Pittsburgh magistrate race turns contentious as Election Day nears

By: - November 2, 2021 11:16 am

By Ryan Deto

PITTSBURGH —  Things are heating up between a Democrat and an Independent candidate running on criminal justice reform issues in the election for Magistrate District Judge in Pittsburgh’s West End.

In Magisterial District 05-3-13 — which includes the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Sheraden, Banksville, Westwood, Elliot, Fairywood, Oakwood, Chartiers, Crafton Heights, and East Carnegie — the primary election was won uncontested by Nick Martini on the Democratic and Republican ballots.

Usually, this would mean Martini would see an uncontested general election, but East Carnegie resident Holly Hickling has mounted an independent campaign, and in the final days of the race, it is really heating up.

Hickling, a program evaluation specialist for the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Pharmacy, says she was motivated to run after no one emerged to challenge Martini, adding that she felt the West End deserved a judge focused on combating bias and reforming policies within the magistrate courtroom.

She said this contrasts with Martini’s campaign and believes that he will just follow the “status quo” in his father’s footsteps. Randy Martini, Nick’s father, is the incumbent judge and is not seeking re-election.

Nick Martini and Holly Hickling (Photos courtesy of their respective campaigns)

In this same vein, Hickling is also criticizing Martini for a campaign sign in the district implying that Martini has already won the seat, even before the general election.

At a ballfield in the West End, a banner reads “Magisterial District Judge Nick Martini,” complete with a large drawing of the state seal of Pennsylvania. The banner is next to several others on the fence of the ballfield, including banners for elected officials like Pittsburgh City Council President Theresa Kail-Smith and state Rep. Dan Deasy, as well as advertisements for local businesses. She calls Martini’s banner “dishonest.”

“He won the primary unopposed, so maybe he thinks that means he won the general election,” Hickling said. “But he could have taken it down after he had a challenger. It is deceptive. People who drive by there are getting the message that he is the incumbent.”

Martini said that the banner was put up after he won the primary election on the Democratic and Republican ballot unopposed, and that it was placed before he was aware he had any general election opponent. He said that a local West End athletic association is responsible for the banner and could take it down.

“At the time of purchase, I was the only person running. It was not purchased when [Hickling] was running,” Martini said. “When it was purchased, how was it dishonest or deceptive?”

In addition to squabbles over campaign banners, the race between Hickling and Martini offers two different visions for the Magistrate District Judge office. Magistrate District Court is directly below Common Pleas and judges are responsible for assigning bail conditions and deciding eviction cases, and is a defendant’s first introduction to the state’s criminal judicial system.

Hickling said she wants to reform policies that have become the norm within Allegheny County courts, wants to reduce the court’s reliance on things like cash bail, and use mitigation to help lower eviction rates. She said her campaign ideals are in line with Magistrate District Judges like Mik Pappas.

“Magistrates can reduce fines, but they can do so much more,” Hickling said, adding that she wants to lower the use of cash bail in her court if she were to win. “This could really affect someone’s life. You could use your judgment.”

Hickling grew up in the West End and moved back to Pittsburgh two years ago. She works at Pitt trying to evaluate how to reduce opioid-related deaths. She says that experience would be valuable as a judge.

“That’s a common ground we all know we can help,” Hickling said. “If a magistrate can help people connect to resources, we can get to the root causes of violence and conflict in our community.”

She says she would have run for Magistrate District Judge in the primary but didn’t switch over her registration in time. In the end, she is glad to run as an Independent, as she says she is not beholden to any political party.

Martini bristled at Hickling’s characterization of his campaign, and called the accusation that he would just follow in his father’s shadow “complete nonsense.”

“My father and I are two separate people. We have a 30-year-age gap,” Martini said. “I have been volunteering in our communities for 20 years. Nick Martini, in this community. I don’t know what legacy I am caring for, other than contributing to the community.”

Martini has worked as a public school teacher, on the staff of Councilor Theresa Kail-Smith, and as the Supervisor of the city of Pittsburgh’s Federal Community Block Grants programs. He has served on the Allegheny County Democratic Committee since 2006.

He says he is more qualified than Hickling for the office and is already certified by Pennsylvania’s Minor Judiciary Education Board.

“That is what I am running on, I am a community guy. I know our neighborhoods,” Martini said. “I have worked in all of them. I have worked with our residents to mediate and solve problems.”

Martini said that Hickling isn’t showcasing the unbiased nature needed to run for judge and that her campaign rhetoric “doesn’t play” when running for judge.

“This is a neutral, impartial decision-maker,” Martini said. “Some of her literature, she is a proponent of no cash bail and that people shouldn’t be evicted. That is not unbiased, we have a duty to hear about each case.”

Martini says he is compassionate and does not oppose policies to increase mediation and other leniency in the court, just that they should be applied on a case-by-case basis. For example, he says that strict cash fines for truancy cases can be problematic because parents might not be able to afford them and they don’t always teach the student any lessons.

“I am not opposed or against any of that, you have to apply those things fairly,” Martini said. “We have to be able to apply the law and sort this out. You need to give a fair hearing, and I don’t think they will get that with my opponent.”

Magisterial District 05-3-13 includes Pittsburgh wards 28 and 20 in the city’s West End and the neighborhood of Banksville. Election Day is Tue., Nov. 2 and polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Ryan Deto is a reporter for Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared. 

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