these decisions need to be left to women,” he said. “If liberty means anything, it means that we have to have choices and especially women need to have choices about their reproductive rights.”

Venkat was more circumspect on some issues, including fracking for natural gas. The industry has been an economic driver in Western Pennsylvania, although it has not been warmly embraced in some parts of the 30th district.

“As a first-time candidate, I need to learn more about these details,” Venkat said about the industry. But in general, he said, “I believe that the state can set a framework for rigorous environmental regulations of industries like fracking. And then I believe that local communities like Franklin Park can make their own decisions about whether they want that type of energy industry.”

But he said that from his work in the ER, he was experienced in making difficult calls “and seeing people in times of crisis. I think that I've been tested.”

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.