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8 Democrats vie for DeLuca's 32nd House District seat, party will use ranked-choice voting

A sheet of stickers reading "I voted today."
Matt Slocum
The eight Democrats will be considered at a gathering of party committeepeople – who represent each voting precinct within the district – Sunday afternoon.

Allegheny County Democratic Committee leaders will have more than a half-dozen candidates to choose from when they select a nominee to replace the late state Rep. Anthony DeLuca this weekend. And they will be using novel voting procedures to make the choice.

A total of eight hopefuls filed letters of intent, and a $500 filing fee, by a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline with the party and can thus compete to be the party’s nominee in DeLuca’s 32nd district. They include the son of another late state legislator, a constable who used to chauffeur DeLuca in his final months in office, and both the mayor and deputy mayor of the same municipality.

That district includes suburban communities east of Pittsburgh: While dominated by Penn Hills, it also includes Oakmont, Verona, and a portion of Plum Borough. The special election has been scheduled by state legislative leaders for Feb. 7.

The eight Democrats will be considered at a gathering of party committeepeople — who represent each voting precinct within the district — Sunday afternoon. More than 80 committeepeople are eligible to vote, although some will reportedly be at the Steelers-Ravens game taking place at the same time.

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More generally, local committeepeople are accustomed to voting for their preferred candidates and then leaving after casting their ballot.

But in a race with eight contenders, that habit could conflict with a state party requirement that the winner must receive an outright majority of votes, not just a plurality.

Rather than require multiple rounds of voting, however, the party will have committeepeople rank their choices, from 1 to 8, on their ballots, and then tabulate results that factor in second and third choices to reach consensus.

“Ranked-choice voting is happening,” said Emily Marburger, the party’s executive director. “This allows us to reach a majority with the least impact on committee members by letting them vote in the style they are used to.”

Ranked-choice voting has become increasingly popular and is used in other states. But Marburger said that, to the best of her knowledge, it has never been used by local Democrats before. Party leaders will be giving local committeepeople a crash course in the process before Sunday, she added.

The party will also accommodate committee members by allowing them to vote remotely, using a link they must request to cast their ballot electronically while in-person voting is taking place. Marburger said a similar process was used in a special election for City Council earlier this year, “and it went very smoothly."

The candidates themselves offer a range of views and backgrounds.

Pauline Calabrese, the mayor of Penn Hills, previously told WESA that her first-hand knowledge of municipal needs would make her an effective legislator. She’s run for Common Pleas judge and says the results, while not in her favor countywide, show strong support and name recognition within the district.

Allegheny County Councilor Nick Futules says he’ll bring his business acumen — he owns a hotel and banquet hall — and experience in local government to bear in Harrisburg. Futules is the first county councilor to take advantage of a home rule charter change, approved by voters this fall, which permits county councilors to run without resigning. Unlike some untested candidates, he told WESA, “I’m not asking for a job, I’m asking for a promotion."

Tracey Holst was elected to Oakmont’s borough council last fall and sits on the local Democratic committee. A consultant with decades of experience in human relations, she said that compared to other candidates with longer tenures in politics, “With me, you have a candidate with newer, fresh ideas.” She said protecting abortion rights was a major concern, and she touted her work to boost the wages of borough employees to at least $15 an hour.

Penn Hills constable Louis Leon touts the fact that he was born and raised in Penn Hills — “I love this community,” he said — and has worked in corrections. He’s a longtime member of the Penn Hills Democratic Committee and said he developed a close relationship with DeLuca by helping drive him to events and to Harrisburg as DeLuca’s health flagged.

“He and I share the same passion and love for this community,” Leon said. He too said attracting state support to the district was critical, especially to help seniors and redevelop a number of discarded industrial properties

Joe McAndrew served as the county Democratic Party’s executive director through this spring and chairs the Penn Hills Democratic committee. He previously lived in Oakmont where he ran unsuccessfully for mayor. But he previously told WESAthat he would bring both his first-hand political experience and his commitment to abortion rights and other Democratic values to the campaign.

Penn Hills Deputy Mayor Frank Pecora is the son of another state legislator from the area, the late state Sen. Frank A. Pecora. “I’ve been involved in politics since I was a little kid,” he said. He worked for the state Department of Revenue and its lottery commission, and serves on the Democratic committee. He said it was crucial to bring state money back to the district, as DeLuca did, and to provide strong constituent service. “He and my father were very good friends,” he said. “He brought a lot of money back to the district, and he helped a lot of people.”

Penn Hills school board memberErin Vecchio, who spoke to WESA previously, is perhaps best known for triggering questions about the in-state residency of former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. Shesays her work improving the district’s finances shows her ability to be effective.

Oakmont attorney Lois Vitti, who previously served on Oakmont’s Democratic committee and was a member of the Riverview school district school board. Vitti said that while she too would like to bring investment to the district, along with more education funding, she’s motivated by the need to protect the right to an abortion and to maintain protections for LGBT Pennsylvanians.

“This election is the pivotal one in the nation,” she said.” It's not just about us and our community, it's about women and their right to choose.”

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.