Republican Mike Turzai represented the 28th state house District for nearly two decades before announcing his plans to retire at the end of this year. None of the three Republicans vying for his North Hills seat would have the same legislative clout as Turzai, the outgoing Speaker of the House. But they still believe they can help guide the state through the coronavirus pandemic.
Mike Heckmann says he’d be effective right away because he already works in Turzai’s office.
“I'll be able to come in with a lot of knowledge and a lot of relationships that will enable me to be effective right from the start,” he said.
Heckmann grew up in McCandless and studied international policy and economics at NYU before getting a law degree at Vanderbilt. Much of his campaign is centered on the policy work he does now in the Speaker’s office. He says he's focused on education policy, how to resolve chronic underfunding of public pensions, and addressing how legislative district lines are drawn.
Heckmann says he agrees with Turzai on a lot of things, including Turzai’s staunch anti-abortion stance. The one issue where he says voters would see a difference? Legalizing marijuana. While Turzai has fought against the idea, Heckmann says he’s not as opposed to it.
But while Heckmann works in Turzai’s office, his boss endorsed another candidate. Turzai’s favorite is Republican Rob Mercuri who has a finance background and is currently on leave from his job as a senior vice president for risk management at PNC Bank. He lives in Pine Township and believes his job expertise would be vital as the legislature navigates the economic fallout from the pandemic.
“We’re right on the edge now of what I think will be a very promising economic recovery,” Mercuri said.
Mercuri is an Army veteran who served two tours in Iraq where he was awarded a non-combat Bronze Star after graduating from West Point. While he discussed few policy specifics in an interview, he says his campaign is focused on conservative values like freedom, life, and fiscal responsibility.
“My philosophy will be very similar and consistent with Speaker Turzai’s approach,” Mercuri said. “But as a military veteran and a financial services veteran, I will bring a new perspective.”
The third candidate is Libby Blackburn. She’s a North Allegheny school board member, a Republican committeewoman and lives in McCandless. Blackburn’s campaign is centered on her role as a school board member. She believes her history of balancing school budgets will help her rein in spending at the state level as the economy tries to recover from the pandemic.
“This is going to be very, very difficult,” she said. “We are in an economic crisis: So many people haven’t worked for so long. I think I’m the person who’s best able to go through a budget, I’ve proven that year after year.”
Blackburn says it’s her experience and public record that distinguishes her from her opponents.
“Anybody else, it’s a guessing game on how they’ll vote on things,” she said.”People say they’re going to vote a certain way and then when they’re in office, they vote totally different.”
During his tenure, Turzai has championed conservative politics. But there are signs that the 28th district is becoming less Republican than it used to be. And when it comes to issues like reopening the state during the pandemic, the candidates take a cautious approach.
In an interview, Blackburn sounded the most impatient with Governor Wolf’s pace of reopening. She says Wolf should have loosened restrictions sooner.
“And I’m not saying that because I’m a Republican and he’s a Democrat,”Blackburn said. “I want him to reopen businesses because it’s the right thing to do for people.”
Mike Heckmann also understands the frustration around the Governor’s shutdown orders. But he says he was discouraged by protests in which some demonstrators carried firearms but did not wear masks.
“If we're saying that people's lives and livelihoods are still shut down because of the threat of the virus, I personally wouldn't want to be out contributing in any way to potential spread,” he said.
Rob Mercuri and his wife own a UPS store in Pine, which stayed open during the shutdown as an essential business. He says he would encourage people to voice their concerns to elected officials online or in letters.
“As a military guy, I think once the person in authority makes the decision, I think it's important for us in the community to get in line behind that decision and support it by obeying that rule of law,” he said.
The winner of the June 2 primary will likely face Democrat Emily Skopov in November.