Special elections in Allegheny County could determine path forward for deadlocked General Assembly
The vacant seats, are in economically and racially diverse districts that include part of Pittsburgh, the former mill towns lining the Monongahela River, and more affluent suburbs
(Pittsburgh City Paper photo)
[*This article was updated at 4:31 p.m. on Thursday, 2/2/2023, to include additional comment from Republican 32nd district nominee Clayton Walker.]
Voters in Allegheny County will choose state representatives in three legislative districts in special elections on Tuesday.
The outcome of the races could determine control of the state House and end the partisan gridlock that has paralyzed the General Assembly.
Democrats won a 102-seat majority in the House in November, but the death of an incumbent representative, and the resignation of two others, all Democrats, who were also elected to higher offices, meant that Republicans had a 101-vote majority on swearing-in day Jan. 3.
Although House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, was elected in a surprise compromise with broad bipartisan support after promising to become an independent, the chamber was unable to adopt rules and won’t return to session until Feb. 27.
The elections are pivotal for House Democrats, who must sweep all three to reestablish their majority. Republicans would buttress their current advantage by picking up a single seat.
The vacant seats, are in economically and racially diverse districts that include part of Pittsburgh, the former mill towns lining the Monongahela River, and more affluent suburbs.
The 32nd Legislative District was held by the late Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Allegheny, who died in October before the Nov. 8 election, but too late to replace his name on the ballot. Voters overwhelmingly reelected him to the seat he had held since 1982.
The 34th Legislative District was held by Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, who ran unopposed for reelection at the same time she campaigned for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Lee resigned from the House in December to take her seat representing the new 12th Congressional District.
Lt. Gov. Austin Davis was reelected to a third term in the 35th Legislative District, at the same time as voters chose him and Gov. Josh Shapiro to lead the executive branch of state government. He also resigned in December to take a role in Shapiro’s transition before he was sworn in last month.
Joe McAndrew, Democratic nominee for the 32nd District
McAndrew, of Penn Hills, told the Capital-Star he fell in love with public service while working for former House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, from 2012 to 2014.
While McAndrew owns a marketing business, he said he was drawn back to public service by a drive to help and support others. He became executive director of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee in 2019, and worked on the campaign of U.S. Rep. Chris DiLuzio, D-17th District.
“I saw the opportunity to take this to the next level serving my neighbors as a potential state representative,” McAndrew said of his decision to seek the nomination to run.
If elected, McAndrew said he would focus on ensuring people in his district have opportunities to live good lives, receive a good education and feel safe in their neighborhoods.
“I plan on being a representative who helps Pennsylvanians and be a public servant in my district and find real solutions to help everyday people,” McAndrew said.
As a legislator, McAndrew said he would work on improving public education and access to child care, prevent price gouging, and ensure workers are treated fairly, including by increasing Pennsylvania’s minimum wage.
McAndrew said the Republican Party’s domination of the General Assembly has been the biggest obstacle to enacting policies that help working people. Its failure to pass common sense gun safety laws has contributed to violent crime across the state, McAndrew said.
“I’m a gun owner too but you can’t have people going around being able to carry concealed guns without permits,” he said, referring to a piece of legislation that House Republicans proposed in the last session. “Their policies don’t help working people.”
Clayton Walker, Republican nominee for the 32nd District
Walker, of Verona, told the Capital-Star he sees parallels between his role as pastor of a Pittsburgh-area church and that of a state representative.
“Most pastors are politically involved whether they know it or admit it or not,” Walker said. “You deal with social issues and people.”
Walker said he’s running for the state House to deal with the issues in his community on a state level. The 32nd District faces crime, soaring property taxes, schools that are “barely functional,” and faltering businesses.
Walker is a U.S. Army veteran, has served as a pastor for more than 30 years and works as a customer service manager for a major healthcare provider. His experience managing organizations gives him as much relevant experience as anyone who is new to public service, he said.
Walker’s campaign website features an endorsement from Gun Owners of America. He said he believes in the right to carry firearms concealed or openly and opposes limits on ammunition, magazines or semi-automatic rifles. Walker said he also opposes red flag laws, which allow courts to order a person to surrender firearms if they are found to be a danger to themselves or others.
While leaders in state government have worked to address the root causes of crime, many have overlooked the decline in family structure as a major factor, Walker said. He said he would push for social welfare policies that aim to keep families intact as a way to keep young people on a better path.
Citing inequity in Pennsylvania’s system of funding schools through property tax, Walker said he would work to reduce the burden on taxpayers in communities like those in his district where low property values result in higher tax rates. Walker said he would push legislation to require a referendum when a school district seeks a tax increase above a given threshold.
The Pennsylvania Taxpayer Relief Act 1 already requires school districts to seek voter approval or an exemption from the Department of Education for tax increases above a set level. Auditor General Timothy DeFoor released an audit of 12 school districts that found they routinely sought and received exemptions despite holding millions of dollars in their general funds.
DeFoor recommended changes to the law including a requirement for districts to use fund balances before seeking an exemption to raise taxes.
Walker said he would also seek a transition to funding schools through sales tax, which he said is more equitable.
Walker said he would also work to moderate partisan differences in the House.
“As a Republican, I’ve watched what has gone on in this state for the last 12 years. I’m watching this state move away from values that kept our state functional and viable,” Walker said. “We have a Legislature that doesn’t speak unless it’s about blocking some legislation from the other side.”
