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Gainey, Innamorato endorsement in House contest raises eyebrows along with challenger's hopes

Left to right: U.S. Rep. Summer Lee; Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato; Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.
Matt Rourke / Jakob Lazzaro
AP / 90.5 WESA
Left to right: U.S. Rep. Summer Lee; Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato; Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.

State House candidate Ashley Comans gained the support of southwestern Pennsylvania’s three most powerful Democrats Tuesday: U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato, and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey. And while endorsements often attract little public notice, this one has drawn attention all the way in Harrisburg as the region’s progressive leaders flex their muscle again — and House members push back.

Comans is challenging Abigail Salisbury, a first-term state House member. Salisbury beat Comans and others in a special election last year to fill the 34th District seat held by Lee before she moved on to Congress. But that race was largely decided when Salisbury was chosen as the Democratic nominee — a choice which, in a special election, is made by party insiders rather than voters.

Comans, a Lee ally, is a progressive political activist and Wilkinsburg School Board director. And in her statement of support, Innamorato hailed Comans’ race as the next step in the remaking of local politics.

“We built a movement in western PA that fundamentally changed how politics works,” said Innamorato. “Ashley Comans was there from the beginning.”

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Gainey said that “too many Black, brown, and low-income neighborhoods are denied resources and the … educational opportunities kids need to thrive. We need Ashley in Harrisburg.”

Such high-octane endorsements may boost Comans’ profile with voters and donors. But they raised hackles with some of the House members she hopes to join.

Incumbent House members generally support each other in elections, and some were surprised that Gainey and Innamorato — who, like Lee, formerly served in the House — would back a challenger, especially without letting the House delegation know in advance that they were doing so.

"I'm just disappointed that they would weigh in against an incumbent that hasn't done anything to warrant not winning her seat,” said state Rep. Emily Kinkead. Salisbury “has done everything that falls in line with the goals Sara and Ed have for our region.”

Lee’s endorsement came as little surprise: Salisbury previously challenged her unsuccessfully for the state House seat, and Lee and Comans are longtime allies. But Democrats noted that Gainey is asking for $30 million in state funding to help convert Downtown office space into new housing. Innamorato, meanwhile, has made clear she will make asks of her own.

“We are going to be partners along with our state House and state Senate members,” she said in her victory speech last November. “And I know I'm going to ask for a lot in that budget next year.”

Now, some Democrats grouse, Innamorato and Gainey are seeking to topple one of the members from whom they want help.

State Rep. Dan Frankel said the delegation would continue to work for that money: “We fight for our constituents, and the mayor and county executive have an agenda that is something we agree needs to get done.”

Still, he said, “There is some consternation” about the move: “From my perspective, [Salisbury] has worked very diligently and her policy positions are consistent with where our delegation is.“

After a Wednesday Board of Elections meeting, Innamorato told WESA, “I wanted to be able to stand behind [Comans] because she stood behind me in all the different races i’ve had. .. I think Ashley Comans is a really strong candidate and will do a great job.”

She noted too that this was the first race in which Democratic voters had a chance to pick their own nominee. But “at the end of the day, we will work with whoever is in that seat because we have a job to do. That's the governance.

“Sometimes that can get messy,” Innamorato added.

In fact, on Tuesday Innamorato sent a note to House members acknowledging that she “received calls today from many of you” about the endorsement. She said she had “great respect for Rep. Salisbury” who “has supported me at a number of critical moments.” But Comans “and her family have stood with me every single election.”

Innamorato's letter seemed to blame staff for not giving legislators a heads-up, saying she’d be “holding my team accountable in a variety of ways. You will never be blindsided again.” And she addressed the “ramifications this may have for my policy priorities in Harrisburg.” She urged members to consider “what is best for the region, as you advance budget discussions.”

State Rep. Nick Pisciottano, who chairs the county delegation, issued a guarded statement, saying the delegation “strongly stands behind and supports all its members for reelection so that we can continue to collectively advocate for our constituents.”

A churn in leadership, and the political infighting that often comes with it, “is just the nature of the business,” one House Democrat shrugged. Indeed, Innamorato’s predecessor, Rich Fitzgerald, backed a challenger to Lee’s first bid for re-election, Chris Roland, though Fitzgerald kept a lower profile. And challenging incumbents is often a means of becoming one: Kinkead, for one, bested Adam Ravenstahl for her state House seat.

But Ravenstahl and Roland arguably had real differences with progressives on such issues as abortion rights and the natural gas industry, respectively. It is harder to discern such distinctions in the Comans/Salisbury race.

At a gathering of the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club last weekend, Comans was asked if there was a vote Salsibury had taken that she objected to. Comans did not identify one but cited the value of having representation from often-overlooked communities. Being a leader, she said, “requires more of us than just showing up and making a vote.”

Winning back Lee’s old seat would restore a Black woman to the delegation in a region that, until Lee’s election in 2018, had never elected one. (The county delegation now has two.) But Salisbury can lay claim to diversify Harrisburg as well: She’s a Jewish woman, bisexual, and on the spectrum for autism. On Sunday, she won the 14th Ward Club’s backing, and she’s been backed by the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council — an umbrella group of area unions — and party insiders in the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. She’s been backed by a number of individual unions and LGBTQ groups as well.

Comans, for her part, has won the support of activist groups as well as local progressive leaders including County Councilor Bethany Hallam and Pittsburgh City Councilor Barb Warwick.

The labor council and the Democratic committee have sometimes shunned progressive candidates in the past, although the latter backed Lee for the first time this year. And there is a consensus that the region's political power base has shifted dramatically in the past half-decade.

Judging from this week’s endorsements, the county’s three top leaders aren’t done yet.

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.