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After decades under DeLuca, voters have contrast in 32nd House District between McAndrew and Walker

Joe McAndrew (D), left, and Clayton Walker (R), right, are running for the 32nd District of the Pennsylvania House.
McAndrew/Walker campaigns
Joe McAndrew (D), left, and Clayton Walker (R), right, are running for the 32nd District of the Pennsylvania House.

For nearly four decades, voters in the 32nd state House district have been able to take it more or less for granted that they’d be represented by Tony DeLuca. That changed last fall, when DeLuca died weeks before the November election. And when they vote in a Feb. 7 special election to replace him, they don’t lack for a clear choice in the candidates to replace him.

Democratic nominee Joe McAndrew is steeped in the world of politics, having done a stint in Harrisburg and supported a slew of other Democratic candidates. Republican Clay Walker is a first-time candidate, running on an unapologetically conservative platform in a district that has recently voted Democratic by two-to-one majorities.

Their differences are clear on topics such as education. Walker sees a school system that is failing students even as — in Penn Hills, at least — it sometimes splurges on buildings. He worries it has become caught up in issues of gender identity. And he blames liberal orthodoxy.

“We're more concerned with making sure we're not hurting anybody's feelings than we are to making sure that we are graduating people who can function in society,” he said.

McAndrew, by contrast, lays responsibility on the Republicans who have controlled both chambers of the state legislature for more than a decade.

“For the past 12 years, we had a Republican legislature that has been consistently underfunding our public schools,” he said.

Two other special elections also will be held in nearby districts on Feb. 7, and the stakes are high. If Democrats can win all three, they will cement a 102-seat majority. That, said McAndrew, will be “a chance for us to build a foundation supporting workers and workers’ families. And we haven't seen that in a long time.”

‘An opportunity to help’

It might almost seem as if McAndrew has been preparing for this run for much of his life. His campaign has been bolstered by elected officials from around the state — including U.S. Sen. Bob Casey — making calls and knocking doors on with him.

2023 Special Election

  • Background: Allegheny County voters are electing three new representatives to the Pa. State House on Feb. 7.
  • Why it matters: The elections will determine whether Republicans or Democrats win control of the state House.
  • Voter Guide: Read WESA overviews of the races for the 32nd (Joe McAndrew vs. Clayton Walker), 34th (Robert Pagane vs. Abigail Salisbury) and 35th (Matthew Gergely vs. Don Nevills) districts.

“It’s been an honor to have friends or people that you’ve helped throughout the years come back and support you as well,” said McAndrew.

And while McAndrew jokes that he’d be “living in the basement with all the other freshmen” legislators, he said his political ties may boost his profile beyond what a first-term legislator would have in Harrisburg’s seniority-driven culture.

“I hope that people understand the needs in my district and that this is an opportunity to help,” he said.

McAndrew grew up just outside the district, and while he earned a degree in political science from the University of Dayton, he came back to the area to put it to use. Among other things, he did a stint in Harrisburg, compiling demographic data for House Democrats.

He later served as the executive director for the Allegheny County Democratic Committee before working on the campaign of Congressional candidate Chris Deluzio. He previously lived in Oakmont, which was added to the 32nd district last year, and where he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2017. He’s since moved to Penn Hills, the hub of the district, where he serves as the chair of the local Democratic committee.

While Republicans will still control the Senate, a majority in the House will allow Democrats to advance their legislative goals while keeping Republicans in check, McAndrew said. If they can control the House, Democrats can prevent the GOP from, say, advancing constitutional amendments that could lay the groundwork for reining in abortion rights.

“I've talked to many people at the doors that whenever they learn how close these votes are going to be with abortion rights and other things, it motivates them,” he said.

McAndrew said he also resolutely opposes efforts to do away with concealed-firearm permits — a cause popular in some pro-gun circles. While he said he’s a gun owner himself, “I’m completely against that. … I want to see sensible gun reforms” with an expansion of background checks.

But McAndrew says he also hopes to help meet district needs. Concerns about crime, he said, are aggravated by a decline in community services, as with the closing of a YMCA in Penn Hills several years ago.

“We really need to invest in afterschool programs and community centers to give kids areas where they can be safe,” he said.

More limited government

While McAndrew touts his ties to area Democrats, Walker boasts that he would represent a break from the past.

DeLuca, he said, “had been in the position almost 40 years. … But as you watched the district, the district started to take a negative turn.”

Walker has roots in Homewood, though he served a stint in the U.S. Army before returning to the area in the mid-1980s. He works as a health care customer service representative but also as a pastor for his small Mustard Seed Church.

This is Walker’s first run for office, though he said, “I’ve always been very vocal about politics, sometimes to my detriment,” and that his ministry often grapples with social and political issues.

Still, he’s wary of directly addressing such issues as abortion and the access transgender students should have to scholastic sports.

“There are definitely some mines in the road. I want to make sure I avoid them as best I can,” he said.

He’s more forthcoming on gun rights, where he ardently opposes efforts to regulate firearms.

“A lot of the left wants to say, ‘You can’t use the M-16 to hunt, and that’s not what [the Second Amendment] was written for because they only had muskets back in the day,” he said. “I would promise you if those same Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution today, it would include M-16s.”

In a district that is over one-quarter Black, he’s been the only person of color to compete as Deluca’s replacement. But he said people of any race stand to benefit from a more limited and less fiscally burdensome government.

Neighborhoods like the Homewood we grew up in are struggling, he said.

“I want us to be able — to use the old cliche — to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. [And] one of the things that hurts us the most as a community, white or black, is taxes.”

Your guide to the elections for Allegheny County executive, district attorney, treasurer, council and more.

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.