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Special elections for 34th and 35th state House districts attract candidates, but lack certainty

In this file photo, voters line up outside the B’nai B’rith apartments on Election Day in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Lindsay Lazarski
In this file photo, voters line up outside the B’nai B’rith apartments on Election Day in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

There’s no shortage of Democratic candidates seeking to win special elections for the 34th and 35th state House Districts. What there is a shortage of is time and certainty: All but two of those campaigns could be over by the weekend — even though the date of the elections themselves is up in the air.

A total of eight Democrats, four in each House district, met a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline to signal their interest in being their party’s nominee to replace either Summer Lee in the 34th district or Austin Davis in the 35th. That submission, along with a $500 filing fee, qualifies them to be considered by Democratic Party committee members in each district on Saturday.

As Democrats did in a similar nominating process for the 32nd District last weekend, the committee people will use “ranked choice voting,” to rank their preferences from 1 to 4. That will expedite the process of assembling an outright majority for one candidate without going through multiple rounds of voting.

Committee members are elected to represent each voting precinct within the district, and though their pick must be ratified by the state party’s executive leadership, that is usually a foregone conclusion.

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Republicans will select their nominees this weekend as well, which means that by Monday everything should be clear … except when the special elections are taking place.

Democratic House leader Joanna McClinton claimed the title of majority leader this month, after Democrats won 102 out of 203 House races in November. Controlling the majority party would give her the right to set a date for the special elections, and she chose Feb. 7. But Republicans counter that the resignations of Lee and Davis, combined with the death this fall of the 32nd District’s Anthony DeLuca, mean Democrats have just 99 legislators to the Republicans’ 101. They have filed suit to overturn McClinton’s dates, and have said they will propose their own.

Locally, though, everyone from election officials to party leaders is acting as if Feb.7 will be the date.

“While we await action by the Court, we will move forward with preparation and other work necessary to conduct the special elections,” the county said in a statement this week.

In the meantime, candidates in both districts are already reaching out to party leaders.

District 34

Lee will be sworn into Congress early next month, having won the right to replace retiring Congressman Mike Doyle in the 12th District. Her old House district includes the east-of-Pittsburgh communities of Wilkinsburg, Edgewood, Swissvale, Churchill, and North Braddock.

In what is practically a testimonial to how Lee has opened up new possibilities for representation in Pittsburgh politics, all four of the candidates seeking to replace her are women, and three are women of color. Two are from Wilkinsburg, which was drawn into the district earlier this year as part of a statewide legislative redistricting. The other two challenged Lee in different races this year, and both hold borough council seats elsewhere in the district.

Ashley Comans is a member of the Wilkinsburg school board and has served on the board of UNITE, a political-action committee tied to Lee and the progressive movement. She works for a nonprofit family-advocacy group, and her husband is Wilkinsburg’s mayor.

Edgewood Borough Council member Bhavini Patel ran against Democrats including Lee in the Congressional primary to replace Mike Doyle. Patel has been an entrepreneur whose businesses have included a firm that offered technology intended to enhance civic participation.

Swissvale attorney Abigail Salisbury challenged Lee for this House seat this past spring (Lee ran for both her state House seat and Congress simultaneously.) She sits on Swissvale’s borough council, runs a law firm that focuses on smaller nonprofits and advocacy groups

NaTisha Washington is a Wilkinsburg resident and a former candidate for state Rep. Ed Gainey’s seat. She’s an environmental-justice advocate whose focus has included water quality in the area, and she has been active in a number of activist efforts.

District 35

Austin Davis will become the state’s first Black lieutenant governor in the middle of January, and he leaves a Mon Valley state House district whose center of gravity lies in his native McKeesport. The 35th also includes such communities as Clairton, Duquesne, Homestead, Munhall, and White Oak. Prior to Davis, the district was represented for more than a decade by Marc Gergely until he left amid charges related to his connections to an illegal gambling operation.

Gergely’s brother, Matthew, is competing for the seat and acknowledges, “It would be crazy to run and not think this would be an issue. But I’m my own person.” Matthew Gergely has served as a top McKeesport official in financial and other roles, and he's worked for the area school district as well.

Competing against him is first-term Duquesne City Council member Aaron Adams, who at age 25 would be even younger than Davis. Adams works for an architectural and engineering firm, and he touts both his "fresh approach" to politics and roots in the district that date back four generations.

First-time candidate Kim Dunlevy, of White Oak, is a paralegal who also boasts a four-generation family history in the district. She says she wants to be an advocate for education — particularly in civics and the arts — if she is elected to Harrisburg.

Social worker Rikell Ford serves as a school-board member for the Clairton City School District but was not available to discuss her candidacy Tuesday night.

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.