Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Democrats compete in overlooked — but potentially crucial — 17th Congressional District

Chris Deluzio, left, and Sean Meloy are competing in the Democratic primary for the 17th Congressional District
Courtesy of the Deluzio and Meloy campaigns
Chris Deluzio, left, and Sean Meloy are competing in the Democratic primary for the 17th Congressional District

You couldn’t blame Chris Deluzio or Sean Meloy for feeling a little envious. The two Democrats seeking to replace Conor Lamb in Congress each say they can rally the party’s base and hold onto the 17th Congressional District. But the race between them has been overshadowed by the battle in the Pittsburgh-centered 12th District next door … even though the outcome of the 17th may do more to shape the direction of national politics.

“If we lose the seat, the right-wing extremists will be on the march at the national level,” said Meloy. Because while the deep-blue 12th may be the closest thing to a safe seat Democrats have in a difficult political environment, the 17th is up for grabs. Lamb’s decision to run for U.S. Senate leaves the seat open, in a district prognosticators say is a toss-up.

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

The 17th encompasses Beaver County and a broad swath of suburban Allegheny County’s North and South Hills. It’s changed slightly since the last time Lamb was elected to represent it, but it has become more Democrat-friendly thanks to the addition of a handful of solidly Democratic communities just east of Pittsburgh. Still, voters in the district went for Biden by a margin of only about 6% in 2020 — the kind of narrow edge a Republican nominee could overcome in a year that seems to favor the GOP’s prospects.

Both Meloy and Deluzio champion unions and worker-friendly policies such as raising the minimum wage. Both say they would resist GOP efforts to scale back reproductive rights and access to the ballot. The differences lie mostly in the paths the two took to reach the primary, and the issues each one emphasizes as they say they are the party’s best shot in November.

'That doesn't happen if you aren't unifying the party'
Deluzio, for one, bears some very obvious similarities to the Democrat he would like to replace.

Both he and Lamb tout legal expertise and a background in military service — Lamb as a U.S. Marine Corps lawyer, Deluzio as a U.S. Navy officer who also served as a civil affairs officer in Iraq. Both foreground their support of union causes: Deluzio touts his endorsement by the AFL-CIO and a slew of other unions and local officials. And he notes that he was active in a successful campaign to unionize faculty at the University of Pittsburgh.

Deluzio himself is a policy director at Pitt’s Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security: He previously worked on voter security and integrity issues at the Brennan Center for Justice — experience that could be relevant amid a ferocious debate about voting rights nationwide.

“My career in life has been in the military fighting for voting rights and public interest, teaching, fighting to form a union,” he said. “I fought as a voting-rights lawyer to protect this democracy. I've worked on legislation and advocacy. When you look at who's backing me — whether it's the AFL-CIO, so many unions, elected officials — that doesn't happen if you aren't unifying the party. And that's the simple fact of how you win this kind of race.”

'Help make some history'
Meloy, meanwhile, has spent much of his career at the intersection of electoral politics and LGBTQ advocacy. A former administrative aide to retiring Congressman Mike Doyle, he went on to head up LGBTQ engagement efforts at the Democratic National Committee and more recently served as a vice president at the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which seeks to elect openly LGBTQ candidates to positions at all levels of government.

Meloy boasts some union endorsements of his own, including the American Federation of Government Employees, as well the backing of Doyle, his former boss, and other Democrats.

But the core of Meloy’s message is that his advocacy work and his identity as an openly gay candidate make him well-equipped to defend abortion and other rights likely to face a conservative onslaught.

Voters in the Democratic base, he predicted, will be mobilized “to help make some history” by electing the state’s first openly gay congressman, while he surmises independent voters will appreciate the chance to vote for a different kind of candidate.

“I’ve been working at a pro-choice organization that was working for LGBTQ equality, and I went to school to be a teacher,” he said. “If you look where the right wing is attacking, they’re telling teachers what they can and can’t do, they’re demonizing LGBTQ people and they’re trying to outlaw abortion.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s likely repeal of the Constitutional right to an abortion has only underscored Democratic anxieties. In the 17th District, however, the candidates’ positions align closely enough that they each have drawn support from concerned groups. Meloy was backed a week ago by NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading abortion-rights advocacy group, and on Wednesday was endorsed by Planned Parenthood's political arm. Deluzio, meanwhile, has garnered the support of a political committee tied to the National Organization of Women.

The contest between the two candidates has generally been restrained, although Meloy sometimes tacitly characterizes Deluzio as “a millionaire lawyer” based on assets and earnings Deluzio reported on financial-disclosure forms. (Meloy reported far less, though the two men earn roughly equivalent salaries.)

“Washington, D.C. has plenty of millionaire lawyers,” he said. “I’m going to be bringing a different perspective.”

Deluzio brushed that aside.

“Look at [my] supporters, and that answers it for you," he said. "You don’t get working families and people in unions behind you if you’re out of touch.” Meloy, he said, was free to “start throwing mud if that’s what he wants to do.”

Deluzio has maintained a solid fundraising edge in the race, having put up $491,000 during the course of the campaign — nearly twice the roughly $248,000 Meloy has assembled.

There will almost certainly be more money to come once Republicans choose their contender from a three-candidate field. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which provides support to House hopefuls, says the 17th is “a highly competitive district that Democrats can win and hold.”

Which means the district may finally start getting some attention.

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.