Union-driven campaigns have helped Pa. Democrats flip red seats. Could it notch them one more victory?

Special election candidates Sam Doctor and Marci Mustello. (Courtesy campaign Facebook pages)
Special election candidates Sam Doctor and Marci Mustello. (Courtesy campaign Facebook pages)

As a child, the kitchen table talk in Sam Doctor’s house wasn’t the score of his latest arithmetic test — it was the hard math of his parent’s next collective bargaining agreement.

Combined, his mom and dad have 56 years of service at AK Steel outside of Butler, Pennsylvania — about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh.

Doctor, now 28, has followed in his parents’ footsteps as a union steel mill worker at AK, where he is a crane operator.

He’s hoping to bring his pro-labor outlook to Harrisburg as the next member of the state House from Butler County, filling a seat ex-Rep. Brian Ellis resigned in March following sexual assault allegations.

“I think that’s a perspective most people in our area understand,” Doctor, the Democratic candidate in the 11th District special election, told the Capital-Star. “There’s still a great deal of manufacturing that gets done. The best places to work are invariably union shops, and people get that there will always be the balance between employee and employer.”

The district, which includes the city of Butler and some eastern suburbs, has a heavy GOP lean at the moment — Republicans outnumber Democrats by 6,000 registered voters. Ellis, a Republican, didn’t face a challenger for a decade.

Talk of blue-collar Democrats often conjures images of a coal miner in Luzerne County or a mill worker in Monessen. But Butler also was in on the tradition. 

From 1968 until Ellis’ first win in 2004, the 11th District elected the likes of Jack Arthurs and Joe Steighner. Dennis Roddy, a western Pennsylvania political consultant and former political reporter, said that they fit the mold of the district — conservative on social issues, but strong on labor.

When union power waned, so did the ability of Democrats to win in seats like the 11th, according to Roddy.

Marci Mustello, Doctor’s Republican opponent, agreed that the district takes right-leaning social stances, but isn’t sure it maps on to any particular party.

“We’ve always been a conservative district conservative — pro-life, pro-Second Amendment,” Mustello said. “In this district people vote for the person who’s going to make a difference.”

Citing 20 years of experience working for local congressmen, Mustello, 48, contends she’s the best option to make sure that “Harrisburg remembers Western Pennsylvania.”

She’s worked under former U.S. Rep. Phil English and current Rep. Mike Kelly, both Republicans, and served in the state party. Mustello lost to Ellis during the 2004 primary for the seat.

Her top priorities, she says, are reducing property taxes and fighting the opioid crisis.

The district’s red alignment is also clear from the 2018 statewide races, which Republicans dominated. But U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb’s upset victory in the old southwestern 18th Congressional District and state Sen.-elect Pam Iovino’s victory in a more suburban, but still red-tinged, district south of Pittsburgh led Roddy to observe that “labor is resurgent in this region politically.”

Doctor’s site touts the endorsements of teachers’, nurses’, and ironworkers’ unions as well as the Butler County labor council. Mustello said she hasn’t received labor backing, but said she “always had an open door policy” to the local unions that needed face time with English or Kelly.

Kelly, who began serving in Congress in 2011, has a 25 percent lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO.

Both Doctor and Mustello do agree on at least one thing — both are Second Amendment supporters.

Last year, Doctor ran as an independent against Ellis and was crushed by a nearly 50-point margin. He chalks up his loss to straight-ticket voting — more than 50 percent of Ellis’ votes came from voters who just pulled the lever for team red.

If elected, Doctor promised to oppose right-to-work legislation, which eliminates mandatory agency fees in all union workplaces. Also on his list is reforming state politics, from a gift ban to changing how political districts are drawn.

“People don’t have any better opinion of Harrisburg then they do Washington, D.C.,” Doctor said.

The election will be held on primary day, May 21.

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