In cross-town legislative races, a combination punch for city progressives (UPDATED) | Blogh

In cross-town legislative races, a combination punch for city progressives (UPDATED)

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OK, so it might be a bit premature to get that "New Pittsburgh" tattoo after all.

That's one of the nagging doubts some progressives went to bed with last night, after Tuesday's Democratic primary resulted in defeats for both Tom Michalow and state Rep. Erin Molchany. Both candidates were running in city/suburb hybrid districts, against familiar Democratic names. Molchany was squaring off against Harry Readshaw, a 10-term incumbent into whose South Hills district Molchany was drawn; Michalow was battling North Side Rep. Adam Ravenstahl, a two-term rep and brother of Pittsburgh's former mayor.

And for progressives, what may be most worrisome is not whether they lost, but how:

  • Molchany had the backing of Mayor Bill Peduto -- the very architect of the New Pittsburgh -- as well as County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. She also had support from a slew of socially-liberal groups like Planned Parenthood, the city's teachers union, and same-sex-equality advocates EqualityPA. Yet she still lost by a 60-40 margin.
  • Michalow, meanwhile, had only a fraction of that support. Yet he nearly toppled Ravenstahl, who beat him only 52-48.

It was enough to make some know-it-all Wednesday morning quarterbacks wonder: Could progressives have won Michalow's race if they'd invested a bit more of the energy they put into Molchany's? (There's an even darker possibility, of course: What if Michalow did better because he didn't have as much progressive "help"?)

It's not that everyone was blindsided by Tuesday's results. I've been told by various sources that Molchany's campaign had internal polling which showed that she faced a steep uphill climb: Her drubbing on Tuesday was actually not quite as bad as her own polling predicted it could be. Campaign consultant Matt Merriman-Preston, who worked on both the Molchany and Michalow campaigns, says that while no such poll was carried out for Michalow, he had field reports -- "which turned out to be fairly accurate" -- that the race would be tight.

But Merriman-Preston, a celebrated architect of Peduto's political strategy, was wary of drawing too many lessons from yesterday's primary.

"There's only a big-picture takeaway when I win," jokes Merriman-Preston, with a somewhat rueful laugh. "When I lose, it's all just minutiae."

Or in Molchany's case, cartography. Redistricting forced Molchany into a district -- made up of city South Hills neighborhoods as well as Brentwood and Baldwin -- that was mostly Readshaw's home turf. Molchany did well in the portion of the new district she brought with her: In the city's 19th ward of Beechview, for example, she trounced Readshaw 75-25. But Readshaw beat her by a similar margin in his base of Carrick, and in the suburbs he steamrolled her by three-to-one.

"I'm still parsing the numbers, but it was definitely geography," Merriman-Preston said this morning. "When you lose by 20 points instead of 20 votes, there's more going into it at the beginning."

And while Molchany became a cause célèbre for Peduto and like-minded allies, it's not always clear how much that support helped in the heavily white, working-class district. Take, for example, Peduto's ad endorsing Molchany. While Peduto's backing may have inspired progressives, it also prominently mentions Molchany's work with Planned Parenthood, which took a strong role in her campaign . But among political insiders there is speculation that, in a socially conservative district, name-dropping an abortion-rights group may have been a double-edged sword.

Aleigha Cavalier, the spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood's political arm, doesn't see it that way. "The more we got involved in this race, the more it became about women's health," she says. "And we saw more people holding [Readshaw] accountable for that. I've never seen a primary campaign in this area address these issues, and we saw Readshaw trying to defend his record on women's health. We're extremely proud of the race [Molchany] ran." In fact, she says, given the geographic challenges Molchany faced, the fact that women's health became a key issue in the race "is one of the reasons it was a race at all."

(Update (May 22): After this post went up, a source in the campaign provided me with what was purported to be an excerpt of Molchany's internal polls. Those findings suggest I may have been a bit too ready to buy into a narrative describing the good people of Carrick and Environs as social conservatives. According to the poll, which canvassed likely voters in the district, more than two-thirds of voters said they had a favorable impression of Planned Parenthood, with only 15 percent saying they had an unfavorable one. By comparison, the National Rifle Association drew only a 41 percent favorable rating. Voters were also asked which kind of candidate they'd be more likely to support: one "who is for traditional marriage, 2nd amendment rights, and is pro-life, [or a candidate who] is for marriage equality, common-sense gun control laws, and a woman's right to choose?" According to the poll, 56 percent of voters said they'd be more likely to support the candidate with socially liberal views; only 31 percent said they'd be more likely to support the conservative.)