Abigail Salisbury, Democratic nominee for the 34th District
Salisbury told the Capital-Star she got into politics by running for, and serving on, borough council in her hometown of Swissvale, when she saw frustration among her neighbors over being ignored by local officials.
“A member of council snarkily told people they needed to run for council,” Salisbury said, so she did.
Her tenure as a borough council member included two years as council president.
Salisbury said her decision to run for the state House stems from a near tragedy in March 2020, when Swissvale’s borough hall collapsed. Several public works employees narrowly avoided injury or death, Salisbury said.
“As I started looking around I realized everything was just falling down everywhere,” Salisbury said.
The borough’s century-old sewer system was prone to frequent failures. A bridge in town is closed because it is in worse structural condition than the Fern Hollow Bridge in Pittsburgh, which collapsed just before the morning rush hour Jan. 28, 2022.
Working with Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, Salisbury was able to secure Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant funding to help Swissvale rebuild its government headquarters. Salisbury said her education and experience in nonprofit management and training as a lawyer helped her navigate the process, but many small communities may not have access to such expertise.
“I want to make sure that we make that opportunity available to even the smallest community in the district,” Salisbury said, noting that the district includes 12 small boroughs.
Salisbury’s law practice is focused on advocacy for nonprofit organizations and small businesses. She said she would work to address blight in her district by supporting local entrepreneurs by helping them find suitable vacant properties.
Salisbury said she would also work to eliminate barriers to starting businesses by making the state’s regulatory processes easier to navigate. For example, Salisbury said, her first order of business would be to find out why it takes more than two months to set up a corporation.
“If they want to bring a business to the district I want to do everything I can to help them,” Salisbury said.
Robert Pagane, Republican nominee for the 34th District
Pagane, of Wilkins Township, is a former police officer who now works as a security officer and teaches kickboxing, and plays and sings with a local rock band.
According to Pagane’s campaign website, he would work toward reducing taxes, restoring the relationship between police and the residents they protect, tackling the drug epidemic to reduce crime, and holding prosecutors and judges accountable for the sentences convicted criminals receive.
Pagane did not respond to requests for an interview.
Legalizing the recreational use of cannabis could provide a significant source of state revenue that could be used to offset the school property tax burden that disproportionately affects the elderly and owners of less valuable properties, according to Pagane’s campaign website.
Acknowledging that is an unusual position for a person with a law enforcement background, Pagane said it may be time for Pennsylvania to follow other states where recreational marijuana use is legal. He said has reached out to Democrats who support legalization and will work to make it happen.
Pagane said he would work to find answers and solutions to Pennsylvania’s reliance on taxing its residents. He cited the 3-cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax and school taxes as examples, noting that Pennsylvania’s school performance ranks among the worst in the nation.
Providing more resources for police to combat drug crime and requiring sentences that keep career criminals off the streets would return prosperity to many communities, Pagane said.
“When we reduce crime and create safe streets and communities, businesses will return. Prospective homebuyers will seek to purchase property in our district and the economic trickle-down effect will benefit each and every one of us,” Pagane said.
Matthew Gergely, Democratic nominee for the 35th District
Gergely, of McKeesport, was born and raised in Allegheny County and has worked in McKeesport city government and for the McKeesport Area School District.
According to the Allegheny County Democratic Committee’s website, while working for the city Gergely worked to secure critical infrastructure improvements and provided loans to struggling small businesses.
Gergely did not respond to an interview request. His older brother, Marc, was elected to the 35th District seat in 2002 but in 2017 was sentenced to 18 months behind bars after pleading guilty to conspiracy and making an illegal campaign contribution tied to an illegal gambling machine ring.
Gergely told WESA-FM that he doesn’t believe he should be held accountable for his brother’s crimes and that while they were relatively minor, his guilty plea underscores the importance of being beyond reproach.
The Democratic committee’s website says Gergely would focus on advocating for students by providing resources for schools and teachers, enhancing public safety by investing in essential services and building trust among residents, and supporting small businesses as the backbone of his district’s communities.
Don Nevills, Republican nominee for the 35th District.
Nevills, of Clairton, is a U.S. Navy veteran, and small business owner, who ran unsuccessfully against Davis in 2022.
As a seaman in the Navy, Nevills served as a ship handler and navigator who trained commanding officers and executive officers. He achieved the rank of chief petty officer and oversaw a department of more than 60 sailors.
Nevills told the Capital-Star that, like his naval service, he sees serving in the state House as a 24/7 job where he is accountable to constituents whenever they have a problem.
“We’ve been underrepresented for so long. It’s always been about the party and never about the people,” Nevills said. “As a representative that’s your job, communicating everything to the community and transparency has to be at the forefront.”
Nevills said his experience in government includes his appointment to the Clairton Municipal Authority, where he said he helped resolve a breakdown in communication between the authority and city officials set in motion plans to expand the city’s sewage treatment plant.
As a member of the city’s Redevelopment Authority, he worked to clear the titles of blighted properties that resulted in a new gas station and convenience store being built.
“I’ve been able to communicate with people at just about every level and discuss complex projects,” Nevills said.
Nevills said he will focus on reducing crime in the district by meeting with the mayors and police chiefs of its 14 municipalities to understand their needs. He also said he would work to reform Allegheny County’s juvenile justice system to ensure that youthful offenders do not reoffend.
That would include reopening the county’s juvenile detention center, which closed in 2021 after losing its license from the Department of Human Services, Nevills said.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.