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Comans seeks to challenge Salisbury in state House race next year

Ashley Comans said she decided to run against Abigail Salisbury in state House District 34 becuase “Voters deserve to have a say."
Comans campaign
Ashley Comans said she decided to run against Abigail Salisbury in state House District 34 becuase “Voters deserve to have a say."

There will likely be some familiar names but a whole different dynamic in next year’s Democratic primary in state House District 34. Ashley Comans, a Wilkinsburg school board member who works in nonprofit communications, is taking another shot at a seat once held by a friend and ally, Congresswoman Summer Lee.

Prior to a campaign kickoff in Wilkinsburg, Comans said, “What I will bring into this position is compassion, my staunch dedication to getting work done and making sure people who historically have not felt included in this process can see that there is opportunity and possibility.”

But she’ll have to defeat first-term legislator Abigail Salisbury in a district that includes a sliver of the city of Pittsburgh and a diverse assortment of eastern suburbs: struggling and majority-Black communities such as Braddock, Rankin and Wilkinsburg, as well as whiter and more prosperous suburbs such as Edgewood, Forest Hills, and Swissvale. Salisbury bested Comans in a special election to replace Lee earlier this year.

But Comans said that as a Black woman with roots in Wilkinsburg, “I have been able to experience and witness things that — when we think of bringing the issues to your elected officials — there isn’t a barrier for me to understand its importance because more than likely I’ve seen it or experienced it myself.”

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Comans serves on the Wilkinsburg School Board — her husband is the borough’s mayor — and she’s been active in the broader progressive movement that has rallied around Lee, a longtime ally and friend. The two played in the Woodland Hills School District band: Comans played the flute, Lee the clarinet.

“We’re in the same band, but we play a different tune,” Comans said, with each coming from different backgrounds and experience.

Comans says her role on the school board and her life as a working mother underscore both the issues that she works on and the way she approaches them. They include policies to support working parents with statewide paid sick-leave measures and to support childcare centers, as well as an interest in education policy that includes diversifying the teacher pool: “How are we building a pipeline for diversity?”

“I lead with a lot of harmony and a lot of positivity,” she said. “That is just who I am.”

Salisbury has represented the area for less than a year and has compiled a solid Democratic voting record. When asked why voters should change direction, Comans said, “It's not necessarily the vote record. It is the connection and the relationships and the lived experiences of this district.”

For her part, Salisbury said she’d invested much of her effort in trying to help area nonprofits and underresourced communities access state grant opportunities through a symposium and other outreach: “I have a theory that if people don’t know what money is available at the state level, they won’t get it.”

Salisbury said her previous work as an attorney with a practice in nonprofit law as well as her tenure on Swissvale’s borough council gave her a special appreciation for the importance of such civic leaders. And she brings other lived experience to the job as well, not least as the only Jewish woman currently in the state House. She is, in fact, trying to reschedule the 2024 primary itself because it is currently being held during Passover, a time when some Jews’ religious practices may conflict with voting or campaigning.

“People shouldn't have to choose between their religious beliefs and their ability to participate in democracy," she said.

As for Comans’ challenge, Salisbury said, “I don't try to think of it as people running against each other. I focus on, ‘Here's what I'm about, here's what I'm going to do. And if you don't, like, have the same priorities, find someone else to vote for who is doing what you want them to do.’ I think Ashley is doing the same thing."

The last time the women competed, it was in a special election earlier where Salisbury arguably got a head start.

Salisbury originally challenged Lee for the seat in the 2022 primary — a cycle in which Lee was simultaneously running for Congress. Salisbury lost that race by a nearly two-to-one margin but won a party endorsement handed out by Democratic committee members — a constituency with which Lee has long struggled.

That party backing didn’t help Salisbury to victory in the spring, but it was a different story this past winter. After Lee ascended to Congress, a special election was held to fill her vacant seat in Harrisburg — and in special elections, a party’s nominee is chosen by the same party leaders who participate in an endorsement. Salisbury prevailed again, besting Comans and two other Democrats to be the sole Democrat running in the decidedly blue district.

Comans noted that it was “a closed-door vote” that involved party insiders. (Though she said she’d seek the party’s endorsement again next year because the decision last time was made in “a two-week instance process right before Christmas,” that didn’t give committee members time “to really explore their options.”) And a more traditional primary fight will allow Comans to tap a grassroots network of progressives who helped elect Lee.

“Voters deserve to have a say,” Comans said. “And I believe our democracy is strongest when the voters decide on who it is that they want.”

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.