Adam Ravenstahl facing challenge for state House seat

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In a so-far low-key competition, state Rep. Adam Ravenstahl is defending his redrawn legislative district against a Democratic nomination challenge from Tom Michalow, a history teacher and former Avalon council member.

In November, the winner will face Tom Fodi, who is unopposed on the Republican ballot in this mainly northern Pittsburgh district.

The two Democrats appear to agree on many issues. Mr. Michalow favors abortion rights while Mr. Ravenstahl, the brother of the former mayor, describes himself as pro-life. But the incumbent argues against exaggerated contrasts on social issues, noting that he favors gay marriage rights and supports anti-discrimination and pay equity legislation sponsored by more liberal colleagues such as Reps. Dan Frankel and Erin Molchany.

Mr. Michalow criticizes Mr. Ravenstahl's vote against a transportation vote that will bring millions to support road and bridge projects as well as the Port Authority. Mr. Ravenstahl counters that while he supported the core provision of the transportation law, he voted against it because of provisions that weakened prevailing wage laws for transportation contracts.

"I just viewed it as a further attack on the middle class," he said of the wage language.

Mr. Ravenstahl has demonstrated the muscle of incumbency by attracting the lion's share of institutional support. He has been endorsed by his party's elected committee members, most of his colleagues in Allegheny County's House delegation and the Allegheny County Labor Council. And he argues it's particularly telling that he has received the formal backing of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and the Pennsylvania State Education Association, despite the fact that his opponent, a Northgate High School teacher, is a PSEA member.

"PSEA was a disappointment," Mr. Michalow acknowledged, while adding, " I know for a fact that many teachers will be voting for me."

Mr. Michalow's endorsements include a variety of groups with liberal positions on social issues. Among backers are the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, Gertrude Stein Political Club of Greater Pittsburgh, Clean Water Action and Progress Pittsburgh PAC.

He contends, moreover, that his campaign received a significant boost from one endorsement that he did not receive -- that of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee members. While much of the attention the day of the party balloting was on a face-off between two legislative incumbents, Reps. Harry Readshaw and Erin Molchany, the Raventahl-Michalow battle emerged as the more competitive one. Mr. Ravenstahl prevailed by the relatively narrow margin of 76 to 65.

"I was thrilled with the result," Mr. Michalow said, contending that his stronger-than-expected showing gave his campaign a dose of credibility.

The challenger is a graduate of Virginia Military Institute with a master's degree from Duquesne University. He chaired the Avalon Democratic Party Committee until he stepped down to make this race. He ran for Allegheny County Council in 2009 but was defeated by Republican Matt Drozd.

Mr. Ravenstahl has a degree in business management from Robert Morris University. He took office in 2010 in a seat that overlaps communities once represented in the Legislature by his grandfather. In the House, his committee assignments are Aging and Older Adult Services, Finance, Liquor Control and Veterans Affairs. His father is a district judge and his brother, Luke, represented many of these communities on Pittsburgh City Coluncil before succeeding the late Bob O'Connor as mayor. Those deep political roots have clearly been an asset to Mr. Ravenstahl's political career so far, but more recently the controversies surrounding his brother's tenure as mayor have sometimes made a mixed blessing of those ties.

"In door knocking, the perception among the public is not as bad as it has been portrayed in the media," Adam Ravenstahl said. "A lot of people think he did a good job. There were ups and downs. Obviously, you run into people that may not be willing to support me because of him. On the other side, I'm proud to come from the Ravenstahl family. For over 40 years, we've been about service to the community."

Senior Democrats, such as county Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Mayor Bill Peduto, may have their private preferences -- Mr. Peduto and Mr. Michalow share a campaign consultant -- but neither has gotten publicly involved in the race as they have in backing Ms. Molchany.

Mr. Michalow's Avalon home is part of about 25 percent of the district that is new this time around in the aftermath of legislative reapportionment. The reconfigured 20th District includes the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of Brighton Heights, Northview Heights, Observatory Hill, Polish Hill, Spring Garden, Spring Hill, Strip District, Summer Hill, Troy Hill; parts of East Allegheny and Lawrenceville, in addition to the boroughs of Avalon, Bellevue and West View; and parts of Ross.

Mr. Ravenstahl's political base is on the North Side. Mr. Michalow said that in addition to his own his own base in the communities along the Ohio River, he expects to be competitive across the district.

"Lawrenceville is gold for me," he said. "I can't tell you how many people are supporting me in Lawrenceville, Polish Hill. I even have signs up in Summer Hill [where Mr. Raventahl grew up]."

Mr. Ravenstahl insists he'll do well in the newer and older parts of the district.

"I guess on paper, [Mr. Michalow] would do fairly well in Avalon and Bellevue, but I've focused on those areas," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "I plan to do very well on the North Side. I think I will do very well in Lawrenceville as well. Obviously it's a benefit to have been in office for four years. Those people have seen me at events."

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

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