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Irwin scores backing of region's top two Dems in 12th Congressional District race

Jesse Irwin

Steve Irwin's bid for Congress is being endorsed by the region's two top Democrats — including the one he hopes to replace.

“As I leave, it’s important for me to know that the person who replaces me is going to work hard for Western Pennsylvania families — and that’s Steve Irwin,” said retiring Congressman Mike Doyle, whose Pittsburgh-based seat is being sought by a half-dozen candidates.

Doyle’s statement, released Thursday morning, was joined by the endorsement of the region’s other most powerful Democrat: Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

“It’s going to be very difficult to replace Mike Doyle,” Fitzgerald told WESA, citing Doyle’s ability to bring home federal investments in infrastructure as well as research and development. “But one of the things Mike was really good at, which I think is really important for this position, is the ability to bring people together to meet challenges and solve problems. … And as I look at the candidates in this race, the only one I see doing that is Steve Irwin.”

For his part, Irwin told WESA that the backing was “very, very fulfilling,” and would be “big news” in the race for Doyle’s newly reconfigured and renumbered 12th Congressional District. New lines drawn after the 2020 Census include the city of Pittsburgh as well as suburbs east and south of the city. But Irwin said that Doyle himself had done much to remake the district.

"Mike's leadership has really brought home the bacon for this region, and I plan to continue that work,” Irwin said. “I've gotten things done in this community by working with people in government, by working with our foundations, by working with people in business, by working with people who have led our churches in our synagogues and or non-profits. That's what I bring.”

Doyle and Fitzgerald’s declarations of support are the latest of a series of endorsements from the local Democratic establishment. In recent weeks Irwin has also garnered the backing of state Rep. Dan Frankel and former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, among others.

And the timing of Thursday’s announcement is fortuitous: It comes on the eve of a Friday endorsement gathering by the region’s AFL-CIO chapter, and both Fitzgerald and Doyle have considerable credibility with a broad swath of the labor movement.

The tone of their support also reflects a concern in some quarters that without Doyle — who has served in Congress for nearly three decades — western Pennsylvania will have to rebuild the political connections that have helped secure federal investments in the region for years.

“I would hate to see anything that would disrupt or upset the progress that Mike Doyle with a lot of other people have made,” said Fitzgerald. “Having the wrong person in this could cause that to backslide.”

A Squirrel Hill lawyer with the firm Leech Tishman, Irwin touts a resume that suggests an ability to connect with officials like Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, who appointed Irwin to head a state securities commission, as well as the late Senator Arlen Specter, a moderate Republican for whom Irwin worked as an aide. Irwin has held posts on bodies ranging from Pittsburgh’s parking authority to agencies that oversaw regional transit and healthcare oversight.

And implicit in his messaging is the argument that Irwin is less interested in toppling the party establishment than in building on its legacy. In praising Doyle, for example, Irwin told WESA that “One of the reasons that Pittsburgh is where it is today is because Mike’s work was aligned with the work of our county executive and our mayor and our governor, and we were all pulling in the same direction.”

His two main competitors in the race, state Representative Summer Lee and law professor Jerry Dickinson, have both campaigned on a desire to make politics more inclusive and recast the party in a more progressive direction. Such positions have at times put them at odds with the party establishment: Dickinson challenged Doyle in 2020 and was prepared to do so again had Doyle not retired, and Lee and Fitzgerald have sharply divergent views of energy and environmental concerns.

Irwin has pledged a less confrontational approach. In a statement accepting Doyle’s and Fitzgerald’s endorsement, Irwin pledged to be “a Congressman who gets things done and works to help President Biden pass his agenda.” And he told WESA that he ascribed his support in part to a desire to produce “tangible results from … this position, not to use it as a bully pulpit or to plant a flag.”

“If you want to blow things up, Steve is not your candidate,” Fitzgerald told WESA. “And if you didn’t like what Mike Doyle did — which I think would be unbelievable — then I guess you want to go in a different direction.”

But, he added, “I would categorize Steve Irwin as a pragmatic progressive pushing a progressive philosophy, but within the ability to get things done,”

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.