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Special election for 21st state House District will determine control of Pa. House

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

Voters in the state’s 21st House District will be able to decide the direction of state government on Tuesday, Sept. 19. But it’s sort of hard to tell.

When the district’s former representative, Democrat Sara Innamorato, stepped down in July, it left the House deadlocked with 101 Democrats and 101 Republicans. House Speaker Joanna McClinton scheduled the Sept. 19 special on the fastest timetable allowed by law — an effort to restore that majority as quickly as possible.

But in the weeks since, there’s been little media coverage of the race and no candidate forums. Democrat Lindsay Powell and Republican Erin Connolly Autenreith have met only once, at a Shaler municipal meeting this week.

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Allegheny County already has hosted three other special elections in February. But as Powell put it, with this special-election campaign taking root at the height of summer, “The speed of the race has been difficult not just for voters but for [political activists] who are gearing up for November.”

The 21st District includes parts of Pittsburgh as well as nearby Etna, Millvale, Reserve, and Shaler. It’s a decidedly blue district, which may also help explain the lack of tension. But the contrasts between the candidates are strong: While Powell touts the importance of continuing Innamorato’s legacy and Democratic control, Autenreith stresses that she could be a disruptive influence for politicians of both parties, even though she chairs the GOP’s committee in Shaler.

Autenreith — a real estate agent who grew up in a Democratic household in McKees Rocks and who fondly recalls being driven to school by former Democratic Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll — says she can compete.

“I’m in the middle” politically, she said. “I think there’s good points on both sides, and I would like to see more coming together” on issues such as economic development.

That may seem hard to square with the fact that, as WESA first reported in July, Autenreith posted on social media about her wariness of vaccines and being in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, although she said she stayed well clear of the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Powell for one said that, given Trump’s efforts to overturn the election before Jan. 6, it was clear that it would be “a rally that wanted to upend and unravel our democratic process. It’s very concerning that even the speeches alone would be a draw for any candidate.”

”I don't think it was wrong for me to get on a bus to go down and hear the president give his last speech,” Autenreith said. ”I had no idea what was going to happen. Absolutely zero idea.”

And in general, she said she wanted to focus on economic development issues, rather than hot-button topics such as abortion: While she said she could support a statewide ballot question on abortion access, “I don't think the legislature should even vote on this.”

Powell enjoys a sizable fundraising lead in the race, while Autenreith has struggled to find support outside the local chapter of the Republican Party, though she’s been boosted by the support of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Autenreight acknowledged that it’s “surprising” she hasn’t received more support from Republicans.

“When I’m elected, they’re probably going to call me. I’m going to say, ‘Who’s this?’” she joked.

But she said that’s in keeping with her willingness to shake up leadership in both parties.

“I’m going to shake up Harrisburg and be like, ‘What do you people do here? Do you just get elected and then sit back and collect checks?’ That’s what I’m seeing from my side here. We deserve more in Pennsylvania than that.”

Things have been easier for Powell, who works for the nonprofit InnovatePGH but previously worked for former Mayor Bill Peduto as well as Democratic leaders in Congress. She’s being backed by a number of local unions and officeholders, and maintaining Democratic control of the House, she said, “has been a top concern for voters.”

Powell said the stakes of the race are clear: “We’re talking about all the gains we have made [and how] it could all go away very easily. We’re talking about reproductive choice, we’re talking about LGBTQ rights, we’re talking about supporting our unions and workers.”

Conversely, Powell said, “For folks that are interested in undermining our democracy [or] stripping away our reproductive freedoms — that’s not the coalition we’re building.”

While Autenreith was quietly chosen to run by party leaders, Powell competed with four other Democrats for the votes of Democratic committeepeople.

“All of them have been incredibly helpful to bring their supporters along,” she said. In fact, among the groups endorsing her is gun-reform advocacy group CeaseFirePa, whose campaign director was among those seeking the party’s nomination.

Powell will likely have a sizable head start when the polls open Tuesday morning: County data available as of Wednesday showed that Democratic voters had sent in nearly 3,000 mail-in ballots; Republican voters had sent in fewer than 500. Democrats are far more likely to vote by mail, though the number of ballot applications received by the county could suggest lower voter interest than in the county’s special elections this past winter and a slightly higher rate of GOP participation.

Powell would be the first Black woman to represent the heavily white district, which Innamorato once characterized as having racist voters. Powell said that because racism could be found anywhere, “it would be obviously naive to say that racism doesn’t exist in the district. [But] running on a message of inclusivity, of fighting for all families and individuals, has resonated. People have been excited to have someone with these experiences represent them.”

If you’re a voter in this district and the very existence of a special election is news to you, you can find out more about how and where to vote here. And take heart — you are almost certainly not alone.

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.