In any case, the city/suburban split cut the other way in House District 20, which lies along the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers while joining Lawrenceville and the North Side to the northern suburbs. Tom Michalow won handily in his hometown of Avalon and adjoining Bellevue, topping Ravenstahl by margins of 4-to-1 there. Ravenstahl carried his base – the city's North Side neighborhoods – by a two-to-one margin, while just edging Michalow out in Lawrenceville and Polish Hill.

The difference-maker, says Merriman-Preston, lay out in West View and Ross Township, portions of which also lie in the district. Michalow eked out those areas by just a couple percentage points, but Merriman-Preston contends, "Any bigger margin there could have made the difference in the race."

But Michalow's tight margin, Merriman-Preston agrees, means the results here can't be dismissed as purely geographical: "There's a lot more room for second-guessing when you have a race this tight."

So … would progressives have been better off shifting some of their focus from Molchany to Michalow?

"I think the result speaks for itself," says Merriman-Preston after a slight pause. Even so, "I'm not going to call anybody out and say they should have done something. People support different candidates for different races."

Michalow's campaign manager, Michael Logan, was also forgiving about the lack of support his candidate got.

"Our whole campaign was grassroots, although Tom is really appreciative of the Laborers, who came out with us," Logan said. "No doubt some more establishment support would have helped us out, though I can't blame the race on that. We did get some progressive backing" – he notes support from groups like the Gertrude Stein Political Club and Clean Water Action – "but we were looking for all the help we could get."

But the reality may be that, if Michalow was never the progressive darling that Molchany was … neither was Ravenstahl the bête noir that Readshaw became for them.

Michalow, who teaches high school, took a body blow when the area's leading teachers' unions – the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers or the Pennsylvania State Education Association – both backed Ravenstahl. Even so, Logan says "I understand how that works": Ravenstahl, he acknowledged, "has a good voting record on their issues, and I don't think they had any reason to burn a bridge."

In fact, PFT political director Jeremiah Dugan, says Ravenstahl's "votes were right, and of all the candidates we spoke with, he came prepared. He's stood with us. And if we go against that, what will happen to us in Harrisburg? We don't have that many friends."

"Tom was a great candidate," Dugan adds. "But while I didn't want to like Adam Ravenstahl at first, he sold me during his interview. And this isn't easy: You can't jump off the cliff with everybody, and the thing I struggle with in my position is: When do we take the risks?"

The PFT did endorse Molchany, however. And Dugan says that given Readshaw's far more conservative record, backing her was a risk worth taking, despite her lopsided defeat. "Erin was the right candidate for us," he says. "We're disappointed in this race, but I don't think we've seen the last of Erin Molchany."

Nor are unions alone in having to balance principle with pragmatism. Michalow, for example, never high-profile support from Mayor Bill Peduto or County Executive Rich Fitzgerald ... but then, even if Michalow could have won with their backing, Peduto and Fitzgerald might have lost.

Ravenstahl was backed by Democrats in Allegheny County's Harrisburg delegation, who often disapprove of other elected officials trying to unseat fellow incumbents. Even if Peduto and Fitzgerald engineered a Michalow win – and it's not clear they could have, given the Molchany race -- they risked antagonizing other legislators. They could have won a seat, but lost the delegation ... or at least complicated their relationship with members of it.

And while Planned Parenthood did endorse Michalow, Cavalier says the group had to choose where to invest its energies. "We had a priority, and that was helping Molchany." It's not just that Molchany was the last woman representing Allegheny County in Harrisburg, she says, or even that she worked with the group: It's because Molchany "represented everything we stood for -- she's strong, and she spoke about women's health issues very clearly, I believe from the first time she appeared on the House floor." While Planned Parenthood lost this battle, Cavalier says, the fight did advance a broader cause: pressuring elected officials to take women's concerns seriously.

Dugan, for his part, was wary of drawing a broader lesson from yesterday's results: "Those of us that follow politics try to take these grand messages from elections, but I think they are microcosms. People aren't paying so much attention to the big-idea stuff because they have to live their lives." In the end, he suspects, Readshaw's biggest advantage was that he "has had 20 years to build up name recognition and goodwill within the district."

While Logan's roots are in Philadelphia-area politics, meanwhile, he says there may be a bigger picture here: "I keep hearing about the New Pittsburgh versus the Old Pittsburgh, and maybe we're not there yet. But seeing how Pittsburgh has come along in such a short time is really exciting."

Still, Logan says he and Michalow often invoked Star Wars analogies during the campaign. "And I guess our imaginary headline would read 'The Empire Strikes Back.'"

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