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Different economic visions drive choice for Democrats in 33rd state House district

Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA

For Democrats, the road to someday retaking the state House of Representatives might just be state Route 28, which runs alongside the Allegheny River and provides access to much of the 33rd state House district.

But Mandy Steele and Tristan McClelland, who are competing to be their party’s nominee for the seat next week, are working from different road maps when it comes to the economy and the environment.

“We're very well-situated to restore ourselves and be a leader in manufacturing again through driving investment and clean energy jobs and opportunities this way. If we elect the right people into Harrisburg,” said Steele.
“This is a working-class community with steel towns and power plants. It's a lot of working-class folk who over the past couple of years have started defecting from the Democratic Party. We need a candidate who can speak to that,” said McClelland.

The 33rd is arguably a few different districts drawn into one, with an electorate that is in flux. It is currently held by Republican Carrie DelRosso, who toppled the Democrats’ then-leader in the House, Frank Dermody. But the new district lines drafted this winter left DelRosso and her hometown of Oakmont stranded on the other bank of the Allegheny River. (DelRosso is seeking the GOP’s nomination for lieutenant governor instead.)

The new district includes prosperous suburbs (Aspinwall, Fox Chapel and O’Hara), along with more working-class river communities (Blawnox, Brackenridge, Cheswick and Sharpsburg), as well as far-flung suburbs such as Fawn and Indiana Township. Nearly 90 percent of its population is white, and it splits 51-to-49 percent between Democratic and Republican voters.

District 33 is a rare open seat, as incumbent state Rep. Carrie DelRosso was drawn out of the district. Republican Ted Tomson II is running unopposed, while Mandy Steele and Tristan McClelland face off in the Democratic primary.

But Steele says that whatever their differences, those voters are joined to each other by the Allegheny River and its tributaries. And that means they share in its benefits — and in concerns about such issues as increased bouts of flash flooding as the climate changes.

"It's a river district,” she said. “That gives us so many things to talk about with regard to recreation and riverfront development. but also really underscores the potential of really creating a tremendous green-energy economy."

It might be tempting to divide the district between two different kinds of Democrats: professional-class suburbanites who can afford to prioritize environmental issues on one hand, and others from working-class areas that have relied on fossil fuels like burning coal or drilling for natural gas. And a green economic agenda might seem a tough sell in such places as Cheswick or Springdale, which narrowly voted for Donald Trump in 2020 — and which saw the closing of the coal-fired Cheswick Generating Station earlier this year.

But Steele said even a site like Cheswick offers opportunities for growth: "That site could be repurposed as a battery production facility,” for use in electric cars and other green-economy infrastructure. “We could create more jobs there and jobs that are better paying and longer-lasting." And she said that if the state doesn’t invest in renewable energy like solar, it will cripple the economy over the long term. “We’re seeing a lot of investment in solar production going to other states when it should be here,” she said.

But McClelland says that while he and Steele agree on some agenda items — such as expanding mass transit options in the district — focusing too heavily on environmental concerns is myopic.

The district, he said, has seen voters trending away from Democrats through the years as the party seems less in touch with working-class issues.

“It wants a Democrat who wants to stand by working people, supports living wages," he said. "But it doesn't want really sweeping environmental ideas and over-the-top progressivism."

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

McClelland says more focus needs to be paid at the state level to worker’s issues, such as improving worker’s compensation benefits and tightening up oversight of the troubled government employee pension systems. And he said the district did have immediate environmental concerns that needed to be addressed, including hazardous material disposal sites in need of remediation.

But McClelland said he worried about the damage that might be done by plans such as Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to join a multi-state compact to limit carbon dioxide emissions. That agreement could cost energy jobs in the state, he said, and “Those jobs are probably just going to go to Ohio and West Virginia,” with no net environmental gain and an economic cost to Pennsylvania.

“Our policy, that you know is supposed to help the environment, is actually just strengthening the political position of Joe Manchin,” the West Virginia senator known for thwarting environmental initiatives.

Such concerns may well decide the race, in part because on social issues, there appears to be little difference between the candidates: Both say they support abortion rights and want to change state education policy so that public schools aren’t drained by having to reimburse charter schools that serve their district. Both tread lightly on gun issues, saying they back stronger background checks while maintaining that they respect firearms rights and hunting in particular.

The candidates’ biographies, by contrast, diverge sharply.

'Someone who can get it done'

McClelland is just 21 years old and expects to graduate from the University of Pittsburgh this year. He claims prosperous O’Hara Township as home, but he touts family roots in the Alle-Kiski valley’s steel industry. Politics runs in his blood: His mother Erin McClelland has run unsuccessfully for Congress and is active in the Democratic Party. Asked whether the family connection helps or hurts, McClelland says “there is a little bit of both”: Erin McClelland’s strong labor ties in particular may have helped with an introduction, he said, but critics have used it to dismiss his candidacy.

In any case, Tristan McClelland said, “I am forging my own path. … At the end of the day, it was my performance” and support for workers “that got me the AFL-CIO endorsement.”

What's at stake and candidate profiles for the special elections in Allegheny County.

McClelland has government experience, having worked for Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein and more recently served as an aide to Pittsburgh City Councilor Anthony Coghill. McClelland says that work showed him “how a legislator can have a real and tangible impact on people’s lives.” Especially for legislators in the minority party — as Democrats are likely to be — “one of the most important things you do is directly serving your constituents," he said.

Steele hails from O’Hara but now lives in Fox Chapel, and since 2020 has served as a borough council person after being elected as the first female candidate to win a seat in a contested election. She also led a successful 2020 effort to change the name of a road that previously included a slur against Indigenous people.

Steele said the choice before voters “really all comes down to track record and proven work ethic.”

Her own record, she said, shows that the right leadership can produce bipartisan consensus around environmental and other issues. She touts her own work advocating for a ban on coal tar, an environmental hazard often used to seal driveways, in Fox Chapel and 20 other municipalities.

Not surprisingly, Steele has amassed a number of endorsements from environmentally minded advocacy groups and elected officials. But she also landed the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee — a rare win for progressive women seeking office this spring.

“This race is an open seat and a chance to gain a Democratic vote,” she said. “We’ve got to put forward someone that can get it done in November.”

The winner of the May 17 primary will almost certainly face Ted Tomson, a business owner whose holdings include scrap metal facilities and the Lernerville speedway. He is running unopposed on the Republican ballot.

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.