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A Democratic shake-up in the Mon Valley may bring new faces but familiar names to political office

An oil rail car with a slag pot sits behind Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pa. The cars used to line up at the top of the Brown Dump Site and flip over molten slag.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
An oil rail car with a slag pot sits behind Century III Mall in West Mifflin, Pa. The cars used to line up at the top of the Brown Dump Site and flip over molten slag.

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.

By now, “Democrats in disarray” headlines have become a running political joke, one almost as familiar as Will Rogers’ observation that as a Democrat, he was not a member of an organized political party. But some Democrats in the Mon Valley, at least, seem very much in array this week — so much so that critics are grousing about that instead.

Put simply: There haven’t been this many moving parts in the Valley since they shut down the Homestead Works.

Late Wednesday, state Sen. and former McKeesport Mayor Jim Brewster announced that he will not run for re-election in the 45th district, which he’s held since 2010 and which ranges from the Valley to the South Hills and Monroeville. That was followed Thursday morning by news that state Rep. Nick Pisciottano would seek the seat, with backing from Brewster and a broad swath of other Democratic leaders.

A few hours after that, Pisciottano backed a candidate to replace him in his 38th House District seat next year: West Mifflin educator and borough council member John Inglis.

“If you’re looking for someone who’s dedicated, someone that truly cares and would be authentic in this political arena, it’s me,” Inglis told me.

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Inglis, who currently works as a school counselor in the district, is a strong union supporter who stresses the importance of education spending — particularly when it comes to mental health and social support. The COVID pandemic has left psychological scars, he said, but those “are only the tip of the iceberg. And the shame of it is, a lot of students are good at hiding their needs.”

And in a district that used to elect more socially conservative Democrats like Pisciottano’s predecessor Bill Kortz, Inglis and Pisciottano both support abortion rights.

It’s part of a generational change in leadership that I’ve babbled about before. And the Mon Valley has more than played its part in it. Summer Lee and Austin Davis both were elected to House seats here and went on to become the state’s first Black congresswoman and lieutenant governor, respectively. Pisciottano’s election in 2020 didn’t mark the same kind of shift, but since taking office, he’s pulled off the rare feat of appealing both to party progressives and the party’s old guard.

Pisciottano said part of the shift stems from “a lost generation” of leadership after the collapse of Big Steel. That magnified a nationwide dearth of office-eligible Gen Xers, or at least Gen Xers ambitious enough to do more than write political newsletters.

But one consequence of those departures — and the strong family ties that have kept some anchored to the area — is that as more than one observer has told me, “Everyone still living here is related somehow.”

Inglis, for one, is Pisciottano’s cousin, and he may face a challenger who also sports a familiar West Mifflin name. Anthony “AJ” Olasz says he will run for the seat that was once held by his grandfather, Richard D. Olasz. (Olasz’ father, meanwhile, is a magistrate district judge in the area.)

“It’s always been a dream of mine to run for that seat, and this is the time,” said Olasz, who works for the law firm of Dodaro, Matta and Cambest. He said he plans to formally announce his campaign next week.

To be sure, such family traditions extend beyond the 38th district: Matthew Gergely, who represents District 35 next door, is the brother of Marc Gergely, who once held the seat. Brandon Markosek inherited a House seat from his father in the 25th District seat just down the road.

And don’t be surprised if another candidate jumps into these races. Both Brewster’s and Pisciottano’s districts include South HIlls communities where some Democrats rankle at the thought of being represented by another Mon Valley pol. (West Mifflin in particular has long dominated the seat: The elder Olasz and his successor Kenneth Ruffing were both from the area and between them held it for a quarter-century. Bill Kortz of Dravosburg represented the area between 2006 and 2020.)

I’ve already heard grumbling from some Democrats about how Brewster, Pisciottano and Inglis’ announcements have been orchestrated. All of these developments, after all, took place not long before a 5 p.m. Friday deadline for candidates who want to seek the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement. And while candidates can and do win without the party’s backing — Lee took down a member of the Costa family in just that way — it’s an option they may want to consider.

Republicans seized on the timing Wednesday, issuing a statement decrying the “Mon Valley politics” that sought to make Pisciottano the “hand-picked successor” of Brewster.

Republicans clearly have their eyes on the Senate district: Brewster barely held off a GOP challenge four years ago, and while the 45th district has since been redrawn, Republicans have made inroads. County executive candidate Joe Rockey won Brewster’s district by about 6 points last fall; his margin in Pisciottano’s district was even larger.

Notably, the GOP hasn’t put their candidate forward either, though their statement pledges, “We will have a candidate that presents voters with a real choice.” (Presumably, that candidate won’t be “hand-picked.”)

In any case, there is already an alternative for the Brewster seat: social worker and community activist Makenzie White. And Democrats have more time to weigh their chances than they did in, say, 2018, when Markosek ran to replace his father. The elder Markosek didn’t disclose his retirement until his son filed for the party endorsement … and after the deadline for anyone else to do so.

Brewster denies there was an effort to box anyone out. If anything, he said, “You have to make these announcements because petitions [to run for office] come out in a week or so, and it’s not fair to the public. People that want to run should get the petitions and circulate them.”

Which is good advice. Just give the political reporters a few days to catch their breaths, OK?

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.