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Democrats ponder a varied field of candidates, including one Trump supporter, in special election

PA House of Representatives
Democrats will choose a nominee to compete for the seat vacated by the death of Anthony DeLuca this fall

Democratic Party leaders are just days from selecting their nominee to replace the late Anthony DeLuca as the state representative for the 32nd House District. They will make that choice with a new ranked-voting system and on a highly compressed timetable for vetting a field that, as it turns out, includes at least one avowed supporter of former President Donald Trump.

And while the 32nd — which includes Penn Hills, Oakmont, Verona and a sliver of Plum — is solidly Democratic, no one is taking victory for granted. A candidate’s forum Thursday night at the Penn Hills Library drew six of the eight Democratic contenders. A key concern among them was who had the best chance of holding the seat next year.

"We cannot take it for granted,” said Penn Hills Mayor Pauline Calabrese. “We have to [ask], ‘Who is the candidate who can beat Carrie DelRosso?"

DelRosso was Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano’s running mate this fall.

That GOP ticket made little headway, but in 2020 she toppled Frank Dermody, who was then the Democratic House leader, in the adjoining 33rd district. DelRosso decided not to run for reelection this year when her hometown of Oakmont was drawn into the 32nd District.

Oakmont candidate Tracey Holst said Thursday, “I don’t want to underestimate her. We did that once in Oakmont.”

A likely Green Party candidate, Queonia Livingston, also may seek to be on the ballot, having unsuccessfully challenged DeLuca last year. Her potential bid did not cast as long a shadow, but party stalwarts in the room seemed in little danger of assuming they have the race in the bag.

As one privately acknowledged, “After having Tony in office all these years, it’s hard to say how Democratic this district really is.”

Indeed one of the candidates themselves, Penn Hills constable Louis Leon, is an open supporter of Trump. Democrats have been circulating images of his Facebook page, which includes a slew of right-wing media and advocacy groups as “likes” along with pages tied to law-enforcement groups and local businesses. One of the pages supports impeaching President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s standard bearer.

“I am a Trump supporter,” Leon told WESA flatly. “It’s just what he’s done for the country, in terms of the economy, everything. I want what’s best for the country. Look at the rising inflation we have. The open border is a big concern of mine."

Asked whether he himself supported Biden’s impeachment, Leon said “I’m going to reserve comment on that.” But otherwise, he said, “I don’t beat around the bush. I’m a fighter, and I want what’s best for this country. People are going to pick who they want.”

Leon’s support for Trump may be raising the most eyebrows in the race, although other candidates have attracted criticism as well. Calabrese, for one, was endorsed by the anti-abortion-rights group LifePPAC in a judicial run last year. Asked about that connection, Calabrese told a story about canceling her own decision to have an abortion, but she said she would not impose that choice on someone else.

“I ultimately did not go through with it,” she said. “But I have the ability to keep my personal opinions separate” from her votes as a legislator. She said her beliefs “should not frighten you,” and she noted that state Rep. Anita Kulik had also been endorsed by LifePAC but voted against a bill that would have let voters amend the constitution to assert that there was no right to the procedure.

Kulik has voted for other legislation limiting abortion rights, however, including a 2021 measure to ban the procedure if a fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome.

No candidates openly criticized Calabrese’s position Thursday, though all said they favored abortion rights.

“My daughters now have less rights than me” when she was their age, Holst lamented. “That is frightening.”

Opinions were more mixed on fracking for natural gas, with most candidates expressing misgivings about the practice’s environmental impacts but conceding that the industry was here to stay.

"I am a tree-hugging hippie,” said Oakmont resident Lois Vitti. “But I have concerns about the economy."

Erin Vecchio of Penn Hills expressed perhaps the deepest misgivings about fracking, citing the experiences of a son who saw non-union workers botching pipeline construction.

“You can't tell me it's safe because it's not,” she warned.

But mostly, candidates stressed their own deep ties to the district when they could. Some have never lived anywhere else, and that sort of loyalty — to a region or to a party — can go a long way in a special election.

Such contests do not include party primaries: Instead, the Democratic nominee is chosen by members of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, two of whom can be elected to act as party foot-soldiers from each voting district. A few more than 80 active committee members will be eligible to vote when the party gathers Sunday afternoon, and their choice must be ratified by top officials in the state party organization.

Penn Hills Democratic Committee Chair Joe McAndrew, for one, pledged to back any nominee, and he urged other candidates and party members to do the same. (None took him up on the offer Thursday night.) But he also pointed out that Leon and Penn Hills Deputy Mayor Frank Pecora did not attend the forum — the last before party leaders meet Sunday.

“We don't have all the candidates in this room tonight,” he said. “That should be a real indicator."

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Party insiders say that despite his support for Trump, Leon, too, has at least some support in the committee, although it is difficult to gauge any candidate’s prospects given the number of contenders in the field.

Another complicating factor: The party will be using a ranked-voting option, allowing party leaders to identify their order of support for the field. The party decided to use the approach because of the size of the field and the fact that party rules require the candidate to receive an outright majority of votes cast. Absent a tool such as ranked-choice voting, party leaders would have to engage in multiple rounds of voting.

The process has never been tried before locally, though the candidates seemed game to try it Thursday night.

“I know everybody’s got friends,” said Allegheny County Councilor Nick Futules, of Oakmont, who noted that at least one committee member was married to another candidate. In such cases, he said, he hoped to be a second choice — though he added, “I never thought I’d ask to be number 2.”

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.