State Senator Jim Brewster, of McKeesport, is one of Allegheny County’s last old-school Democrats — friendly to labor, but socially conservative — to serve in Harrisburg. And now, after his district went narrowly for President Donald Trump in 2016, the lawmaker faces a reelection challenge from first-time Republican candidate Nicole Ziccarelli, of Lower Burrell.
A win for Brewster is considered essential to enabling Democrats to flip control of the Pennsylvania legislature.
Brewster argues that his experience makes him the right choice for voters who make up the state’s 45th Senate district.
“With the time I've spent in the Senate, I understand how the system works, the different kinds of grants and loans and those sorts of things that the communities need now,” Brewster said.
The Democrat’s district stretches from the Alle-Kiski Valley to the Mon Valley, and covers parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties. A native of McKeesport, Brewster first won his seat in a 2010 special election, after serving as mayor of McKeesport for six years.
But while Brewster believes his experience is the prime reason voters should re-elect him, Ziccarelli contends that the district needs change.
“And I think our current leadership has overseen decline for a number of decades, and I don’t think we can ask them to bring us out of this one,” Ziccarrelli said, alluding to the economic damage caused by the coronavirus crisis.
Ziccarelli is an attorney who grew up in White Oak. She noted that since the steel industry collapsed more than 30 years ago, much of the 45th District remains a shell of its former self. Empty storefronts and abandoned homes are common in some areas, and Ziccarelli said Brewster hasn’t done enough to fix the problem.
“We simply can't ask him to bring us out of COVID-19 because he clearly doesn't have the answers. When I drive through McKeesport, it absolutely breaks my heart,” the Republican said.
Ziccarelli was vague, however, about her own prescriptions, beyond listening to constituents’ needs and avoiding new taxes. Brewster, meanwhile, countered that he has secured funding for his district’s nearly 40 municipalities. And he noted that he’s appealed to his fellow Democrat, Governor Tom Wolf, to ease coronavirus restrictions on bars and restaurants.
“Not just because they wanted to be open,” he said. “The important thing is they had employees that don't make much money. And where are they going to go if those restaurants closed down?”
Like Ziccarelli, Brewster is friendly to the fracking industry, although he supports creating a severance tax on natural gas extraction, much like those levied in other gas-producing states. And while the candidates agree on a gradual minimum wage increase, Brewster’s pro-union positions have put him at odds with business groups such as the state’s Chamber of Business and Industry and the National Federation of Independent Business.
Sam Denisco, vice president of the chamber’s government affairs office, predicts the race will turn in part on the 45th district’s overall support for Donald Trump. He said that’s one reason his organization backs Ziccarelli.
“We don't take endorsing an opponent to a three-term incumbent lightly,” he said. “But we feel strongly that this particular district is a better fit for her.”
While Brewster supports Joe Biden, Ziccarelli backs the president, who won the district by fewer than 900 votes in 2016. She opposes abortion rights while advocating for greater gun rights. But Brewster also takes conservative stances on those issues, and he has earned the endorsement of the staunchly pro-Second Amendment Firearms Owners Against Crime and the National Rifle Association.
The lawmaker scored big points with FOAC last year by leading a successful effort to legalize Sunday hunting, and the group has given his voting record a 76-percent rating. FOAC president Kim Stolfer said his organization wants to stick with a proven advocate.
“When you have a person that goes in office and has to stand up to the pressures of leadership and votes consistently in support of the Constitution, that gains that person extra marks for standing by their ethics and their beliefs,” Stolfer said.
Local Democratic strategist Mike Mikus doesn’t think so, partly because the stakes are high. Democrats are hoping to protect Brewster and fellow Allegheny County Democrat Pam Iovino this fall, while flipping enough districts elsewhere to turn the Senate over to Democrats. The party currently holds 21 out of 50 seats.
“If Jim Brewster’s seat is lost, the chances of the Democrats taking control of the state Senate go out the window,” Mikus said.
But the way Ziccarelli sees it, that prospect could be just what the district’s voters want.