For the last 20 years, the North Hills suburbs were represented in the state House by conservative champion Mike Turzai. Now that the former House speaker has resigned, there’s a chance for a major shift in representation for a district where demographics are already changing.
Two years ago, Emily Skopov came within single digits of beating Turzai — now she hopes to outdo her Republican opponent Rob Mercuri. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, she said addressing fallout from the disease would be a top priority if she’s elected. She’d also support pandemic relief like rent freezes, small business loans and tax breaks.
“We want to make sure that we still put people’s safety front and center but also give them the resources they need to not only get through the health crisis but then also return to work,” she said.
Skopov supports the intentions behind Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency declaration. But she said she was frustrated with the lack of transparency with its rollout. Still, she accused Republican leaders of trying to score political points by putting out “sloppy and slapdash” bills that they knew Wolf would veto.
“I believe the biggest source of our economic problems is the extreme partisanship in Harrisburg, leading our Republican leadership to be more interested in making their Democratic colleagues look bad rather than working with them,” Skopov said.
Skopov believes the pandemic shows the need for more comprehensive health policies.
“If anything, it's exposed how critical it is that we address some of those issues like equity in education [and] access to affordable health care for everybody,” she said. “Because one thing the pandemic has made abundantly clear is how connected we all are.”
The 28th District includes Marshall Township, McCandless, Pine and Bradford Woods – suburban communities where residents take pride in their public schools. Skopov, whose son goes to North Allegheny School District, opposes redirecting education funding to charter schools.
Skopov moved to Wexford 10 years ago, after working in the film industry. Now she runs a non-profit called No Crayon Left Behind, which collects art supplies for schools and other organizations in need. When the pandemic hit, she pivoted to finding technology kids need to learn remotely.
Skopov is backed by the teacher's union and other unions, as well as supporters of abortion rights and gun control. But she also emphasizes moderate values like encouraging economic growth.
“We know how critical those small businesses are not only to our economy and employment, they are the economic drivers,” she said. “Those are the things that make our individual communities feel individual and unique and different from the one next to it.”
Meanwhile, Republican candidate Rob Mercuri said his philosophy would be consistent with Turzai’s. The former House speaker has been his largest campaign donor, having contributed nearly $95,000 to his campaign so far.
“He has always been an advocate of mine,” Mercuri said of Turzai. “When I go door to door – and we continue to doors safely and with a mask – people will predominantly say, ‘Wow, I know Mike, and I respect him, and he helped me.’”
Mercuri said he would continue Turzai’s opposition to the Wolf administration's approach to the coronavirus and other issues. He wants to end Wolf’s emergency declaration, and though President Trump downplayed the severity of the coronavirus early on, Mercuri said the response cannot be blamed on one person.
“I think to lay blame or success at any single person's feet is a little bit too simplistic,” he said.
Mercuri is a vice president at PNC Bank and lives in Pine. He grew up in the region, attended West Point, and did two tours in Iraq with Army intelligence. Last year, he became a small business owner, and runs the UPS store in Pine. Mercuri’s been endorsed by pro-business groups, as well as the NRA and foes of abortion rights.
“With my background in financial services and understanding of the economy and as a small business owner locally, that that was a set of skills that I had that could make a difference for our community,” he said.
His three kids go to school in the Pine-Richland district. Mercuri said he wouldn’t take away funding from the 28th district’s public schools, but said he also supports school choice – a proposal that often involves redirecting tax money to non-public schools in the form of vouchers. He said students should have alternatives to public schools, due to religious reasons or special needs.
“My focus would be making sure that our public school districts continue to be fully funded and well-equipped and that our teachers feel like they have what they need to do the instruction in this unique time,” he said.
So far, the campaign has included familiar lines of attack. Republicans have portrayed Skopov as a California liberal. Skopov has countered by saying Mercuri only represents white, far-right Christians.
But while that kind of culture war may seem familiar, analysts note the 28th district itself may be changing.
“There’s movement for Democrats there – a lot of movement – relative to other districts in western Pennsylvania,” said local political analyst Ben Forstate. “But it’s still not a majority Democratic district.”
Forstate said an influx of affluent, college-educated residents give Democrats a real chance at flipping the district.
He noted that Hillary Clinton received 45 percent of the vote in 2016. But in 2018, Wolf carried the district with about 55 percent of the vote, and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey carried the district with 53 percent.
“For Wolf and Casey, which I thought was really interesting, they were some of the biggest swings of any state house district in the state from their last elections,” Forstate said. He said Wolf’s support increased by 17 percent and Casey’s increased by 14 percent.
Forstate credits Democratic committee organizing for gains the party’s made locally.
“This did not exist in 2016,” he said. “It’s clear the North Hills is the next frontier of Democratic politics.”