Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: a member of the politically notable Costa family has drawn a progressive challenger in a Democratic primary. But state Sen. Jay Costa is hoping the family resemblance ends there.
Costa, who leads Democrats in the state Senate and represents the 43rd District, has drawn a challenger in Bill Brittain, owner of the Shadyside Nursery. Brittain, who, like Costa, lives in Forest Hills, said he is frustrated by the slow pace of change in Harrisburg and within the Democratic Party.
"I feel that our politicians only offer half-solutions, and the problems in our society seem to be getting worse and worse and nobody seems to be doing anything about it," said Brittain.
He cited a Senate bill to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour as a typical example.
"You have to make $15 an hour to survive, so we're not actually solving the problem. It's never quite a full-throttle effort to try and alleviate poverty or to make sure people have jobs."
Brittain said his nursery pays employees at least $15 per hour, though it is largely staffed by contract workers rather than full-time employees.
The 43rd Senate district includes portions of Pittsburgh and eastern suburbs, and Costa has held the seat there for nearly a quarter-century. Costa said he was “a little bit surprised” to face a challenger, but said, “We are taking this challenge seriously.”
Since 2010, Costa has been the leader of Senate Democrats, making him one of the most prominent Democrats in the state. That, he said, allows him to recommend candidates to leadership positions around the state, ensuring that western Pennsylvania interests are represented.
“That’s what you get from having someone who has a seat at the table – and it’s a small table – in order to help shape policy.”
As for Brittain’s frustrations with the system, Costa said he feels them too, but that they’re a reason to challenge Republicans, not fellow Democrats.
In both the House and Senate, he noted, “We’re up against a Republican majority and have been for a number of years, particularly in the Senate.” The GOP has controlled the chamber since the mid-1990s, and “that makes it difficult to advance progressive measures. But given our difficult position, we’ve been able to advance a number of initiatives that are important to the region.”
He cites a $50 million grant to replace lead-tainted water lines in the city of Pittsburgh – a critical health concern – and the minimum wage bill, which is now pending in the House.
Brittain acknowledged that Republican control of the legislature is “a valid structural issue. But that’s something that could be changed, and the Democratic Party is not changing that.”
Echoing a leftist critique of the Democratic establishment, he said Democrats could make gains in traditionally red areas by embracing more staunchly progressive ideas like a living wage. “These are ideas that appeal to anybody in the working class. My feeling more is that the reputation of the Democratic Party through special interests is actually what hurts it.”
As evidence of that special-interest influence, Brittain cited Costa’s success as a fundraiser – the incumbent had nearly $560,000 in campaign funds at last count – though he couldn’t point to an issue where he said the support had affected Costa’s vote. In fact, he said that on many of the votes that came before the Senate, he and Costa would likely vote along similar lines.
“I don’t think Jay Costa is a bad person, nor do I necessarily disagree with his voting record,” Brittain said. But overall, he said, Harrisburg was fatally compromised. An advocate for state farmers, Brittain cited the state’s handling of medical marijuana as a typical example: The industry has generated $500 million, but Brittain said local growers have missed out as the market has been coopted by out-of-state firms.
“All these giant companies came in from out of state [and] gobbled up the market,” he said. “How did you not see that coming?”
To no small extent, progressive gains locally have come at the Costa family’s expense. Mik Pappas beat Ron Costa in a magisterial district judge race in 2017, a hyperlocal contest that nonetheless set the stage for bigger wins in 2018 by Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, who beat incumbent state Representatives Dom Costa and Paul Costa, respectively.
But Jay Costa has positioned himself to the left of Paul, his brother, and Dom, a distant cousin. And as Senate minority leader, he was a close ally of Lindsey Williams, whose eligibility to hold a state Senate seat was scrutinized by Republicans after her 2018 victory.
Williams, herself a progressive champion, said she was “100 percent” in support of Costa. Other elected officials in the progressive lane either did not respond to calls for comment or said they were staying out of the race.
Brittain, who has not run for office before, acknowledged that winning won't be easy. But if Democrats play it safe, he said they'll never be in the majority.
“I like the underdog position,” Brittain said. “I believe the impossible is possible.”