Primary season brings bevy of outsiders into system for chance in November

Primary season brings bevy of outsiders into system for chance in November

Author: The PLS Reporter/Friday, May 11, 2018/Categories: News and Views, Pittsburgh

A 20-year-old college student, a few mothers who want to shake things up, and a lot of people who brand themselves as “not a politician” are just a few of the hundreds of candidates competing next Tuesday just to earn their place on the November midterm ballot.

Below, The PLS Reporter breaks out a few races to watch on May 15.

PA Senate District 28

There is no incumbent for this York County race since current officeholder, Republican Scott Wagner is running against current Gov. Tom Wolf. Wagner has held the seat since 2013 when he became the first person ever to win a seat as a write-in candidate.

The Democrats

Shawn Mauck is the mayor of West York Borough. As mayor, his goals were to stabilize property taxes, build partnerships to curb urban blight, and invest in parks.

If he is elected, his objectives include helping to pass a severance tax for natural gas extraction, enacting universal pre-k and full-day kindergarten, increasing funding for education, reducing health care costs, legalizing marijuana, and reforming the criminal justice system by promoting clean slate initiatives.

The mayor wants quality education that gives students options on what to pursue after they leave school — whether that means college, learning a trade or heading immediately into the workforce.

“A lot of our problems start with a failed education,” Mauck said.

To fund this goal, he argues that revenue from taxing legal marijuana would generate the income over raising property tax rates.

Mauck got into a bit of hot water last year when he said a racial slur during a meeting.

Judith McCormick has been on the Eastern York School Board of Directors for the past 17 years. She also has the Eastern York Education Association’s endorsement. She’s painted herself as an ally of Wolf’s agenda, particularly in education.

McCormick directly attributes Wagner leaving the seat as one of the reasons she wanted to run.

Her objectives include increased funding for education, more affordable health care and additional programs for recently released inmates.

The Republicans

State Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York), the more politically experienced of the two Republican candidates, has represented the 93rd district since 2014. Before that, she was a Dallastown Area School Board Member and a legislative staff member for the House Republican Caucus.

Wagner, the departing incumbent, said Phillips-Hill would be a good fit for the senate seat.

Phillips-Hill’s competitor Julie Wheeler calls herself “a conservative outsider.”

Wheeler describes herself as “pro gun, pro life, and pro smaller government.”

She’s the general manager for the Perioperative Systems division of General Electric. She served on the York County Republican Party Board.

“I’m not a professional politician,” Wheeler says on her website. “I’m a conservative with years of experience in the private sector and helping to make York County a better place to live. That experience, not having an eye on the next rung of the political ladder, will drive my service to the people of York County.”

PA Senate District 38

Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R) took over this Allegheny County seat following a round of redistricting that led to former Democratic incumbent Jim Ferlo's retirement in 2014. Vulakovich jumped into the district from the old 40th after winning a special election in 2012.

The Republicans

Vulakovich, the incumbent, has picked up a number of challengers in both parties after running unopposed in 2014.

A former police officer, Vulakovich is chair of the Senate Veteran Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. He also holds a seat on numerous other committees, including judiciary and transportation.

As a Senator, he’s introduced legislation often centering around law enforcement and veterans issues. He also voted for the 2017 budget which, helped inspire his challenger, Jeremy Shaffer.

“We can’t grow Pennsylvania and retain and attract new residents and businesses while ever increasing taxes and fees,” Shaffer said on his campaign website. “The solution to Pennsylvania’s financial challenge is not to increase taxes, but to control and prioritize spending.”

Shaffer already has some political leadership positions under his belt. He has served on the Ross Township board of commissioners and as board president, as well as other civic roles.

The Democrats

Two Democrats — Stephanie Walsh and Lindsey Williams — are facing off to run in November.

Walsh’s limited political experience includes being a budget analyst for Colorado’s state legislature. She’s also a former public school teacher. Her endorsements include Clean Water Action, a grassroots environmental advocacy group; \Women for the Future of Pittsburgh; and Humane PA, an advocacy group for animal protection.

Walsh acknowledges her lack of experience in elected office, but still feels she's fit for the job,

"I'm not a politician," Walsh says on her website. "I'm a former teacher and an expert in helping governments become more efficient. Now I'm running to fix Harrisburg."

If elected, she would push for a severance tax on shale and natural gas extractions, oppose any effort to cut public school funding, and support creating an independent state commission for redistricting.

Lindsey Williams is the communications director for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. She’s also known for attempting to unionize the staff at the National Whistleblowers Center (NWC).

After being illegally terminated from the NWC, she took legal action and ended up winning her case. She also received national attention when she told her story to the New York Times.

She’s also has the party’s endorsement — with both state and county Democrats giving her an official nod.

