From mayor to magistrate, Democrats backed diverse candidates in 2021 primary

By: - May 21, 2021 7:12 am

State Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny, scored an upset win in Tuesday’s Democratic primary over incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

Xander Orenstein ran for magisterial district judge with two, simple goals: To build a more merciful and fair justice system.

These judges are most people’s entry point into the criminal justice system. They decide cases involving summary offenses — such as shoplifting or disorderly conduct — landlord-tenant disputes, traffic citations, and also set bail in criminal cases.

A Pittsburgh housing advocate, Orenstein — who is nonbinary — was drawn to the position when they realized how the small, everyday choices magistrates make “set the tenor” for the rest of a defendants time in the judicial system.

Data showed that Orenstein’s local magistrate, who’d been in office for more than a decade, set bail higher than all but 18 other Allegheny County’s district judges. 

If Orenstein instead had the power to assign bail and jail time for minor offenses, they realized a run for magistrate would be the best way to preserve equal access to the law and compassion in the system.

“I don’t think incarceration should be the first tool of the judiciary, because it often does not rehabilitate, as it claims it wants to do,” Orenstein said. “It just removes someone from the community. It puts them in the carceral system. So by seeking alternatives to incarceration where appropriate, we’d be able to make sure we don’t lose valuable members of our community.”

So, Orenstein ran. And on Tuesday, they beat the incumbent by 39 votes to win the Democratic nomination, according to unofficial results.

They’ll still have to win in November, but Orenstein is on track to be the first openly nonbinary judge in not only Pennsylvania, but in the entire country, according to their campaign.

Orenstein’s win was emblematic of a municipal primary that saw diverse candidates best their opponents, including knocking off some long term incumbents.

In addition to Orenstein, Pittsburghers also elected Democratic state Rep. Ed Gainey over incumbent Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. Peduto is the first incumbent mayor to lose since 1933, and Gainey is now on track to be the first Black mayor in the history of the Steel City.

In Erie County, a perennial swing locale, Democratic voters picked Tyler Titus, a transgender and nonbinary Erie City School Board member, to run for county executive. If successful in the November general election, Titus will be the first transgender person to hold executive office in the country.

Titus has described Erie as not exactly “an LGBTQ haven,” but their victory is a step toward visible representation, said Anne Wakabayashi, a Pennsylvania-based political strategist.

She argued it will give kids a chance to see an advocate in a role they haven’t before — elected office.

“Tyler can be the county executive of Erie County, one of the Obama-Trump counties in Pennsylvania,” Wakabayashi said. “This narrative that queer folks can’t win, that Black folks can’t win in Pennsylvania? It’s just not true. When Tyler wins, when Ed Gainey wins, it breaks down this narrative, and we need to constantly be reflecting on why we believe the things we believe about who can win.”

In the eastern half of the state, Harrisburg Democrats denied Mayor Eric Papenfuse a third term, and instead picked City Council President Wanda Williams.

Lehigh County Democrats picked one Latino and one Black woman to run for the county Court of Common Pleas. 

And in Allentown, Democrats tapped Natalie Santos, a college junior and child of Dominican immigrants, for an open seat on Allentown City Council, and local nonprofit founder Linda Vega Sirop beat an incumbent for a local magistrate seat.

Those two were backed by Make The Road PA, a Latino advocacy group that focused its energy this year on turning out Black, Latino and young voters.

While the added diversity may be a plus, Make the Road State Director Maegan Llerena said in a statement “that ending the police violence that threatens our lives and guaranteeing stable and affordable housing,” were the priorities. 

Their chosen candidates are “fierce champions at the local level who understand the issues, believe in this movement, and will fight alongside us.”

Statewide, Democratic voters had to whittle down eight candidates in statewide judicial elections to four. Of those initial eight candidates, half were Black women.

Philadelphia political operative Mustafa Rashed said that such a slate would have seemed unlikely even five years ago.

“Running is a big first step,” Rashed told the Capital-Star. “But now they are running and winning.”

While results are still being counted, at least two of the four spots on November’s statewide judicial ballot appear set to be held by a Black, female candidate.

Republicans have a problem with suburban voters, Democrats have a problem with rural voters. Where does that leave Pa.’s balance of power?

The seeds of this growing diversity were planted under President Donald Trump, University of Pittsburgh history professor Lara Putnam said.

She’s spent the last five years studying left wing grassroots political movements, often female-led and often outside of Pennsylvania’s blue bastions of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Democrats may be electing more diverse faces due to rising awareness of racial justice after the wave of protests over a police officer’s 2020 murder of George Floyd, she said.

But Putnam thinks greater emphasis should be on the opening up of local Democratic politics to new faces in the Trump era.

Before, “local Democratic hierarchies have remained semi-fossilized versions of what Democratic insiders looked like 30 to 50 years ago” — typically older, socially conservative white men, tied to building trades — Putnam said.

But the grassroots backlash to Trump created an on-ramp into political life “for a whole bunch of people who don’t look like normal politicians,” she added.

While Gainey’s win may loom largest, Putnam pointed out that wins by insurgent outsiders took place in Pennsylvania’s small towns too.

Northwest of Pittsburgh, in Beaver Falls, for instance, three Black women swept out older, white male incumbents for  mayor and on city council.

But this rise of diversity is more than just checking a box. Pittsburgh magisterial district judge candidate Orenstein noted that their identity may have been a bonus for some voters, but it wasn’t the focus of the campaign.

Incarceration, Orenstein said, “does end up hurting people because of the nature of the way it is. And I want as few people as possible to be hurt.”

“Me being non-binary has fairly little to do with that,” they added.

Such earnest messages are catching hold, said operative Wakabayashi. Over the last several years the Democratic Party has shifted its approach to running diverse candidates away from trying to have them “seem as much as a straight, white dude as possible,” she said.

Rather than pretend they’re perfect, candidates are talking to voters like people, Wakabayashi said — something many voters may not be used to from candidates, she added.

“They’re connecting with voters; they’re not trying to get the bright and shiny candidate that’s lived some sort of perfect, idyllic life,” Wakabayashi said. “Most Americans, most voters, most Pennsylvanians have not lived an idyllic, perfect life. They’ve struggled with things.”

She added: “What good is an elected official that doesn’t understand any of that?”

Capital-Star Staff Reporter Marley Parish contributed to this story.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.