The race between two well-known Democratic political figures for the 35th state House seat is a tough one for political leaders and voters in the Mon Valley.
Should they align themselves with two-time incumbent state Rep. Marc J. Gergely, D-White Oak, who voted against the stealth legislative pay raise, accepted it, and then returned it because of negative feedback from his constituents?
Or should they support Allegheny County Clerk of Courts George F. Matta II, whose county row office job is being eliminated in 2007? Mr. Matta, a former Duquesne mayor and founder of a Mon Valley revitalization group, is running as the endorsed Democratic candidate, an endorsement Mr. Gergely didn't seek.
Whoever wins the May 16 primary should have clear sailing since no Republican filed for the race, although independent or write-in candidates could mount a challenge.
Mr. Matta is not running as a candidate with PACleansweep, a nonpartisan group that is trying to oust General Assembly incumbents because of the legislative pay raise they voted themselves on July 7.
But his campaign is clearly focusing on the pay raise issue and how Mr. Gergely has handled it.
"It's an issue of trust and honesty," said Mr. Matta, who says that Mr. Gergely has been distorting his position about the pay raise in television commercials and in his brochures.
Mr. Gergely voted against the pay raise. After it passed, Mr. Gergely said, he decided to use the money to set up a scholarship for his district.
"I took one month's worth of money," Mr. Gergely said, asserting that only $900 was involved. But the feedback from his district was negative, so by August, Mr. Gergely said he was declining the raise, which he has returned.
The PACleansweep Web site now lists him as a legislator who returned the pay raise. Mr. Gergely provided a memo, dated March 20, from Roger Nick, chief clerk of the House of Representatives, which said that Mr. Gergely repaid the unvouchered expenses he received in 2005.
Mr. Gergely, 36, of White Oak, said the May election really is a referendum about how well he has done his job. He is seeking his third term as state representative in a district that includes Duquesne, East Pittsburgh, Homestead, Lincoln, Munhall, South Versailles, Versailles, Whitaker and White Oak, and parts of Elizabeth Township, McKeesport, North Versailles and West Mifflin.
Through his work and support of Gov. Ed Rendell's policies, Mr. Gergely said he has brought millions to the district in economic development funds. He cited recent grants, including $400,000 for a Marshall Drive road project in McKeesport and $1.5 million for a Junior Achievement enterprise village in Munhall.
But Mr. Matta said Mr. Gergely also tried to take credit for money that came into the district for the expansion of the Kennywood Park amusement park.
Mr. Matta said the grant for that $175,000 project was written by the West-to-West Coalition, a nonprofit organization that he helped found for the purpose of redeveloping former industrial sites.
"He never participated," Mr. Matta said. "We wrote the entire application."
Mr. Gergely said that as district legislator, his office tries to keep the district informed. His office sent out a news release on Nov. 21 about the Kennywood expansion, saying he had been involved in the project for months.
"I didn't handwrite the grant, but I voted to appropriate the money," he said.
As strong Democrats, Mr. Gergely and Mr. Matta agree on many issues. Both support increasing the minimum wage and want to eliminate residential property taxes with the help of gambling revenues.
Mr. Gergely said he has been working on bills to improve prescription drug benefits for elderly people who qualify for the state's drug assistance programs, PACE and PACENET. He also was the prime sponsor of a bill that banned Internet hunting (siting the prey on the computer, then killing it by remote control).
Mr. Gergely said he didn't seek the Democratic endorsement from the Allegheny County Democratic Party because he wanted to set the tone that "I am not part of a machine and that I don't believe we needed to have a divisive Democratic primary."
That filing fee cost $500. Mr. Matta, who won the party endorsement, said Mr. Gergely didn't hesitate to go after other endorsements that would bring money to his campaign, including the Allegheny County Labor Council endorsement that Mr. Gergely won last weekend.
"He made such a strong statement about the Democratic endorsement, so why go after labor?" Mr. Matta asked. "I think it is a flipflop."
Mr. Matta, 49, spent nearly all his life in Duquesne and served as the city's mayor from 1993 to 1999. He and his wife, Cathy, moved their family to White Oak in 2001 to be closer to the family of his sister, who died of brain cancer.
Mr. Matta, a businessman, sold his floral shops in Homestead, Munhall and Duquesne in 2000 when he became a county row officer.
"I felt that it would be difficult to run the businesses and be clerk of courts," he said.
Mr. Matta said his record on economic development goes back to his days as Duquesne mayor, when he pushed for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank to relocate in a vacant industrial site in the city.
Mr. Matta said he brings strong academic credentials to the table, including a bachelor's degree in business administration from Penn State University and a master's degree in business and industrial relations from St. Francis College.
Mr. Gergely graduated from McKeesport Area School District and attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Debbie, have three children.
He served as a legislative aide to former Sen. Buddy Belan, D-West Mifflin, and Sen. Sean Logan, D-Monroeville.
At age 26, Mr. Gergely was elected to the McKeesport Area school board and became one of the youngest school board presidents in the state. He served on the board for six years
Jan Ackerman can be reached at email@example.com or 412-851-1512.