PA Legislative District 30

District 30 is in Allegheny County and has been represented by Republicans since 1969. Incumbent Hal English faces no primary opposition, but three Democrats have lined up in the primary for the chance to oppose him November — including a 20-year-old undergraduate student.

The Republican

Hal English has held this seat since 2012. His committee assignments include Education, Game and Fisheries, Insurance and Judiciary.

In addition to being a legislator, he's been a practicing lawyer since 1987. Before that, he was in the Marine Corps.

He has sponsored a number of bills that focus on hunting and game laws, but one of his most recent bills focuses on giving crime victims more rights to be present during courtroom proceedings. House Bill 1974 passed the House in February and has moved to the Senate.

Prior to this year, he was unopposed in the elections for three terms.

The Democrats

Kareem Kandil is known for activism within his local Muslim community and related minority organizations. Kandil campaigned for Bernie Sanders during the 2016 primaries and then for Hillary Clinton during the general election.

The democratic socialist wants to push progressive policies such as health care reform in the Pittsburgh region. The best option for health care reform, according to Kandil, is a single payer program.

“It would save $17 billion each year in the state of Pennsylvania, if we were to switch to a single payer system,” Kandil said during a debate hosted by the League of Western Voters of Greater Pittsburgh.

According to Kandil, District 30 needs a state representative who "is committed to improving the school systems, environmental matters, and physical and mental health needs relevant to the community."

His endorsements include the Democratic Socialists of America, Clean Water Action, and Emgage — a Muslim-American engagement organization.

Jacob Pavlecic is a student at the University of Pittsburgh. He knows he's younger than most politicians, which explains his tagline, "Fresh Face, Fresh Perspective."

His priorities for office include occupational licensing reform, controlling health care costs, and balancing the state budget.

The young candidate landed endorsements from the county’s Democratic Party and the PA Humane Society, an anti-animal-cruelty organization.

Unlike his competitors, Pavlecic’s goal for health care does not include a single-payer system.

“The fact is, we just can’t do it on the state level,” Pavlecic said. “Any single-payer system would have to go around federal guidelines which would create much complexity. If elected, my biggest goal would be health care costs because that’s what the biggest issue is and I’ll try to bring those down.”

The third person running is Betsy Monroe. A first-time candidate, she currently works in the health care industry.

Monroe credits participation in the Women’s March with boosting her political engagement. She began writing to her representatives, but felt that she needed to do more.

“We have so much more power than we think we have when we put in the hard work,” Monroe said.

If elected, Monroe would focus on clean air and water, increasing public school funding, supporting a single-payer health insurance plan, ending “gendermandering” and mending the opioid epidemic.

“I am in support for harm-reduction strategies but we haven’t made strides of getting people into treatment,” Monroe said. “I want to increase funding for those treatment services.”

Although Monroe hasn’t been in the political world for long, she already racked up a few endorsements. She has the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, Women for the Future of Pittsburgh and Humane Pennsylvania on her side.

PA Legislative District 74

While Republicans have controlled the seat since the district moved from Clearfield County to Chester County in 2014, its current configuration gives Democrats an edge of about 8,000 registered voters — with another some 6,600 unaffiliated with either party.

Despite that advantage, Rep. Henry Lewis (R-Chester) has sat in the seat since being elected four years ago. Lewis, however, is not seeking re-election, which leaves the seat, and the primaries, open.

The Democrats

To flip the seat, Democrats will choose among three candidates — a local mayor and perennial candidate for office, a pastor, and a college professor.

Joshua Maxwell has run for the 74th district each election cycle since the district was created in 2012, and while winning the primary once in 2014, he has never advanced beyond the general election.

He's the mayor of the small borough of Downingtown part-time. Outside of politics, he helps create campaigns for education, public finance, and gender-based violence programs in Africa.

Maxwell favors reproductive rights, supports gun reform policies — like background checks for all purchases and banning assault weapons — and wants an independent commission to handle redistricting. His endorsements include Moms Demand Action and the National Organization for Women Southeastern Pennsylvania PAC.

Another competitor, Frank Pryor, is a political science professor at Villanova University. He was appointed to Gov. Wolf's transition team for policy guidance as part of Wolf's Higher Education Advisory Board. He also was chief of staff for a Boston, Ma., city counselor from 2011 to 2013.

“They’re not going to get a typical politician [with me],” Pryor said. “I am polished and I am an expert.”

Pryor wants to reduce property taxes and create a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) school in Coatesville. He is for gun reform policies and has worked with Gun Sense Chester County, a self-proclaimed nonpartisan organization that aims to reduce gun violence. He has endorsements from local Democrats.

Pryor is aware that Maxwell has won the primary in the past, but believes he has more experience and expertise.

Although Maxwell is a mayor, Pryor cites his experience as a political scientist for more than 21 years. But, Pryor added, they have similar policy goals.

