Pennsylvania primary elections were moved to June 2 because of COVID-19. But even amid all the changes, next week voters will have two familiar options when casting ballots in the 19th State House District: incumbent Jake Wheatley and Aerion Abney.
This will be Abney’s third bid to topple Wheatley. In 2016, he withdrew before the primary election. And in 2018, he received 41 percent of the votes while Wheatley received 48 percent. The remaining votes went to a third candidate.
“Fifty-two percent of the district voted for change,” Abney said. “And we think that looking at the numbers from last time, that we're going to see a similar outcome that the majority of the voters in this district are looking for a new voice.”
District 19 is about half African American, and includes some of Pittsburgh's largest communities of color. Its neighborhoods include the Hill District, downtown Pittsburgh, parts of Oakland, some southern city neighborhoods, and Manchester. Many of the neighborhoods inside it suffer from poverty and a lack of access to resources other areas take for granted -- like grocery stores.
The Hill lacked a grocery store for decades until 2013, when a Shop ’N Save came into the neighborhood. However, it only lasted five years before it shut down. Wheatley said that while he helped get funding to lure the grocery store to the neighborhood, he couldn't help manage it.
“We were the second community to receive grocery store support from the Fresh Foods Initiative, which is a state policy that was meant to locate grocery stores in food deserts,” he said. “We gave them $1.5 million. Now I tell people it's not our job to run the store, but it was our job to connect the resources to the store.”
Wheatley said that since he was first elected in 2002, he has fought for social justice in his community, whether it was support for marijuana legalization or seeking better access to fresh food.
“When we fight about criminal justice and social justice reform, that's a fight for everyone, but primarily it's around improving the life and conditions for black and brown people in Pittsburgh,” he said. “Because the criminal justice system throughout the state ... focuses heavily on the disparity around black and brown.”
But Abney said when he campaigns across the district, he hears a different story.
“He's been in office for 17 years and people feel like their quality of life hasn't improved, and for many people they feel like their quality of life has gone down,” Abney said. “When you talk to people in the Hill District, they haven't had a grocery store. They only had one for a couple of years. And now they have a lack of fresh foods, and fresh groceries.”
Abney says that's just one of the challenges for people of color living in a city where, a report last year suggested, black health outcomes are among the worst in the nation. And Abney says Wheatley should be doing more about it.
“All of these quality of life issues have been going down … under [Wheatley’s] watch,” he said. “So what really have you been doing if these statistics are saying that the quality of life is going down,” Abney said. “So for me, it will be about using my position as leverage in a sphere of influence to move people beyond the current conditions.”
Abney also faults Wheatley for missing what he says are "key" votes in Harrisburg.
“He has a lot of missed votes in Harrisburg. These are our tax dollars paying his salary,” he said. “The expectation is that he's going to work for us and he's actually not showing up. And these are key votes. Corporate tax reforms, tax reform for senior citizens, gun safety laws.”
Wheatley says though he has missed votes before, it was usually because of a scheduling conflict or personal emergencies.
“Is my record perfect? No. But let's take it in context: Over 18 years I've voted on 72,000 or more votes,” Wheatley said.
When it comes to education, both candidates agree that there should be more oversight for charter schools. Abney says he would create a fair funding formula based on needs for school districts across the state. Wheatley has been one of the region's most vocal supporters of charters, but he says he supports a move by Governor Tom Wolf to require more transparency and accountability for charter schools.
Wheatley said he is confident that he will be re-elected.
“I think I've been a true champion for folk, and I think my experience will continue to produce for the 19th district,” he said.