Face of politics in South Hills gets new look
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Erin Molchany and Natalia Rudiak spent much of primary Election Day together driving around the South Hills, visiting polls and talking to volunteers for Ms. Molchany's state House campaign, many of whom had also worked on Ms. Rudiak's surprising 2009 Pittsburgh City Council election. As the minutes ticked closer to 8 p.m., the two young Democrats stopped at an Overbrook church for sausage sandwiches and talked, as wonks do, about potholes.
Ms. Molchany's campaign team knew she was not only winning the 22nd District primary but winning big over Marty Schmotzer, the party machinery's pick and a member of the state's Democratic committee for two decades. But only when the polls closed, did she realize she was all but assured of having a desk in the state Capitol. Nervously, the former director of civic boosters Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project thought, "Oh my God, I think I need to leave."
Three weeks later, she remained bowled over, especially by voters in the heart of the district -- and the longtime home of old-school Pittsburgh politics -- in Beechview and Brookline, where she won 66 and 58 percent of the vote, respectively.
"I would love to knock on their doors again and thank them and talk about what the future looks like," the 34-year-old said.
Ms. Rudiak, 32, felt butterflies, too. "I was transported back to my race. It was so cool seeing these new, young people who have surfaced in the neighborhoods getting involved," she said.
"The thing about politics," she continued, "is building relationships and creating the change you want to see."
The 22nd District, once home to the late Rep. Frank Gigliotti before he went to prison on extortion charges, is now marked by young, progressive-minded women. Among them is Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, a Beechview native, who last held the district seat.
Voters "knew between me and Natalia, they had been represented well by women," said Ms. Wagner, who was neutral in the race. Ms. Molchany won because she worked hard, Ms. Wagner said, but in addition, voters "knew I've been out a lot and have seen Natalia at different events, and [they] know we've done things differently. She might have benefitted in part from that goodwill."
Ms. Molchany faces a general election in November against Overbrook Republican Chris Cratsley, but she should be a shoo-in in a Democratic-controlled district that currently starts in Esplen and runs south through Mount Washington down to Baldwin Township, Castle Shannon and Whitehall. There may not be another election for the seat in 2014, as still unapproved legislative reapportionment maps would erase it due to Western Pennsylvania population losses.
Before the state Supreme Court threw out the first round of maps, there were no plans for a 22nd District race at all this year, which makes it hard to judge what Ms. Molchany's win means for the Pittsburgh political landscape. Party insiders had trouble attracting candidates for the seat from within their ranks, since the job was guaranteed for only two years, and their standard-bearer became Mr. Schmotzer, who was saddled with 1997 charges of taking $50,000 from a county row office. As the party committee's pick, he breezed to a special election win, allowing him to represent the district for the balance of this year, but he couldn't take the bigger prize.
Pete Wagner, the longtime Democratic chairman of the city's 19th Ward and a supporter of Mr. Schmotzer, said Mr. Schmotzer's record is the only reason Ms. Molchany won.
"She beat a three-legged horse in the Kentucky Derby. Marty is a great guy, but let's face it, he was tainted going in," said Mr. Wagner, who is Ms. Wagner's father and brother of state Auditor General Jack Wagner.
Matt Merriman-Preston was campaign manager for Ms. Molchany and Ms. Rudiak and for Ms. Wagner in her first House run in 2006. He also is tied to city Councilman Bill Peduto, a likely mayoral candidate next year. He sees Ms. Molchany's victory not as a reflection of changes in the South Hills but rather in the structure of politics citywide, where there are vestiges still of the once all-powerful Democratic Party machine.
"It's people all over the city ready for a more bottom-up approach to electing their representatives -- and the top-down approach, people don't see the benefit of that," he said in an interview alongside Ms. Molchany at Brookline's hip Cannon Coffee shop. Asked what he meant by "top down," he replied: "The ward boss model."
Public transit and transportation funding cuts were the biggest issue for voters in the 22nd District race, and Ms. Molchany was uniquely suited to voice their concerns. She held transportation forums at PUMP, knows her way around bureaucratic red tape and can use the issue to show her view of what government's role should be.
"There's a lot of fear because the cuts are going to be very real," she said of the 35 percent Port Authority service cuts due in September. "To a woman who relies on public transit to go to the grocery store or to the doctor, losing her bus means she can no longer be independent. ...
"Government shouldn't be in position to make life more difficult. It should be in the position to make sure quality of life is excellent and maintained and people like this have the opportunity to live the life they deserve, contributed to and paid for," Ms. Molchany said.
Ms. Rudiak, a frequent critic of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, faces another election next year, as does the mayor. Her opponents are vowing to coalesce around just one candidate to challenge her, rather than allowing her to run against three other candidates as she did in 2009. That helped her beat Patrick Reilly -- the candidate pushed by Pete Wagner -- but by less than 200 votes.
"It was a perfect storm for her," Pete Wagner said.
One rumored challenger is Mary Motznik, a Democratic committee member and wife of Jim Motznik, the district judge and former city councilman. Pete Wagner often has pushed women candidates -- including Westwood's Theresa Kail-Smith for council and Beechview's Sherry Hazuda for Pittsburgh Public Schools board -- but denies the area's politics are changing.
"This [area] is not liberal," he said. Going through the South Hills "you will still see the steamfitters, ironworkers, boilermakers, police officers and firemen."
Ms. Rudiak, daughter of a PennDOT union official and a Polish immigrant, was ebullient last week, talking about new Heinz Endowments support for a Route 51 corridor economic development project and even a bar crawl through Beechview.
"There are opportunities in south Pittsburgh that exist. There's a space that's been created and in many ways we've had to fight for it," the Carrick native said. "South Pittsburgh is at that tipping point. ... We're finally seeing the fruits of that labor."
First Published May 20, 2012 12:20 am