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Dems pick Lindsay Powell as nominee for state House seat vacated by Innamorato

 Lindsay Powell completes paperwork to become the Democratic nominee for the Sept. 19 special election to replace Sara Innamorato in the 21st House District. Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chair Sam Hens Greco sits beside her.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Lindsay Powell completes paperwork to become the Democratic nominee for the Sept. 19 special election to replace Sara Innamorato in the 21st state House District. Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chair Sam Hens Greco sits beside her.

Local Democrats have chosen Lindsay Powell to fill the vacant state House seat left by Sara Innamorato, choosing her out of a field of five candidates in a gathering Saturday on the North Side.

That gives Powell the inside track to being the first Black woman to represent the 21st House district, which includes portions of Pittsburgh as well as the nearby northern suburbs of Shaler, Etna, Millvale, and Reserve Township.

"I'm so grateful to all the community members that came out," said Powell after the victory was announced. "All of us want to ensure that we are uplifting Sara's legacy and making sure that we take our fight to Harrisburg and beyond."

Powell works at the nonprofit InnovatePGH and serves on the board of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Her resume includes work for former Mayor Bill Peduto, as well as for Congressional Democrats Hakeem Jeffries and Chuck Schumer.

In a special election, there is no primary. Instead, members of the county Democratic committee, who are chosen to represent each voting precinct, gather and make their pick. Their nomination is forwarded to the executive committee of the state Democratic Party, which has the ultimate say in who the party nominates for state office. But state party officials almost always accept the recommendation of local committee people.

The special election itself is slated for Sept. 19, although it's not clear who Powell might face, if anyone, in that contest: Republicans have not identified a candidate nor a process for selecting one, nor has party leadership responded to queries about whether they intend to do so.

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Innamorato's resignation left the House evenly divided, with each party holding 101 seats: A Powell win in September would restore the Democrats' one-seat majority. The chamber is set to reconvene one week after her election. That consideration drove Democratic House Speaker Joanna McClinton to set an election date just 60 days after the seat became vacant. That's the fastest timetable allowed by state law, and it prompted a highly expedited process to find a nominee.

Innamorato, who remained neutral in the race, hailed the outcome. Shortly after the votes were counted at the Tripoli Community Center on the North Side, she said Democrats "had a very hard choice to make today because everyone who is on this ballot is incredibly quality people who are engaged in giving back to our community every day."

Innamorato and Powell serve together on the URA board, and after the two shared an embrace Innamorato said, "I'm just incredibly thrilled for you to step into this new role, and know that I am here for you every step of the way. ... I'm so excited that you're going to continue to work on building a Pennsylvania for us all."

There were 119 committee people eligible to vote on Saturday, 38 of whom did so via email and 70 of whom showed up in person. Powell was the leader from the outset, and she ultimately won in the fourth round of a ranked-choice voting process. In such a contest, when no candidate achieves an outright majority — 55 votes in this case — the candidate who finishes last is removed, and their votes are allocated to their supporters' backup choice.

Robert Parkinson Helwig was the first candidate to be removed from consideration, though his 3 votes made little impact on the remaining candidates in the second round. The departure of gun-control activist Josh Fleitman gave a significant bump to Shaler school board member Elizabeth Dunn in the third round, but that was more than offset by the number of votes Powell received when the votes of Chris Rosselot were redistributed in the final round, pushing her to 56 votes over Dunn's 47.

Powell was the lone Black candidate in the race and one of two women. She would be the first Black woman to represent the 21st District, which is nearly 90 percent white. And her election would restore some racial diversity to a county delegation that lost two Black representatives when special elections were held to replace former House members Summer Lee and Austin Davis. (Lee went on to Congress; Davis now serves as lieutenant governor.)

Lee hailed the selection, tweeting that until her election alongside Innamorato in 2018, the region had never had a Black woman in the state House.

"In 5 years we ended that unfortunate trend, sending 3 Black women with an incredible diversity of perspectives, experiences, brilliance and backgrounds!" she wrote. (The third Black female House member to whom Lee referred is 24th District House member La'Tasha Mayes.)

"I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me," Powell said when asked about the significance of having a Black candidate emerge as the winner. "And so I'm grateful for the progressive folks and particularly the Black folks who have valiantly fought to represent our district and make sure that it represents all of us."

Powell was backed by a number of elected officials, including City Councilors Bobby Wilson and Erika Strassburger, as well as likely next City Controller Rachael Heisler. There were some efforts to link her to Peduto, and she and Dunn — who was backed by Allegheny County Council member Bethany Hallam and a number of other progressive Democrats — were widely seen as the most likely top two candidates.

But for the most part, the contest for the committee's approval was carried on with little in the way of negative attacks. Party insiders ascribed that to the short turnaround time — from Innamorato's resignation to Saturday's vote was a period of a week and a half — and the impact of ranked-choice voting. Candidates are less likely to attack each other directly, the theory goes, if they think they may need some of their supporters in later rounds of vote-counting.

Asked about whether her role in the Peduto administration played a role, Powell herself played down its significance after her win: "I've always been Lindsay Powell," she said. "I'm well-known for not just where I've been and where I've worked, but who I am and how I've contributed to the community. I think people saw that."

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.