For third time this year, special election will decide control of Pa. House
Former Democratic state Rep. Sara Innamorato’s Allegheny County district is up for grabs in the Sept. 19 election
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 choose between a Democrat with experience in economic and workforce development and a local Republican committee chairperson to fill the seat recently vacated by former Democratic state Rep. Sara Innamorato.
Democrats have tapped Lindsay Powell, the director of workforce strategies for the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit economic development organization, InnovatePGH. Powell, who lives in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh, is also a member of the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority.
The Republican nominee is Erin Connolly Autenreith of Shaler Township, where she serves as chairperson of the township Republican Committee. Autenreith is a realtor and touts her decades-long career in sales as preparation to serve as a lawmaker.
For the third time since the start of the current legislative session, the special election set for Sept. 19 will determine control of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, as Democrats attempt to regain their one-seat majority.
Innamorato, who was reelected to a third term in the House last year, resigned last month to pursue election as the Democratic nominee for Allegheny County executive. The district includes Millvale, Etna, Shaler Township, Reserve Township and part of Pittsburgh.
A Democratic campaign leader said the race is unlikely to be as intense as the most recent special election, where Republicans had hoped to flip the Delaware County seat left open when former Rep. Mike Zabel resigned in the aftermath of a sexual harassment scandal.
Rep. Heather Boyd, D-Delaware, won that election after the Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee spent nearly $2.3 million on her campaign.
HDCC Director Trevor Southerland said that although the district is heavily Democratic (Gov. Josh Shapiro won 71% of the vote there) the party will focus on making voters aware that there is a special election next month.
“We still have to make sure we talk to voters but I think it will be less intense,” Southerland said.
In addition to her work in economic development, Powell’s resume includes work with former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto’s office as an assistant chief of staff directing legislative and policy work, in the White House legislative affairs office under President Barack Obama, and for U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and U.S. Sens Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
At InnovatePGH, Powell said her focus is on creating employment opportunities for underrepresented groups in Pittsburgh’s technology ecosystem. She said she hopes to continue her work connecting people with jobs in the state House.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity to work in Harrisburg to ensure that we have a myriad of workforce dollars and workforce opportunities that extend across all different industries that we see in the commonwealth,” Powell said.
Powell said her lived experience with housing instability as a child has informed her work in housing and equitable development as a member of the Urban Redevelopment Authority and the community development group Lawrenceville United.
“I believe that every person in Pittsburgh, every neighbor, every resident deserves dignified and affordable housing, whatever that means to them, including deeply affordable workforce housing and everything in between,” Powell said.
Powell said she would work to expand and strengthen mechanisms for affordable homeownership, such as land banking and community land trusts, that have been piloted in Pittsburgh.
“It’s important to me that we see housing as a human right and that it’s not just a roof over your head but it’s a dignified place — a dignified place to call home,” Powell said.
Powell said she’s excited by the opportunity to bring representation and diversity to the state House. Her election would restore one of the two members the Black Legislative Caucus lost this year with the resignation from the House of Lt. Gov. Austin Davis and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, who are both Democrats.
In her conversations with neighbors and community leaders, Powell said she learned that there is a strong desire for a representative with not only the know-how to tackle problems but one who has shared their constituents’ experiences.
“What drew me to wanting to run for office at this point in my career was that I feel like I have the ability to lead with empathy in a lot of these spaces,” Powell said. “I’ve had to navigate some of these systems and some of these difficult situations myself.”
“I hope to not just join a class that continues to push for the diversity that we want to see in Harrisburg but also speaks to more people with lived experience able to legislate to ensure that other folks in our communities are able to have a voice and an advocate in Harrisburg,” Powell said.
Erin Connolly Autenreith
As the daughter of two Democrats who served in local elected offices, Autenreith said she’s not a typical Republican. Her father served as mayor of McKees Rocks and her mother was a council member for 30 years, Autenreith said, so she has been a political person for most of her life.
Autenreith ran unsuccessfully for the state House in 2000 and said the open seat in her district prompted her to run as she nears the end of a career in residential real estate.
“I wouldn’t expect to have run had this special election not come up,” Autenreith said. “But I still have a lot of vinegar, you know, work ethic and drive left in me. So I thought, you know, maybe it was the right time.”
Autenreith said she supports former President Donald Trump and said she attended Trump’s speech in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, before the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Autenreith said that she only learned of the violence as her group was returning to Pittsburgh and was disappointed to see it.
Because she grew up in a Democratic household, Autenreith said she believes in listening to both sides on an issue to decide what makes sense. That mindset extends to abortion, over which Republican and Democratic policies sharply diverge.
Autenreith said that although she is opposed to abortion, the right to abortion in Pennsylvania should be decided by voters in a referendum rather than the party in power.
As a lawmaker, Autenreith said her focus would be on education. The state should provide more access to career and technical training to ensure that young people graduate from high school ready to work, she said, adding that creating job opportunities is the way for the government to provide “a hand up, not a hand out.”
Even though her father served as a school board member, Autenreith said she attended Catholic schools for 12 years.
She said she believes that the state should give the parents the choice to send their children to private or religious schools using tax money and would support a voucher program such as the lifeline scholarships that Shapiro and Senate Republicans supported as part of the stalled state budget.
Autenreith said she would also work to find solutions to fix the state’s school funding scheme, which a state court ruled unconstitutional this year because its reliance on property taxes leaves students in poor communities at a disadvantage.
“The way it’s funded as on the backs of the homeowners, I don’t think that is correct,” adding that funding schools through a sales tax would be more equitable.
If she is elected, Autenreith predicted that she would have “as many enemies on the Republican side as I would on the Democratic side” because she is driven to accomplish goals rather than by political ideology. That, she said, is a result of her lifetime as a salesperson.
“People on both sides may not like it, but let’s get to a result,” Autenreith said. “I’m very goal oriented. You have to be if you’re self-employed for 20 years. If you’re not goal oriented, you’re poor.”
Update: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Erin Connolly Autenreith’s name.
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