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Prosecutor William Petulla seeks to be Democrats' champion in open North Hills House seat

William Petulla.
Petulla campaign
William Petulla will run as a Democrat to replace Rob Mercuri in the 28th state House District seat

The northern reaches of Allegheny County have been a chilly climate for Democrats through the years, but the area’s 28th state House District will likely be among the few open seats on next year's ballot. And a top lieutenant to District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is launching his bid for the seat Monday.

“The biggest thing my district wants is public safety and fiscal efficiency, and also just an end to the partisanship and bickering," William Petulla told WESA.

Whatever their party registration, voters in the district “all seem to want the same things,” he said. “They want their taxes to be kept low. They want their kids to go to quality schools. They want to stop companies from trampling over workers. They want to make our streets safe.”

Petulla hopes to compete for the seat being vacated by two-term Republican Rob Mercuri, who is choosing to focus on a challenge to Congressional Democrat Chris Deluzio next year.

Petulla has not sought elected office before, but he’s no stranger to public life or to keeping an eye on the streets: “I started my career working on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, cleaning up garbage,” he said.

He later became a staff attorney at KidsVoice, which provides legal representation for abused and neglected children, before working his way up through the ranks of the District Attorney’s office. He now serves as the chief deputy trial district attorney in the office.

As a result of that experience, he said, “I believe I bring a fresh perspective to the job. I’ve been able to work with people from all walks of life, and I’d like to use that skill set to provide not only a fresh perspective but to try and end the partisan infighting that exists so often in Harrisburg.”

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The 28th District sprawls across the northern tier of Allegheny County and includes Bradford Woods, and Marshall, Pine, Richland, and part of Hampton townships. It’s long been a Republican bastion: Prior to Mercuri winning it, the seat was held by former state Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, a conservative champion.

And while other North Hills suburbs have been trending blue in recent cycles, the 28th remains unfriendly territory for Democrats. Sara Innamorato’s bid for county executive failed there by nearly 30 percentage points, and an analysis by county councilor Tom Duerr shows it is just one of two state House districts in the county where Democrat Daniel McCaffery did not carry a majority in November’s Supreme Court race.

But Zappala’s re-election bid this fall carried the district by 30 points. While Zappala was on the ballot as a Republican, Democrats are hoping Petulla’s work in the office will impress voters, too. Petulla says he and Zappala haven’t spoken about the race — “We have built a wall between this campaign and what the job is” — but like Zappala, he stresses a traditional approach to law and order.

While progressive Democrats might support efforts to reduce police funding, for example, Petulla said, “Let me be very, very clear: That’s not the politics that I subscribe to, and that’s not what I believe. I believe in funding the police smartly and efficiently, giving them the tools they need.”

And while Petulla cited the ready availability of guns as a crucial public safety concern, he said he favored stiffer prosecution and penalties for criminals who use weapons — which he said are often stolen — rather than efforts to pass new legislation.

Petulla did argue, however, that earlier mental health interventions could help prevent crime because those concerns often “start at an early age and … as people are older, they get involved in the criminal justice system.”

Petulla said a top priority would be providing mental health support in schools. “They should have the services right away without any delay,” said Petulla, whose wife is a school therapist. He said a good first step would be passing a House bill that grants students excused absences for mental health reasons.

With the rise of social media and lingering social effects from the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, “If you can start at the school level, when you have children there reaching out for help, I think it’s something that we should certainly prioritize.”

On abortion, Petulla described himself as “a lifelong Catholic” for whom the issue is difficult, but he said, “I believe that the government doesn’t play a role in the decisions made between a woman and her doctor.”

While no Republican has declared their candidacy for the seat, former Congressional and state Senate candidate Jeremy Shaffer is widely expected to seek the GOP nod. During his 2022 bid for the 17th Congressional District, Shaffer, too, cast himself as a more moderate voice in highly partisan times. But Petulla sounded ready to contrast his own status as a first-time candidate running against someone who “has run many races and certainly has a record out there.”

“My campaign is not about Democrat or Republican,” he said. “It’s about putting people over politics.”

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.