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Democrats retain narrow control of Pa. House after Lindsay Powell wins special election in District 21

Lindsay Powell
Courtesy of the Powell campaign
Lindsay Powell

Democrat Lindsay Powell won a special election Tuesday night in the 21st state House District, preserving a one-seat majority for Democrats in the lower chamber of the legislature. Powell easily brushed aside a challenge from Republican Erin Connelly Autenreith in the Democrat-friendly district.

"This is not just about the 21st District. This is about the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Powell told supporters who gathered with her Tuesday night to await returns at the Rear End Gastropub & Garage in Etna.

"It's about believing that we can do more ... government can be something that we are proud of," she said. "More than anything else ... government is about trust. And I am so grateful to have your trust. I promise you: Every single day, I will work to earn your trust."

Unofficial results showed Powell up by a commanding margin when she declared victory around 8:45 p.m. The Associated Press also declared her the victor in the race.

Powell is poised to become the first Black woman to represent the heavily white 21st House District, which includes her own Lawrenceville community and nearby city neighborhoods along with the northern suburbs of Etna, Millvale, Reserve and Shaler. Her victory means control of the legislature will continue to be divided, with Republicans holding sway in the state Senate.

"I'm so grateful for the opportunity to serve our communities," she told WESA. "I'm so thankful that the 21st District has believed in our progressive agenda."

Asked to define key elements of her victory, Powell replied: "We spent a lot of time and energy making sure we were knocking [on] every single neighbor's door, and speeding that message of ensuring that we have an equitable, just community and government."

Powell is a former Congressional staffer who also served as an aide to former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. More recently, she’s served as the director of workforce strategy for the nonprofit InnovatePGH. She campaigned on a pledge to continue the work of the district’s former representative, progressive three-term Democrat Sara Innamorato.

"I am so excited for the 21st District. Lindsay has the compassion, the drive, and the ability to bring people together," said Innamorato, who joined Powell and other supporters in Etna. "I can't think of anyone better to build on my legacy."

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Autenreith is a real estate agent who chairs the Republican Party committee in her hometown of Shaler. The daughter of a family of McKees Rocks Democrats, she described herself as a pragmatist willing to work across the aisle for economic development. But on social media, she expressed skepticism of vaccines and acknowledged attending former President Donald Trump’s speech immediately prior to the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol.

Democrats had been the minority party for a half-dozen legislative sessions prior to this year. Even a one-seat majority enables them to control the floor calendar, deciding which bills come up for discussions in committee, which receive a vote, and which will reach Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk. The partisan House/Senate split also means that neither party is likely to advance proposed constitutional amendments, which bypass the governor’s office and go directly before voters.

But those powers were suspended after the July resignation of Innamorato, who stepped down to focus on her run for Allegheny County executive. That erased the Democrats’ one-vote margin in the House and left the chamber deadlocked, with each party holding 101 seats. House Speaker Joanna McClinton scheduled the special election in District 21 just two months later — the fastest turnaround permitted by state law and one that didn’t afford an opportunity for debates between the candidates.

"They say the county executive is the third-most powerful [elected official] in Pennsylvania," Innamorato said when asked what it would mean to have a Democratic majority in the House if she is elected county executive. "And I say that's until I have to go to Harrisburg and ask for money" to fund infrastructure and other projects.

"Having this majority, having those relationships, is going to be critical to building a thriving region," Innamorato added.

The House has been on summer recess since Innamorato stepped down, so the impact of the deadlock has been minimal. Still, Democrats were anxious to reclaim the chamber.

“This is our first time controlling the House in over a decade, and we’ve passed 150 pieces of legislation in the past couple months,” said state Rep. Nick Pisciottano, a West Mifflin Democrat who chairs the county’s House Democratic delegation.

“Two-thirds of those bills had at least one GOP vote. We want the legislature to function, which hasn’t been the norm for a long time," he said. "Lindsay winning this seat allows us to continue to do the people’s business, and she’ll be a thoughtful, caring legislator.”

Pisciottano also hailed the party’s increasing diversity outside city neighborhoods.

“There are lots of voices that should be represented," he said. "And what you’re seeing is the acknowledgment that these are smart, capable leaders. ”

Powell’s own voice won’t be heard on the House floor for a few weeks. The House is due back in session next Tuesday, but the Allegheny County Board of Elections must certify Tuesday’s results before Powell can be seated. The board is set to do so in a meeting scheduled for Oct. 2.

Until votes are certified, Powell said, "I've already been talking to community leaders, making sure I'm accessible. I'm ready to go — after a quick nap — on Day One tomorrow."

Powell was the odds-on favorite from the moment she won a five-way contest to be the Democrats’ nominee, and party-aligned interest groups were quick to support her with campaign cash.

Factoring in last-minute contributions, Powell appeared to be on pace to outraise Autenreith by a margin of 11 to 1 — thanks in part to four-digit contributions from groups that included several unions and Emily’s List, which supports pro-choice female candidates nationwide. Her largest donation was a $10,000 check from a political committee that represents teachers statewide.

Autenreith’s biggest supporter was the Republican Committee of Allegheny County; her other donors included a group opposed to abortion rights that gave her $500, though Autenreith has said she didn’t believe legislators should vote on abortion laws.

The election on Tuesday proceeded without incident. And it followed a script similar to the one that governed a cluster of special elections in three other Allegheny County House seats earlier this year. All four special elections took place in a strongly Democratic district vacated by a Democratic incumbent, and with light turnout in each contest, the Democratic nominee leaped out to an early and insurmountable lead shortly after 8 p.m., when mail-in ballot tallies were released.

But Democrats can’t get too comfortable: Even assuming no surprise departures this legislative term, Bucks County Democrat John Galloway is expected to win a race for magistrate district judge this fall. If he does so, he’ll be sworn in this winter — setting up another special election with House control at stake this winter.

In a statement Tuesday night, the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee called Powell a "lifelong public servant and social justice advocate" and pointed to her win as a rejection of Republican "extremist views and policies."

"Once again, voters rejected Pennsylvania Republicans’ radical policies, and for the fifth time this year, Democrats have won a crucial special election to hold the majority in the Pennsylvania House,” said Heather Williams, interim president of the committee. "We congratulate Representative Powell, and we look forward to watching her advocate for her constituents in the Pennsylvania House.”

Updated: September 19, 2023 at 10:25 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include comments from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Updated: September 19, 2023 at 9:11 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include additional remarks from Lindsay Powell and Allegheny County executive candidate and former state Rep. Sara Innamorato.
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.