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Fueled by deep-pocketed progressives, Comans outraises incumbent Salisbury in HD-34

State Rep. Abigail Salisbury (left) faces challenger Ashley Comans in the Democratic primary for the 34th district in Pennsylvania's State House.
Gerri Hernandez/Salisbury campaign
Comans campaign
State Rep. Abigail Salisbury (left) faces challenger Ashley Comans in the Democratic primary for the 34th district in Pennsylvania's State House.

Democrat Abigail Salisbury won the 34th state House seat in a special election last year, taking a post once held by Summer Lee before she left for Congress. But campaign finance reports filed within the past week suggest she is in a tough fight to hold it for a full term this spring, as she faces a challenger who has the backing not just of Lee but of the progressive political movement she has championed.

Salisbury raised $49,613 between early March and early April, her campaign filing shows. But Ashley Comans, her challenger in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary, raised more than twice that amount, pulling in a whopping $105,884 during that period.

Going into the last two weeks of the campaign, Comans still had over $93,000 on hand for use in the campaign’s final stretch; Salisbury had slightly less than $8,000.

"I’m proud of the momentum my campaign has headed into these final days before the primary because of the bold, progressive coalition we are building,” Comans said in a statement. She said it reflected a movement whose make-up includes “powerful elected officials, community leaders, and people all across the district.”

Comans’ biggest donors included progressive advocacy groups PA United, whose political committee gave her $30,000, and a PAC tied to the Working Families Party which gave $20,000. Comans also received $5,000 each from Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee herself. A political committee long tied to Lee, UNITE PAC, gave another $7,500.

Salisbury’s more modest donor list includes a number of labor groups, led by a $5,000 donation from a Laborers committee, and some of her colleagues in Harrisburg. House Majority leader Matt Bradford gave her $5,000, while House speaker Joanna McClinton gave her $1,500 and Democratic whip Jordan Harris gave $2,000. Local Democratic House members, including Aerion Abney and Dan Miller, also supported her.

"My colleagues have been very supportive," Salisbury said.

Those donations were dated after a move last month by Innamorato, Lee, and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey to endorse Comans. Each of those leaders cited long-standing personal or family relationships to Comans, in addition to shared political convictions and activism. But as WESA first reported last month, that endorsement caused chagrin among some of Salisbury’s colleagues, who like Salisbury face a heavy lift trying to deliver on city and county priorities in a divided legislature.

Salisbury professed little rancor about the money arrayed against her.

“I supported Sara last year, and I reached out to many of the same people for help as I did when I reached out for support during her campaign,” she said. But Innamorato, Gainey and Lee “are doing their very best to help their friend, and that seems to be the choice they’ve made.”

The Comans campaign said more was at stake than simple friendship, depicting her strong fundraising against an incumbent as a mandate for change.

“The fact that we’ve taken on the establishment once again and outraised an incumbent two-to-one is proof that our community wants more than the status quo,” Comans’ statement said.

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When a candidate is backed by the region’s three most powerful elected officials, it’s an open question as to who the establishment is. And Comans’ donors extend far beyond the boundaries of the district itself: Campaign-finance reports filed by Working Families and PA United themselves in the most recent reporting period show a large number of donors from outside the region. PA United PAC’s biggest donations, for example, included two $10,000 gifts from Silicon Valley, while Working Families drew $100,000 from a national political committee based in Brooklyn.

Still, the vast majority of her individual donors live within the area, and her supporters also include local officials like City Councilor Barb Warwick and County Councilors Anita Prizio and Dan Grzybek.

Salisbury herself said, “There’s nothing nefarious going on here to my knowledge — it all seems perfectly up and up.” But she suggested that she may be the real outsider.

As someone who grew up in northern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania before moving to the area two decades ago, she said, “I don’t have family relationships with elected officials that go back for generations. I tend to look at it as I don’t owe anyone any favors. [But] you can look at it as a detriment: I wasn’t born here so I don’t have the ability to leverage those relationships.”

And while Comans has the backing of the region’s biggest political names, Salisbury pointed out that she has support from the mayors of eight municipalities in a district that includes 13 separate communities.

“This is district that is mostly made up of small boroughs, and people have had a chance to get to know and work with me,” she said. And while elected officials by Gainey may get the most attention, “I believe the mayor of Churchill deserves just as much respect.”

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.