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Democratic incumbents Salisbury, McAndrew win in Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs

Abigail Salisbury, left, has been declared the winner of the Democrat primary in Pa.'s 34th state House District; Joe McAndrew has won the 32nd state House District.
Courtesy campaigns
Abigail Salisbury, left, has been declared the winner of the Democrat primary in Pa.'s 34th state House District; Joe McAndrew has won the 32nd state House District.

Voters in two state House districts east of Pittsburgh have confirmed the incumbents that party leaders played a key part in choosing a year ago.

Incumbents Joe McAndrew and Abigail Salisbury won special elections last year to fill seats left vacant in the 32nd and 34th districts, respectively. They both won their Democratic primaries on Tuesday.

McAndrew replaced the late Anthony DeLuca last year in a district that includes Penn Hills, Verona, Oakmont, and Plum. Salisbury, meanwhile, filled the seat previously held by now-Congresswoman Summer Lee in a district that covers a sliver of Pittsburgh and a dozen communities to the east, among them Braddock, Churchill, Edgewood, Forest Hills, Swissvale, and Wilkinsburg.

(A third special election last year, the contest to replace Lt. Gov. Austin Davis in the 35th district, was won by Matthew Gergely, who is unopposed for the Democratic nomination.)

Incumbency is usually a powerful disincentive to challengers: No other incumbents in Allegheny County faced primary challenges this year. But McAndrew and Salisbury had just a year in Harrisburg under their belts, and each became locked in a rematch with a challenger from last year.

Addressing supporters Tuesday night, Salisbury attributed her win to her legislative work during the past year.

"I had a theory that if you do your job, people would vote for you," Salisbury said with a voice hoarse from the day, which, she admitted, sounded like she had been a smoker for life.

When she was first elected, she was repeatedly told in Harrisburg that the job of a freshman representative was to get reelected, she said.

"I thought it was doing my job," she said.

"That's why you got reelected," a voice shouted from the crowd in response.

McAndrew, who once served as the executive director of the Democratic Party’s apparatus in Allegheny County, faced Penn Hills Mayor Pauline Calabrese. Salisbury, an attorney from Swissvale who specializes in nonprofit law, again contended with Ashley Comans, a Wilkinsburg school board member and longtime progressive political activist.

Both challengers had argued that this year’s primary represented the first time for voters in those districts to have a meaningful say in choosing their legislators. As Calabrese put it when she launched her bid earlier this year, “Voters deserve a choice, and I will give them one."

That’s because there is no primary in a special election. Instead, Democratic nominees were chosen by the members of the party’s local committee, two of which represent each voting precinct. McAndrew and Salisbury both won that contest, all but assuring their victories that year.

This time around, "We ran a very good campaign, but it was a David-and-Goliath campaign because Joe [McAndrew] was the endorsed candidate. And it's very, very difficult to go against an incumbent," Calabrese said Tuesday night.

McAndrew called his reelection a vote of support for the Democratic majority’s work in Harrisburg.

"I think that my constituents overall are really excited to see that we are really doing the work in Harrisburg and ... coming back home and delivering back here as well," he said in an interview.

Abigail Salisbury after her win on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Abigail Salisbury after her primary win on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.

Both races proceeded quietly this year, overshadowed by U.S. Rep. Summer Lee’s bid for reelection and other contests. Salisbury again won the backing of party committeepeople — though this time the vote did not have any binding effect on voters. Calabrese entered the race too late to challenge McAndrew for the endorsement at all.

Both incumbents also garnered the support of area unions, and McAndrew also won the endorsement of Planned Parenthood’s state political arm; Calabrese has expressed personal ambivalence about abortion in the past. (Planned Parenthood made no endorsement in the Comans/Salisbury race: Both support abortion rights.)

But the race in the 34th took a turn when the region’s top three elected officials — Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, and Lee herself — publicly endorsed Comans late in the race. Salisbury’s colleagues in Harrisburg bristled at the move, which was seen as an effort to target one of their own based on personal relationships rather than any failure of Salisbury to support the Democratic agenda. But Comans out-fundraised Salisbury in the weeks leading up to the primary, and going into Tuesday, many political observers expected a close race.

Comans did not speak with reporters after the race was called Tuesday, but her campaign manager Erik Oas said in an interview: "This campaign was centered around giving voters a choice, and this is the first time they've had a choice since Congresswoman Lee was in the same position as a campaign that centered poor and working people, and that fight, it still continues today."

"We knocked over 20,000 doors," Oas added. "And I always tell people, those conversations never go away. Those people are excited to keep organizing. And that's the reason why we wage electoral campaigns, is to move stuff, not just to be about one person."

Salisbury did not endear herself to progressives in 2022 when she unsuccessfully challenged Lee’s state House reelection bid before winning it in the following year's special.

Allegheny County Democratic Committee member Darcy Zotter said she voted for Comans when the seat opened the last time. But Salisbury won her over because of what she's been able to accomplish in office, Zotter said.

For example, she said, Salisbury was able to get onto the Appropriations Committee, which she said is typically not accessible to freshman legislators. Zotter said she asked Salisbury how she pulled it off.

"I asked," she said Salisbury responded. That kind of effort led Zotter to eventually volunteer and canvas for Salisbury in both Edgewood and Wilkinsburg.

The outcome Tuesday will almost inevitably be seen as a reflection on the power of progressive coattails, as the county’s top leaders try to remake the political scene in their images.

But prior to the polls closing, Gainey, for one, pushed back on that interpretation.

“That’s all politics. We throw around the word ‘influence’ so much,” he said. “It’s about the people. Just let the people speak and let us do the work of the people.”

Gainey cited personal loyalty and longstanding family ties as the reason for his support for Comans, along with the fact that, as a Black woman from Wilkinsburg, she could speak to the needs of underserved communities.

“I know how important voting is, but we also need a voice,” he said.

Tuesday’s winners likely will have put the toughest part of the race behind them. Both the 32nd and 34th districts are heavily Democratic: Neither has a Republican on the ballot this spring, though a nominee could emerge through a write-in effort.

Updated: April 24, 2024 at 1:42 AM EDT
Updated to include quotes from the candidates.
Updated: April 23, 2024 at 9:17 PM EDT
Updated with winners of the races.
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.
Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.