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Molchany vs. Readshaw: Redistricting sets up big primary battle for local progressives

Molchany represents Readshaw's first election challenger in 12 years

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Bill Peduto may still be looking for the key to the mayor's washroom, and Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus may still be practicing with his gavel ... but local progressives already have another political fight ahead. First-term state Rep. Erin Molchany, a Peduto ally, is taking on veteran legislator Harry Readshaw in the 2014 Democratic primary.

"We have to be cognizant of the next generation of leadership," says Molchany, who at age 36 is among the youngest members of Allegheny County's legislative delegation — and its only woman. In Readshaw, she faces an opponent twice her age and with 10 times the legislative experience; the Carrick resident was first elected in 1994.

Some of Molchany's 22nd district — including the portion of Mount Washington she calls home — was combined into Readshaw's 36th district during a statewide redistricting. The combined district includes Pittsburgh's South Side, and South Hills neighborhoods ranging from Mount Washington to Carrick, along with Mount Oliver and suburban neighborhoods in Brentwood and Baldwin Borough. That's mostly Readshaw's turf: More than 7 out of 10 voters in the new 36th were already Readshaw's constituents, prompting Molchany to say, half-jokingly, "I feel like I'm a victim of cartography."

But she's already reaching out to allies, including fellow first-term House Rep. Brian Sims (D-Philadelphia), the first openly gay legislator to be elected to Harrisburg.

"Outside of the governor's race, Erin's is the most important of the election cycle," Sims told City Paper during a 2013 visit to Pittsburgh. He and Molchany are close allies, and recently teamed up to draft a new bill tightening equal-pay standards for female employees. By contrast, says Sims, "When I look at Readshaw's voting record, I see a me-too Republican."

Readshaw allows that "I'm more conservative" than Molchany, though "we're obviously both more liberal than Republicans." For example, while Readshaw opposes same-sex marriage rights because "I'm not spiritually for it," he's joined support of House Bill 300, which would bar discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Readshaw, a longtime abortion opponent, also originally co-sponsored a measure to require a woman seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound first, with a screen facing her so she could see the fetus. Similar measures drew national controversy elsewhere, and Readshaw later withdrew his backing. Readshaw said that when he was asked to co-sponsor the measure, "It sounded appealing." But, he adds, once he saw the text of the bill itself, he realized he couldn't support it.

In any case, Readshaw says, "So much of this job is about helping people in the district. That's always been my goal." Readshaw estimates that he's brought more than $12 million in state funding for district improvements. "The longer you've been there, the more apt you are to get things done," he says.

In fact, Readshaw has never faced an election challenge. "I assume that's an endorsement by my constituents," he says.

But Molchany could pose a serious threat. She's hired Matt Merriman-Preston, the political field general behind Peduto's mayoral bid and Molchany's own successful 2012 campaign against Marty Schmotzer. And she can count on support from Peduto allies like Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

"I've already contributed to her, and I'll be helping her raise money," says Fitzgerald. "She's a progressive, a hard worker and a team player. She was so strong on the transportation bill," which ensured continued state funding for the Port Authority along with road construction around the state. (Readshaw voted against it, because it included a liquid-fuels tax that critics say is passed on to drivers: "It's a bad time to be taxing people," he says.)

Fitzgerald cautions that his backing of Molchany "isn't negative about" Readshaw, whom Fitzgerald named to the board of Alcosan. "He's done a lot good things. But Erin's the future of this region in many ways." What's more, he says, "We only have one woman representative in the Allegheny County delegation. Having zero is not an option."

In any case, the battle is shaping up to be the most spirited House race that South Hills voters have seen in a generation. "By the time we get done campaigning," Readshaw says, "I'm sure constituents will notice a distinct difference between who and what we are."

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