Incumbent hopes to overcome scandal in 46th Legislative District


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Though it is ground zero for Marcellus Shale gas development in the area and home to several local drilling giants, the 46th Legislative District in Washington and Allegheny counties features a primary election that is surprisingly skimpy on issues involving shale gas drilling.

Instead, the race for state representative there seems to have boiled down to one thing: Can a tech-savvy incumbent overcome his past foibles and thin-skinned reputation to hold on to his seat?

State Rep. Jesse White, a Democrat and lawyer from Cecil, hopes so.

"I take full responsibility for the way I conducted myself. It's not something I'm particularly proud of. It's something I think about every single day," he said of a scandal last year that made national headlines when it was revealed that Mr. White used pseudonyms and even impersonated his enemies on Internet postings, especially those on social media sites like Facebook.

As he goes door-to-door introducing himself to voters in his redrawn district, Mr. White, 35, said he's hearing support for his tough stance against the Marcellus Shale drilling industry despite his peccadilloes.

He is being challenged by Cecil supervisor Thomas Casciola in the Democratic primary May 20 and the winner of that race will face Republican Jason Ortitay, a 30-year-old small-business owner from South Fayette, in the Nov. 4 general election.

"I hear, 'Yeah, you screwed up. That was really stupid. But, we get that you are the guy out here that's asking the tough questions. You put yourself in the line of fire when you could have easily stuck your head in the sand,'" he said. "At the end, that's what I think matters to people."

But that isn't what matters to all of the voters.

A recent meeting of the Concerned Citizens of the 46th District looked more like a game of bridge than a political action committee. At its helm are three white-haired ladies from Cecil -- 65-year-old grandmother Janice Gibbs is the youngest of the crew -- who were meeting to discuss ways to unseat Mr. White or protect themselves from his wrath if he's re-elected.

"I voted for him twice," said Mrs. Gibbs, whom Mr. White pretended to be by using her name to register on several Internet sites, calling her "dumber than a box of rocks," and an "uneducated yinzer" for her views on gas well drilling.

Mrs. Gibbs said she is a proponent of safe drilling, though she has no lease for her 10-acre property. She said she was astonished by Mr. White's actions last year and frustrated that no legal action was taken against him by lawmakers or prosecutors.

The citizen's group has a handful of members, including Judy Bowser and Darlene Barni, who protested against Mr. White outside his Harrisburg office last year, urging him to resign.

The group confronted the incumbent again in September, during a local fall festival where they sought signatures to convince Mr. White to resign. They got nearly 300 supporters.

Group members said they are concerned about what will happen if Mr. White wins re-election. They are planning to mount a campaign to inform voters, especially those in new parts of the district, which includes Bridgeville and the surrounding area.

"Turnout is important," Mrs. Gibbs said. "People in the new area have no idea what he's like."

When the flap over the fake online personas blew up last year, Mrs. Gibbs said Mr. White left a note on her door asking for a private meeting to discuss issues between them, but she feared meeting with him alone.

"When you disagree with Rep. White, you become a target," she said. "You may as well wear a bullseye on your back."

Those sentiments have been echoed by others, who say that Mr. White goes beyond passionate in his views and can't tolerate disagreement or criticism.

"You have to work with your fellow representatives, your fellow senators. If I'm on the losing end of a 4-1 vote, I move on. The opinion is that Jesse can't. If he loses that issue, he has to go after those four until they're destroyed," said Mr. Casciola, 59, a homebuilder.

Mr. Casciola has been a supervisor for 22 years and said he's never seen a state representative who is unable to work with even members of his own party due to constant conflicts.

The bipartisan group of officials who control where the local share of slots gaming revenue from the Meadows Racetrack & Casino is to be used are "loathe to support anything that Jesse puts his name on," Mr. Casciola said.

State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, one of those who was impersonated last year online by Mr. White, has previously said he won't support the incumbent.

Mr. White said his conflicts with Mr. Solobay revolve around a difference of opinion regarding gas well drilling and said he frequently works with U.S. Rep.Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, who he said sent a staff member to a recent forum on drug abuse sponsored by Mr. White.

Susan Mosychuk, Mr. Murphy's chief of staff, confirmed that the office sent a staff member to the event due to the congressman's interest in prescription drug and heroin abuse, but had no comment about the Democratic primary.

Mr. White makes no apologies for his nature and said he thinks his role as a "watchdog" for the drilling industry has made him a target.

"So many of my colleagues have ignored these issues because they don't want to take on the drilling industry and in this district, you can't do that," he said.

In the district, known for its rich natural gas deposits and heated debates over how best to safely access that resource -- even President Barack Obama describes natural gas as "the 'bridge fuel' that can power our economy" -- the candidates differ somewhat on impact fees and whether drillers should be charged a severance tax.

Mr. White and Mr. Casciola supported a challenge to Act 13, the state's 2012 sweeping law governing Marcellus Shale development and impact fees. In his role as Cecil supervisor, Mr. Casciola was among a small group of municipal leaders who successfully challenged the zoning provisions in the law, while Mr. White supported the challenge in several key ways.

With statewiode zoning provisions struck down as unconstitutional by state Supreme Court in December, Mr. Casciola said he's largely satisfied that drilling companies are paying their fair share, though he wouldn't oppose a slightly higher impact fee, so long as it wouldn't put jobs at risk.

It's an important distinction for Mr. White, who supports a "reasonable" severance tax in addition to the current impact fee.

"When you look at all the money we're leaving on the table ...when we have critical funding issues ... I think in this day and age, how can we not have a severance tax?" Mr. White said. "We're the only state that doesn't have one. The impact fee works out to the functional equivalent of a 1 percent tax rate."

Before the details of Act 13 were ironed out, Mr. White said he was "personally lobbied" by drilling industry executives who were hoping at the time for a 7 percent tax.

"I don't buy the we're-going-to-kill-the-goose-that-laid-the-golden-egg argument, especially in Southwestern Pennsylvania. I've seen the infrastructure around here on a daily basis and it's not going anywhere. Anyone who says anything different is uninformed or disingenuous."

Mr. Casciola said he isn't courting the industry for campaign funds and a spokesman for Range Resources -- the major drilling company in the district -- has said the company won't get involved in the race.

"I'm not looking for their support," Mr. Casciola said.

Mr. White says he isn't opposed to drilling and doesn't favor a moratorium, but his well-publicized comments last year have fairly or unfairly drawn him as the anti-drilling candidate.

In an area that bills itself as "the Energy capital of the East," that was named among the top tier in job growth in the nation, such a position can be a tough sell.

"Shale has become its own political party," Mr. White observed. "You're either on their team or you aren't."

Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com. or 412-263-1159.


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