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In Mon Valley, Pisciottano and Dintini win in 45th state Senate primary, 38th House race remains undeclared

A man in a white long-sleeved shirt smiles while talking with others in a crowd.
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Nick Pisciottano after winning his primary election on Tuesday, April 23, 2024.

A changing of the guard is guaranteed this year in Allegheny County’s 45th Senate District — which has been held since 2010 by former McKeesport Mayor Jim Brewster — and in the 38th House District, which covers some of the same ground.

Brewster is retiring at the end of this year. His district, which combines a swath of the Monongahela Valley with some middle-to-working-class suburbs in the South Hills as well as Plum and Monroeville, is the battleground for one of the few legislative races in which voters in both parties have choices in both the spring and fall.

Democrats, who are in the minority in the Senate, hope to hold the seat for their party and make gains elsewhere. Democratic voters on Tuesday chose current state Rep. Nick Pisciottano over social worker Makenzie White as their champion this fall; Republicans, in turn, selected security business owner Jen Dintini rather than local Republican committee member Kami Stulginskas to take the field for the GOP in November.

White was the first candidate to declare her interest in the seat, announcing her bid last fall before Brewster’s own retirement plans were confirmed. In a campaign modeled on past winning bids mounted by Summer Lee and other progressives, White foregrounded issues of environmental justice and criminal justice reform.

But White soon found herself running against Pisciottano, a West Mifflin native who touts his work on behalf of the district and who is backed by Brewster and a swath of Democratic interests ranging from old-school unions to progressive Harrisburg newcomers.

"The day we announced, we were focused on building a broad coalition of support and working in every corner of the district," Pisciottano said Tuesday night, calling the 45th "a diverse district with a lot of different communities with a lot of different challenges."

"We were focused on making sure that we met all those challenges and talked to people about the issues they cared most about," he added. "And I think that's what played out at the end."

On the Republican side, Dintini launched her first bid for public office in January, touting her leadership of family-owned unionized security firms and stressing public safety and economic development concerns. She defeated Stulginskas, who ran unsuccessfully for Munhall borough council last year, and survived an effort to toss her from the ballot undertaken by longtime Republicans in the area.

In both races, the party establishment rallied behind a clear favorite. Pisciottano has been a rising star in Democratic circles, leading the county’s delegation despite being in only his second term, and the rapid coalescing of support from Brewster and other Democrats has prompted some criticism from outsiders. Dintini, though a political newcomer, has received five-digit contributions from Senate GOP leaders, as well as $25,000 from a political committee heavily financed by a school-voucher advocacy group tied to billionaire hedge fund manager Jeff Yass.

Still, each of their challengers has political ties: Stulginskas’ low-profile bid was financed with support from the Mon Valley Republican Committee she chairs. White is active in the Brentwood branch of the Democratic committee and has received support from progressive activists pushing the party to the left.

Voter registration in the 45th skews decidedly Democratic, especially after a 2021 redistricting that carved out a portion of GOP-friendly Westmoreland County that had been part of the district. But Republicans note that many of those are split-ticket voters who have proven willing to back Republicans in the past, and have already shown a willingness to invest in the race this fall.

Dintini sees her campaign as an opportunity to flip the seat for Republicans this November.

"If we keep electing the same kind of politicians to Harrisburg, we can't expect different results," she said.

House District 38

Pisciottano chose to leave his House seat open, rather than hedge his bets by simultaneously running for re-election in his old seat while campaigning for the new one. (As a result of that practice, voters in nearby districts had to hold special elections last year in state House seats once held by U.S. Rep. Summer Lee and Lt. Gov. Austin Davis.) That created an opportunity for a new face — though not necessarily a new name — in a district that combines the South Hills communities of Baldwin and Whitehall with West Mifflin and a handful of nearby Mon Valley communities.

Pisciottano backed West Mifflin School District educator John Inglis to replace him in the lower chamber. But Inglis drew two rivals for the seat: Anthony “AJ” Olasz, also of West Mifflin, and Victoria Schmotzer, of Whitehall.

All three candidates started the race with family ties to local politics. Inglis is Pisciottano’s cousin, while Olasz, who works in a law firm that specializes in municipal law, is the grandson of Richard Olasz, who once held the same House seat. He’s also the son of a magistrate district judge in the area. Schmotzer’s father, Martin, once held an adjoining House seat and has long been active in Democratic politics.

Each candidate had a base of support — Olasz had the backing of Brewster himself and some other longtime Democrats, while Schmotzer drew on support from South Hills figures including former House member Greg Fajt and Allegheny County Councilor John Palmiere. But Inglis racked up a number of notable endorsements, including the backing of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee and the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council.

In November, the winner of the Democratic primary is all but certain to face Republican Stone Sobieralski, a first-term borough councilor from Whitehall, who ran unopposed on the Republican ballot.

Updated: April 23, 2024 at 9:23 PM EDT
Updated with winners
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.
Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.