Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pisciottano to seek state Senate seat as heir to retiring Brewster in Monongahela Valley

State Rep. Nick Pisciottano is running to replace state Sen. Jim Brewster.
Courtesy of the campaign
State Rep. Nick Pisciottano is running to replace state Sen. Jim Brewster.

Don’t look now, but a generational change in leadership is coming in the Monongahela Valley.

One day after state Sen. Jim Brewster announced plans to retire from the 45th District at the end of this year, state House Rep. Nick Pisciottano is entering the race as the choice of Brewster and other leaders to replace him. And hours after announcing that bid, Pisciottano backed a candidate for the House seat he currently holds.

“My motto is basically good schools, safe communities, and economic opportunity,” said Pisciottano. “I want people my age to see [the district] as somewhere they want to stay or move into. We want to keep those people here.”

The heart of the 45th lies in the Monongahela Valley, joining Pisciottano’s West Mifflin hometown with communities that include Braddock, Homestead, McKeesport, Duquesne, and Clairton as well as the adjoining Turtle Creek valley. But it also contains the eastern suburbs of Plum and Monroeville, as well as South Hills bedroom communities such as Baldwin, Brentwood, and Whitehall.

Pisciottano is just turning 34 years old and has been representing a chunk of the area in the 38th House District since 2021. But he’s already making a mark. He chairs the county’s House delegation, and his Senate bid appears to be on the inside track: He can boast of the endorsement of Brewster and Democratic elected officials that include House colleagues and Lt. Gov. Austin Davis. Jay Costa, who leads Democrats in the Senate, backs him alongside Allegheny County Sens. Wayne Fontana and Lindsey Williams.

WESA Politics Newsletter

Stay on top of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania political news from WESA's reporters — delivered fresh to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

“Whoever becomes the senator needs to be able to work with the county executive, the state House members, and [legislative] leaders,” Pisciottano said. “I have those connections.”

In a statement backing Pisciottano, Brewster said, “I’ve worked with many devoted public servants during my career and Rep. Pisciottano has been one of the best. From his first day as a state representative, it was clear Nick cares about the future success of our region as well as serving the best interests of his constituents."

He’s also a kind of bridge between an older generation of leaders and the more progressive crop of elected officials who have been taking the reins.

On social issues such as abortion, he has been to the left of House predecessors such as Bill Kortz, and he is part of an LGBTQ caucus in the House. But as a native of West Mifflin who graduated from its high school before studying at Washington & Jefferson College and Johns Hopkins University, his family roots in the area date back before the Civil War.

Pisciotanno grew up in the wake of Big Steel’s collapse, and he says that Brewster’s legacy in office — which dates back to 2010 — includes “helping communities work through the loss of industry and population. He’s done a great job of bringing resources back from Harrisburg, and serving as a voice.”

As a result, Pisciottano said, the area is now poised for a rebound of the kind that brought the mixed-use Waterfront development to the former site of the Homestead Works.

“What they were able to do to link [rails-to-trails infrastructure] to retail, to commercial, to residential — I think that’s the blueprint you could use in a lot of other places,” he said.

Long-delayed construction of the Mon-Fayette Expressway will help reconnect the district to the broader region, he said. But as a board member for the county’s transit agency, he said he’d push for transit funding to better connect suburbs to Pittsburgh and to each other: “Making transit links more accessible and easier [would tie] that network in better.”

Democrats must hold the seat if they hope to make a dent in a decades-old Republican Senate majority. Brewster himself barely won his 2020 re-election bid, besting Republican Nicole Ziccarelli by just 69 votes. But in a statewide redistricting that followed, portions of the 45th that had been in Westmoreland County were drawn out of the district, improving Democrats’ odds.

No Republican has entered this year’s race so far, though the party has been actively prospecting for candidates. And a few hours after Pisciottano announced his bid, the Republican Committee of Allegheny County objected that "The Mon Valley politics of yesterday strike again as [Democrats] try to anoint a hand-picked successor to Senator Brewster." Noting the timing of the moves It is clear based on today’s announcement that Nick Pisciottano has been sitting in the back rooms for months preparing for this run while keeping the rest of the Mon Valley in the dark about the future of Senator Brewster.

The timing of Brewster’s announcement may help clear Pisciottano’s path in the primary: It came just before a Friday deadline for Democrats to seek the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. Candidates can run without the backing of party insiders, but their imprimatur can be especially helpful in more traditional Democratic enclaves.

Brewster himself told WESA that he announced his retirement before candidates for the office could begin circulating their petitions. "People that want to run should get the petitions and circulate them," he said.

As for his own decision to retire, Brewster said he'd originally planned to serve only one full term in office, and that he'd accomplished some crucial goals, like advancing the Mon-Fayette Expressway. But he said he'd been frustrated with the Senate's resistance to change — and with being in the Democratic minority.

"If I thought we were going to be in a majority, I would probably consider running again," he said.

In any case, Brewster’s retirement plans have been openly discussed in Democratic circles since last fall. Licensed therapist and community organizer Makenzie White announced her own bid in the fall and plans a formal kickoff event Thursday evening.

“Every day I see residents facing problems that are out of their control as a result of decisions, or a lack of decisions, made by policymakers,” she said.

White, a member of the Brentwood Democratic Committee, said she’d worked on concerns about landfills and other environmental issues. She speaks admiringly of the grassroots efforts of leaders such as Congresswoman Summer Lee and Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato.

“We’re seeing the area changing a lot,” she said. “People want clean air, we want our streets to be accessible. People want leaders who care about them.”

Pisciottano said he’ll focus on the Senate bid, rather than running simultaneously for his House seat. (That bet-hedging gambit resulted in a slew of special elections in nearby districts last year.) So while Pisciottano will finish out his term in the House this year, his seat will be up for grabs in this spring's Democratic primary. The candidate he hopes will succeed him, educator West Mifflin Borough council member John Inglis, announced his campaign for the 38th District seat just hours after Pisciottano's own campaign announcement.

"I want to create a future here that is worthy of [our children]," said Inglis in a campiagn statement. "I look forward to earning the support and trust of the voters.”

The statement included Pisciottano's endorsement of Inglis for his "dedication to our community" and "his commitment to service." Pisciottano and Inglis are cousins, but Pisciottano told WESA that he had "a vested interest in making sure that whoever runs in my House seat will be a good partner [if] God willing, I’m the Senator."

Also likely to seek the office is Anthony "AJ" Olasz, whose grandfather once held the same House seat.

Whoever ends up on the ballot, Pisciottano said he hoped voters paid attention to the change in local leadership: While federal races get the attention, “It's really the state and local government that have 99% of the impact on your everyday life. We are at the bottom of your ballot, but we should be at the top of your mind.”

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.