New district pits two Democratic state legislators

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Contrasts in the Democratic primary race for the realigned 36th Legislative District were obvious last week as Reps. Harry Readshaw and Erin Molchany stood in a St. Paul's Monastery conference room high atop the South Side slopes.

One candidate is tall, one's short; one's male, one's female; one's a legislative veteran; the other, half his age, is finishing her first term in the House.

"For the first time in 20 years, people in south Pittsburgh have a real choice," Ms. Molchany said.

Their answers, as they parried questions before a crowd of about 100, made it clear that their differences go beyond the cosmetic. Mr. Readshaw boasts the remarkable record of never having faced serious opposition in his two decades as a legislator, a fact that suggests that many residents of the district are comfortable with the Carrick funeral home owner's record of conservative social positions, and constituent service. He's opposed to abortion rights and restrictions on gun ownership.

"I like to think of myself as moderate, bipartisan," he told the crowd.

His bipartisanship extends to standing with Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, one of the most conservative members of the House, in supporting a tough legislative measure aimed at undocumented immigrants.

Ms. Molchany, the only female member of Allegheny County's House delegation, is an avowed progressive. She supports abortion rights, gay marriage, background checks for gun purchasers and, with, Rep. Brian Sims, one of their more liberal colleagues, has been a prime mover behind legislation promoting pay equity for men and women. Her candidacy reflects the new Pittsburgh coalition that helped bring Mayor Bill Peduto to power in city hall last year.

She has been endorsed by Mr. Peduto, along with allies including county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and state Sen. Wayne Fontana.

Mr. Readshaw demonstrated his own support from the party establishment earlier this year, when he handily defeated Ms. Molchany in an endorsement vote among the Democratic Party's elected committee members. One hurdle she faced in that vote, and more importantly, in the May 20 primary, is that they're competing in a district in which more than 7 in 10 voters are represented by Mr. Readshaw.

Their face-off is the product of redistricting. Population shifts over the past decade dictated that the county would lose a seat, and Ms. Molchany's current district, the 22nd, was the one chosen. Her first television commercial reflects that reality as she introduces herself to the new district's constituents as she banters affectionately with her father.

The merged district includes neighborhoods south of the rivers extending from Mount Washington, where Ms. Molchany resides, to Carrick, Mr. Readshaw's base, along with communities in adjoining suburb,s including Brentwood and Baldwin Borough.

Still, this district has fewer of the newer, younger residents that helped produce Mr. Peduto's victory. In last year's mayoral primary, he ran ahead in some of its neighborhoods, such as Mount Washington and the South Side Flats. But major parts of the district, such as Beechview, Brookline and Carrick, produced majorities for former Auditor General Jack Wagner in the 2013 primary.

Mr. Readshaw points to his record of re-election after re-election without opposition as a sign of political strength. But the May 20 results will test whether that run of success got him out of practice at the demands of running against a real challenger.

Ms. Molchany prevailed easily in a hard-fought 2012 primary race, then cruised to victory in the general election. The seat fell open after its former occupant, Chelsa Wagner, was elected county controller. That led to an unusual tandem race in which a special election to fill the balance of her unexpired term coincided with a primary determining the nominees for the subsequent full term. Former Rep. Marty Schmotzer won the special election after being chosen as the party's nominee in that race by a vote of the Democratic committee members. But despite the party backing, he lost to Ms. Molchany in the parallel race for nomination to the full term. So this would not be the first time she had defeated an endorsed candidate, although the challenges are not comparable, given Mr. Readshaw's veteran status.

Ms. Molchany, 36, ran for city council in 2005, but finished a distant fourth in a five-person field. After graduating from Duquesne University, she worked for the Coro Foundation for Civic Leadership and was executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project. She has lived in Mount Washington for 17 years.

Mr. Readshaw, 72, is a Marine Corps veteran. He owns and operates a family business, the Readshaw Funeral Home. He is a member of the board of directors of Alcosan, where he was formerly chairman.

Politics editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.

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