Differences In Experience, Policy Drive Race For Open Seat In 39th State House District

Oct 30, 2018

Surrounded by large plastic pumpkins and American flags, Rob Rhoderick makes his way through piles of leaves along a quiet street in Greenock, Elizabeth Township.

It’s a chilly afternoon, and the Democratic candidate is having a difficult time finding human residents until he reaches one house with a furry greeter and its owner. Rhoderick slips a pamphlet with his campaign information through the glass door to the resident. The two chat about dogs, rather than property taxes or any of the other topics at stake in the race. But for Rhoderick, a familiar presence in the area, even that kind of connection is valuable.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

Rhoderick is hoping to take a seat in the statehouse as the representative from Pennsylvania House District 39. The district includes parts of Allegheny and Washington counties and has been represented by Republican Rick Saccone since 2011. But after losing two congressional bids this year, Saccone is retiring, leaving the seat open to Rhoderick and his Republican opponent, Mike Puskaric.

 Rhoderick has owned a chiropractic business here for 22 years, and has held seats on the Elizabeth Forward School Board and Elizabeth Township Board of Commissioners. While serving as president of the board, he helped overhaul the township’s failing sewage system, a project he says illustrates he can solve local issues.

“I’ve made the tough votes, I’ve been in that tough position,” he said.

House District 39 includes parts of Allegheny and Washington counties.
Credit RepSaccone.com

Constituents in District 39 often ask him about school property taxes, he said. He’s an advocate for reform, and wants to fund public schools with a tax on sales or natural gas drilling. Still, he doesn’t want local communities to lose the revenue they already see from an impact fee on drilling.

“I don’t want to see that impact fee go away—and I’m not against an extraction tax,” he said. “I would like to see them both in place.”

He says he’d also like to create legislation requiring elected officials to pay their own legal settlements, instead of taxpayers.

Puskaric, meanwhile, is a businessman with Matrix Property Settlements. He’s never held political office, but said he’s confident his policies will help get him to Harrisburg. People in the 39th district have watched regions like the North Hills and South Fayette attract development and investment, he said, and they feel like they’ve been forgotten.

“Those are areas, they’re our neighbors, they’re doing quite well, but we’ve never really seen that growth make its way over to the 39th district,” Puskaric said.

The campaign headquarters for Republican Mike Puskaric in Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County, Pa.
Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

He’d also like to eliminate school property taxes and replace them with an increased sales or income tax. Working in real estate, he said he’s seen families struggle to pay property taxes.

“They’re saying it’s become unsustainable. They can’t afford it.”

 Notably, the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors is endorsing Rhoderick, although Puskaric works in the industry. Kim Shindle, director of communications for the agency, said the political action arm of the association was impressed by his commitment to homeowners. “He understands firsthand how government actions can really impact communities,” Shindle said. 

Rhoderick has been endorsed not just by familiar Democratic groups like labor unions, but by a number of Republicans in the region, including fellow commissioner and Republican Andrew Kuzma. Having worked with Rhoderick on the township's board of commissioners, Kuzma said he values the Democrat’s “conservative spending” and responsible budgeting.

“He has common sense, he has business experience,” Kuzma said. “He is financially and fiscally responsible.”

Puskaric, meanwhile, has drawn backing from stalwart conservative organizations like abortion-rights opponent LifePAC, the Fraternal Order of Police and gun-rights group Firearms Owners Against Crime.

FOAC’s president Kim Stolfer says Puskaric’s values align with his organization’s legislative stance.

“He understood that registration of firearms is not something that we should be doing,” Stolfer said. “He recognized that it failed everywhere it’s been tried.”

The Pennsylvania chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents about 14,000 small businesses in the state, is also backing Puskaric. Legislative director Rebecca Oyler said the candidate told the group he was committed to keeping taxes low and increasing workforce development programs throughout the state.

Saccone, the district's outgoing Representative, is a Republican. But he hasn’t officially endorsed either candidate. He said in a message that Puskaric campaign ads with false information about Rhoderick’s budgets were despicable. And he said voters shouldn’t choose based on party affiliation alone when they go to the polls on Nov. 6.

*This story has been updated to reflect that Andrew Kuzma is not currently the chairman of the Elizabeth Township Republican Committee.