For years, Democratic voters in Allegheny County have complained of a lack of choice: Incumbent state legislators with familiar names run all but unopposed, returning to Harrisburg year after year. But times may be changing. In the 20th state House district alone, two 32-year-old female candidates are pledging to be a more visible presence than incumbent Adam Ravenstahl.
“The state representative has the ability to go to Harrisburg and be a voice for this district,” said Emily Kinkead, a lawyer from Brighton Heights. “When you have a representative that’s silent, that nobody remembers is in the room, then you don’t have a voice at the table. There’s a lot of things that he claims to stand for, but I expect him across the board to speak up about those things.”
“He isn’t fighting for anything. He doesn’t seem to be passionate for anything,” agreed Emily Marburger, who is in her first term as mayor for the Ohio River borough of Bellevue. “Western Pennsylvania is going through a renaissance right now, and we know in 2020 we need to stack the deck from the bottom to the presidency with people who are going to fight for change.”
They are hoping to topple Ravenstahl in a district that ranges from Lawrenceville and Pittsburgh’s North Side through Ohio River communities and a portion of Ross Township. It’s a district that has seen an influx of younger, more progressive voters while retaining older-school neighborhoods like Brighton Heights.
The two women share similarly progressive values on both social and economic issues: Both support abortion rights and protecting LGBT Pennsylvanians from discrimination, and both back labor causes while expressing doubts about charter schools. Their principal differences are in their resumes.
Kinkead is a lawyer in private practice, and while this would be her first campaign, she has experience with government and policy. She’s clerked for Commonwealth Court Judge Michael Wojcik, whose court handles election law and lawsuits involving state agencies. “What you want is somebody who … can hit the ground running on day one, and I have that," she said.
Kinkead has also been active in good-government causes since her college days, and favors causes like limiting the size of contributions to candidates running in Pennsylvania. The lack of limits, she said, "sets up a really significant issue with not believing that the government works for you as an individual voter, because you don’t have money to spend.”
Marburger, meanwhile, stresses that she won an election in a spirited 2017 local race -- which she calls "the ripple before the blue wave" of 2017. Since then, she said, she’s learned the nuts-and-bolts of governing. “My knowledge of the system and the network I’ve built is going to put me ahead in accomplishing things,” she said. It’s also concentrated her interest in climate change and the toll it takes on communities like hers: “Bellevue is essentially just a hill that runs down to the Ohio River, [and] the roads are getting undermined as the water is gushing down our brick streets … We’re seeing localized flooding in weird areas.”
But while they have varying backgrounds, both see the same concern looming ahead: Ravenstahl’s re-election prospects improve if he ends up facing two 32-year-old progressive white women named “Emily.”
“I think she and I both have the mindset of ‘may the best Emily win,’” says Marburger. But she says that at some point, “I think both of us are up for sitting down a little bit down the road and saying … ‘who’s the number-one Emily?’’’
Most politicos expect that the 20th District will be one of several sites for contested primaries here: As Ravenstahl says, “I’m sure I’m not going to be the only one who faces a primary challenge.”
Progressive candidates – especially younger progressive women – have had considerable success running against local incumbents who have traditionally been part of the party’s moderate-to-conservative wing. In 2018, Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee won state House seats by besting two members of the well-known Costa family; earlier this year, Bethany Hallam toppled John DeFazio in a county council race.
Marburger and Kinkead both acknowledge the parallels to those earlier contests. “To the extent that I’m a progressive woman challenging an incumbent male candidate from a more established [political] family, yes, you can definitely draw parallels,” said Kinkead. “But I’m not trying to be the next Sara Innamorato or the next Summer Lee. I’m trying to be the first Emily Kinkead.”
Ravenstahl himself has a well-known name. His brother is a former city mayor, his father a district judge, and his late grandfather was a legislator. But he is more accustomed to facing opponents than some of the toppled Democrats were prior to their challenges. In 2018, he beat local DJ Michael Devine by nearly 20 percentage points. He had a closer match-up in 2014, beating Tom Michalow – who like Marburger held a municipal office in the Ohio River Valley -- by just 4 percentage points.
Told that his would-be rivals fault him for lacking passion even on issues where they agree, Ravenstahl said, “For me, that response answers everything: There isn’t going to be much of a difference from where I am and where they want to be.”
Ravenstahl is a quiet presence, whose sponsored legislation tends to address noncontroversial topics like addressing the danger of carbon monoxide. He has skewed more conservative on issues like abortion in the past, but he said, “I’ve been voting pro-choice for the past few years. I changed my mind.” In late 2017 he opposed a measure that would have barred abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy; earlier this year he opposed a measure that would ban abortion if a fetus was diagnosed with Down syndrome. He attributes the shift to changes in his voters’ mindset – “I think I have a responsibility to represent my district” – and to shifts in his own thinking after speaking with medical professionals and others.
Ravenstahl shrugs off criticism that he does little to champion causes. “You become a champion when you’re in the majority,” he said – and Democrats are a decided minority in the state House. “Anyone can get up and give a speech at a rally, but until we have a majority to hold the votes, it’s very difficult to get things done. … I can’t say ‘I got this bill passed and that one,’ but I don’t know many Democrats who have.”
“There may be some minor adjustments” this time, he said, “but I’ll probably stick to what I’ve done.”