There's also Dan Williams. He's a pastor at New Life in Christ Fellowship in Coatesville. Before that, he was a UPS supervisor.

Through his church, he was able to help send over 500 care packages to soldiers in Afghanistan with the help of an "Adopt a Soldier" program. He has also organized and led multiple missionary trips both domestically and abroad.

The Republicans

Amber Little-Turner is running unopposed and has the Republican endorsement. She worked under Lewis for four years as his constituent outreach specialist.

Before that, she was a law clerk and started her own business giving affordable legal services for families and small businesses.

She said she wants to continue the work of Lewis.

"I will continue the investment in the revitalization of our community, focus on transforming our school districts, advocate for lower taxes for our residents and help combat the opioid crisis," Little-Turner said. "We must place people and concerning issues before politics."

She wants more state funding for district schools and said she is open to both public and charter schools but also wants to decrease property taxes. The best way to get additional funding for education, according to her, is to reallocate money that already exists.

PA House District 21

The 21st district encompasses younger East End Pittsburgh neighborhoods such as Stanton Heights and Lawrenceville, as well as older Allegheny River towns like Sharpsburg and Aspinwall.

While the general could end up a moot point — Democrats have controlled the seat since the ‘60s — the primary could provide a window into the party’s mood as a self-described progressive and moderate Democrat with a big political name face off.

Incumbent Democrat Dom Costa will face off against nonprofit staffer Sara Innamorato.

Costa is a former Pittsburgh police chief and city native who has a served as a state representative since 2008 and run unopposed since then. Currently, he serves as the minority chairman of the House Ethics Committee, as a co-chair of the Law Enforcement Caucus, and on the Firefighter and EMS Caucus and Animal Protection Caucus.

But over his years in the legislature, Costa's position on social issues have earned him criticism from activists. Costa told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last fall that he doesn’t support abortion as birth control and only in extreme cases of rape or a health threat to the mother. He also voted for an eventually-vetoed 20-week abortion ban.

Additionally, Costa has earned criticism for supporting bills such as HB 361 and 237, that would make English the state’s official language and require proof of citizenship before access to public benefits respectively.

He has defended his moderation as more representative of the district at large. Costa also has the endorsement of the United Mine Workers, the Allegheny County Labor Council, local police unions, and the Woodland Hills Education Association.

Sara Innamorato is a first-time candidate and is from the Pittsburgh area. The Democratic Socialists of America-backed candidate hails from the nonprofit world and is challenging Costa from the left, with a vow to not accept corporate donations, raising the minimum wage and support for universal health care.

“A universal, single-payer system in Pennsylvania will provide all residents with high-quality care, including dental, vision, prescription drugs, physical and occupational therapy, and mental health services without co-pays, premiums, and deductibles,” she wrote on her campaign website.

Innamorato is also a proponent of easily accessible birth control, comprehensive sex education, and has pledged to support legislation that protects access to abortion.

Her endorsements include Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, Pittsburgh’s chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, and PennEnvironment.

PA House District 34

The 34th District encompasses many small boroughs and municipalities just east of Pittsburgh —such as Braddock, Braddock Hills, Church Hill, Edgewood, and Turtle Creek. The district hasn’t been held by a Republican since 1971. In the race between two Democrats, progressive Summer Lee is giving Paul Costa the first competition he’s had since 2010.

Costa, elected in 1998, is a self-described moderate who boasts a bipartisan approach to policy-making.

Over the years he has focused on issues such as reforming state liquor laws and supporting bills that encourage economic development, such as the state’s Film Tax Credit.

“My fingerprints are on a lot of things that are in this [Braddock] community,” Costa said at a forum. “I’ve worked with businesses in this area to create jobs and improve life and the reason I’ve been able to do that is because of the relationships I’ve built over the years.”

Currently Costa is the Democratic Chair of the House Liquor Control Committee and sits on the Rules Committee and Policy Committee.

Costa has the support of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, the Allegheny County Labor Council, Humane PA PAC, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, United Mine Workers of America, and Woodland Hills Education Association.

Summer Lee is Braddock native with a background in law and political organizing. Lee worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and to organize parents in Woodland Hills School District, where a pattern of racially tinged violence against students led to the resignation of multiple school officials and an ongoing FBI investigation.

She supports universal child care, a moratorium on fracking, and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, but believes the conversation should be steered towards creating what she calls a livable wage.

Lee’s endorsements include Equality PA, Food and Water Action, Steel City Stonewall Democrats, the Gertrude Stein Political Club Women for the Future of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America.

This story was written and reported by Atiya Irvin-Mitchell and Taylor Allen. Atiya is a staff writer based in Pittsburgh. Have a question, comment or tip? Email her at Taylor is a staff writer based in Philadelphia. Have a question, comment or tip? Email her at

This article was edited for clarity at 1:55 p.m. 5/11/18.