Control of the Pa. House at stake as Allegheny County candidates get out the vote

The special election Sept. 19 is for former Rep. Sara Innamorato’s seat in District 21.

By: - September 12, 2023 6:45 am

Erin Connolly Autenreith (l) and Lindsay Powell will face off in a Sept. 19 special election for the House seat vacated by Sara Innamorato.

Voters in Allegheny County will determine which party controls the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in one week, when they choose former state Rep. Sara Innamorato’s successor in a special election. 

But with no statewide races generating buzz, and a Steelers game against Cleveland the night before the election, candidates have had to push hard to raise voter awareness locally in a shorter-than-usual campaign cycle.

Innamorato, a Democrat, resigned on July 19 to campaign for Allegheny County Executive, leaving the House evenly divided 101-101. In what has become a familiar routine this year, House Democrats are working to once again regain their one-seat majority on Sept. 19.

The candidates are Democrat Lindsay Powell and Republican Erin Connolly Autenreith. The 21st Legislative District they are vying to represent includes Millvale, Etna, Shaler Township, Reserve Township, and part of Pittsburgh.

Powell is the director of workforce strategies for the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit economic development organization, InnovatePGH. A resident of Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, Powell is also a member of the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Autenreith is chairperson of the Shaler Township Republican Committee and is a real estate agent.

Innamorato won the district in 2022 by a 64% to 36% margin against Republican Frank Perman, and Powell is considered the likely winner to replace her. 

That doesn’t mean that the candidates are taking anything for granted, however, campaign staffers said. 

Sam Wasserman, a spokesperson for Innamorato, said the Democratic campaigns have been sharing resources and working together on get-out-the-vote efforts. Those included a canvassing event for Powell and Innamorato with all four of the statewide judicial candidates.

In outreach efforts, most people indicated they’re aware of the election, Powell’s campaign manager Carver Murphy said.

“People seem excited about it and looking forward to vote,” Murphy said.

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Autenreith said she has had support from the GOP committees in Pittsburgh and in neighboring townships and was excited on Monday to have received an endorsement from the Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

She said she planned to spend the weekend door-knocking with a group of more than 20 people.

“We’re trying to remind people that there is an election but we’re up against the Steelers and Browns,” Autenreith said, referring to the Monday Night Football match up the night before the election.

The special election will be the seventh in the General Assembly this year, as lawmakers ascended to higher office or resigned amid scandal. In five of those elections, the Democratic majority has hung in the balance. But leaving a seat up for grabs even for a short time in a “safe” district is risky, experts said.

“You’re playing with fire if you have people resign their seats and elevate to positions of higher power,” Justin DePlato, associate professor of political science at Robert Morris University, said.

Innamorato’s resignation came during the House’s summer recess and gave Speaker Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, enough time to call a special election before the chamber reconvenes on Sept. 26.

Wasserman said Innamorato’s decision to resign was made in consultation with House leaders and has allowed her to work closely to prepare her hopeful replacement. That will leave Innamorato free to manage her transition if she beats Republican Joe Rockey in November.

The Democrats have been able to hold on to the one-vote majority because the lawmakers who resigned were in relatively safe Democratic districts. But spending in the 21st District race may be the best indicator of how uncompetitive it is, said Kristen Coopie, a professor at Duquesne University and political expert. 

According to campaign finance reports filed Friday, Powell’s campaign committee raised about $53,000 between July 24 and Sept. 4. Autenreith’s committee raised just over $6,000. Reports for the House Republican and Democratic campaign committees were not available Monday.

But those numbers pale in comparison to the $2.3 million Democrats spent in May to help Rep. Heather Boyd, D-Delaware, win the seat left vacant by former Rep. Mike Zabel when he resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal.

For an underdog like Autenreith, the obscurity of a special election can be an advantage. By turning out more people from your party than your opponent, a candidate can overcome a party registration disadvantage, Coopie said, although that’s unlikely in the 21st District.

“This district is so heavily Democratic that the Republicans would need to make a significant push and the Democrats would almost need to sit this one out,” Coopie said.

The latest figures from the Allegheny County Elections Division showed almost half of the 5,751 voters who applied for mail-in or absentee ballots have already returned them. And as of Wednesday, the elections division will have extended hours for in-person ballot returns for voters in the District 21 special election.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.

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