Pittsburgh and Allegheny County’s election outcomes present new power and alternative for black candidates
Last week’s out-of-year elections showed that black candidates, at least in Allegheny County, have never been so eligible. And because of these results in part, there will be more opportunities for local black candidates in the coming months.
Ed Gainey’s victory as Pittsburgh Mayor – the first black official to hold that position in the city’s history – drew the most attention locally and nationally. But there was good news for black candidates elsewhere in the Allegheny County election. Four of the top voters seeking judge’s office on Common Pleas Court are black: Nicola Henry-Taylor, Elliot Howsie, Tiffany Sizemore, and Wrenna Watson. Lori Dumas, meanwhile, won the most local votes in a four-way race for Commonwealth Court Judge, even beating Democrat David Spurgeon in his home district.
“America is changing. And as America is changing, we’re seeing a change in belief, ”Gainey said. “You see a change in acceptance. We still haven’t reached our goal of not hating each other because of skin color, gender, or love. But we are moving in that direction. That is obvious in these races. “
“I’m thrilled,” said Ashley Comans, who will try to replace Gainey in Harrisburg when he takes office as mayor. “I had tears on Tuesday evening [from] the joy it gave me to see that people understand. “
“The change that people want to see”
Gainey’s success and the aspirations of other elected black officials not only reflect the expanded prospects for black leaders: they create opportunities for a new generation of hopefuls.
Comans is a former Wilkinsburg school board member who served on Unite, a political committee founded by State Representative Summer Lee, who is running for Congress next year to replace Mike Doyle. Comans announced her candidacy in the New Pittsburgh Courier in August, but she likely won’t be alone if she takes Gainey’s 24th seat.
Martell Covington, an adviser to Senator Jay Costa, is also rumored to be a potential Gainey candidate. Covington declined to discuss future plans but said, “It is an honor that people are considering me for this role or seeing me as an emerging leader in my community.”
Covington, a lifelong resident of Homewood, said, “I was in Washington DC when President Obama was elected and here in Pittsburgh when Ed Gainey was elected – I am really happy to witness history nationally and locally to be.”
Gainey himself has yet to pick a favorite in the race to replace him: due to the harshness of the campaign, he told WESA’S The Confluence last week: “I didn’t even have time to think about it.”
Gainey’s seat isn’t the only one that could be open next year, either: Lee, for example, hasn’t said whether she’ll be giving up a re-election bid for her seat in the state house in order to focus on her congress in congressional. Perhaps of more immediate interest: State Representative Jake Wheatley is said to have a top position in the Gainey government. And as with Gainey’s move to Grant Street, Wheatley’s departure from Harrisburg would trigger a special election to replace him.
And while neither he nor Gainey have confirmed his appointment, at least two candidates – both well-known names in Pittsburgh – have already expressed their interest.
Aerion Abney, who has already faced Wheatley three times, was planning to challenge him again. “Our campaign will be agile and ready to adapt to political realities,” he said. “I know the county very well, and many issues are still the same – quality education, quality of life.” Gainey’s victory, he said, “speaks volumes for the change people in Pittsburgh and Allegheny Counties want to see.”
Abney is likely to face a formidable, albeit first-time, challenger: Rev. Glenn Grayson of Wesley Center AME Zion Church. Grayson, one of the city’s most prominent religious leaders and active in a number of community matters, confirmed to the WESA on Sunday that he was running to “hear and represent the concerns of the entire 19th district.
“I’m really excited about a fresh start for a new mayor,” he added, calling it a “good season” for black candidates. “When qualified people rise, people will see their work and their credibility.”
Both Gainey and Wheatley would be replaced in a special election called by the House Speaker. The decisive factor for this race will be a decision by the Democratic Party on whom to nominate as a candidate. For a house race, members of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, representing the wards and counties in each house district, will convene and recommend a candidate. That election would then almost certainly be ratified by the State Party’s Executive Committee and become the party’s candidate.
“We are in a transition period”
State Rep. Austin Davis was absent from the vote last week, but he’s considering his options too: He expects to make a decision on running for lieutenant governor “in the next few weeks.”
In the meantime, he said, last week’s elections reflect a new reality. “African Americans can compete anywhere, right? There are many places and many non-traditional communities to be successful and lead. “
One factor responsible for this, Davis said, is the changing demographics of the Democratic Party.
“Our party’s coalition is now mostly made up of colored people, workers, which opens up a wide range of opportunities for more diverse candidates,” he said.
But colored candidates were not only successful in Allegheny County, and not just with the Democrats. In Virginia, when she was elected lieutenant governor, Republican Winsome Sears achieved the highest office ever held by a black woman in the history of the state. New York City elected its second black mayor, and Asian-American candidates also recorded historic victories.
“I think there are more options from a retirement perspective, too,” said Davis, noting that the vast majority of Allegheny County’s lawmakers were either under 35 or over 60. “Because people are younger in this field, it gives them the opportunity to think about things that weren’t possible 15 or 20 years ago.”
And while Davis says this situation presents both challenges and opportunities. For one thing, seniority matters a lot, especially in Harrisburg – and Allegheny County’s influence has already waned. And he feared that many good potential candidates would simply opt for something else if Democrats were excluded from a majority in both the House and Senate for the foreseeable future.
“We are losing members who have significant seniority,” he said, noting that Wheatley was a top Democrat on the finance committee and that Gainey stands for the next term as chairman. “We’re going to have a very young delegation and that will be a factor,” said Davis, who is 32 himself. “The Philadelphia delegation has members who have been there much longer.”
And Davis noted that while Gainey and Wheatley’s seats were all but certain to produce a black leader, neither his seat nor Lee’s were so safe. Both took the place of white predecessors.
Still, he said, all of this change means: “You will get new voices and new perspectives. And that’s ultimately an advantage. We are in a period of transition and I think transition means growth. I think it will lead to a stronger region. “