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Facing a new political landscape, Kinkead draws challenger in 20th state House district

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg

You could forgive first-term state legislator Emily Kinkead if she felt as though the ground was shifting beneath her feet. First, the Democrat from Brighton Heights saw her district get shifted toward the suburbs in newly drawn political maps this winter. And as of last week, she has a new challenger, one who will square off with her in a Democratic Party endorsement contest where she and other new female officeholders have struggled in the past.

Kinkead is among a crop of recently elected progressive women from the area, and she said Democratic primary voters in the heavily blue district were faced with a choice about whether to return to "business as usual, [and] the kind of politics that have shut people like me out for generations.”

"Going up against an incumbent, I know it’s going to be a difficult race, but we’re in it to win it,” said her new rival, business owner Nick Mastros.

At age 65, this is his first run for public office. But already, he said, “The whole process is just blowing me away. I’m so inspired by it. Whatever happens, I’m blessed to be a part of it.”

Mastros lives in Ross but owns the Allegheny Sandwich Shoppe, a landmark business on Western Avenue that has been operating for four decades on Pittsburgh’s North Side. (He still gets help running the place from his 93-year-old mother, Helen.)

“I was kind of late to declare that I was going to run because we weren’t quite sure how the redistricting was going to work,” Mastros said.

Just days into his campaign, he said he was still reviewing the district’s needs and preparing positions on other issues: “I can't right now, you know, right off the top of my head tell you that what I'm for and what I'm against.”

But he said he was pro-union, supportive of LGBT rights, and — above all — “I really, really want to work for our communities” on needs such as flooding and landslides.

“From the information I’m getting from a lot of my folks out here, the north boroughs have been underrepresented," he said.

Kinkead noted that she’d been in office for less than a year-and-a-half in the middle of a pandemic, but she said she'd attended every community event to which she'd been invited: “This assertion that I’m not accessible is just dead wrong.”

She said she’d been working with Ross officials to find state funding to upgrade intersections on McKnight Road, for example, and that she’d sponsored a bill to provide insurance for homeowners at risk from landslides. (The measure has early bipartisan support but, like many Democrat-sponsored bills in the Republican-controlled House, has languished in committee.)

In her first term, Kinkead said, she’d been appointed to the powerful Appropriations Committee as well as the Judiciary Committee. She said she’s brought $16 million in investment back from Harrisburg, and in return, she brings to Harrisburg her expertise as a lawyer

“Putting somebody who doesn’t have the policy experience, doesn’t have the legal advocacy experience that I bring to the job, I think really just hurts the constituents,” she said.  

While Mastros’ arrival in the race may have been unexpected, in some ways it isn’t surprising.

Prior to the 2020 Census, his hometown of Ross was divided between the 20th and the 21st House districts. But a new district map, one that incorporates the recent Census numbers, unifies the suburb. And at more than 33,000 residents, Ross makes up slightly more than half the district’s population.

Meanwhile, the 20th has been stripped of Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as Lawrenceville. The district still overlays a portion of the city’s northern neighborhoods, along with the Ohio Valley communities of Avalon, Bellevue and West View. But overall, the shift of the district’s center of political gravity towards the suburbs arguably makes Kinkead one of the few Democrats whose prospects were hurt by the new lines.

Mastros has wasted little time wading into the fray. The day after he said he decided to enter the race, he spoke before the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, an umbrella group of area unions that held its labor endorsement meeting on Friday.

Neither candidate garnered its endorsement, which is awarded only to candidates who garner a two-thirds supermajority of union representatives.

Kinkead called it “strange that they would effectively add a slot for somebody who the day before wasn’t running.”

A spokesperson for the Labor Council said that while candidates like Kinkead make arrangements to speak to the council in advance, it is not unheard of for candidates to show up with little notice, hoping to be heard. The council doesn’t release vote totals or discuss deliberations, but although Kinkead has a strong relationship with service workers and other unions, she has also been a vocal supporter of climate-change policies that are unpopular with other sectors of organized labor.

In any case, the next test in the race comes this weekend, when the Allegheny County Democratic Committee gathers for its own endorsements. Party committeepeople will give their seal of approval to candidates, and while their choices are not binding on voters, the winners can expect to appear on “slate cards” and party mailings.

Mastros and Kinkead are both seeking the endorsement. Mastros said it was too early to talk about his supporters, but he can probably count on at least one vote already: His wife is a member of the Ross Township Democratic committee. And Kinkead noted that in 2020 she was among a handful of progressive female office-seekers who lost the party’s endorsement.

That outcome created a firestorm of criticism, even though Kinkead ultimately won her race, as did two other 2020 hopefuls who were snubbed: Jessica Benham and Summer Lee. All three are again seeking the endorsement as incumbents, but each faces a rival for this year's endorsement as well.

Mastros said that while some suspect his candidacy "was like a Trojan-horse kind of move, it wasn't anything of the sort." But Kinkead said that she'd already seen signs that Mastros had committee support, and that she wouldn’t be surprised if the 2022 endorsement process plays out much as it did in 2020.

Still, she said, “I would hope the committee would look at me the way they’re supposed to look at all incumbents and evaluate me based on what I do."

The primary is May 17.

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.