by Chris Potter
OK, now THAT was one weird-ass election. Not that anyone was paying attention: In Allegheny County, turnout was below 20 percent, according to unofficial numbers form the county's elections department.
But here in Pittsburgh, some political pillars were toppled. Raja, a political newcomer who ran a failed bid for Allegheny County Executive last year, beat out an established Republican, Mark Mustio, in a state Senate race. Jason Altmire, forced by redistricting into a battle with fellow Dem Mark Critz, also lost -- despite having been a good football player at one point!
But in Pittsburgh, the most important races were two state rep contests won by a younger generation of political progressives. Challenger Ed Gainey steamrolled Joe Preston, who almost qualified for legislator-for-life status in state House District 24. In House District 22, meanwhile, Erin Molchany trounced Martin Schmotzer, the endorsed Democrat. In doing so, she also bested another political pillar: Pete Wagner, the brother of former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, and the chair of the city's sprawling, vote-rich 19th ward.
And these races weren't squeakers, either. Gainey, who chairs the city Democratic committee, won by a 65-35 margin. Molchany beat Schmotzer 51-38. (A third candidate, Shawn Lunny, was deemed ineligible by the state Supreme Court, but his name remained on the ballot and got most of the other votes.)
Arguably, though, the biggest winners last night were Matt Merriman-Preston -- who managed both the Gainey and Molchany campaigns -- and the politician for whom Merriman-Preston acts as field marshal: city councilor Bill Peduto. Last night's results showed that voters across the city are ready for new faces and a progressive message -- the same message Peduto will no doubt campaign on during his likely run against Mayor Luke Ravenstahl next year. The outcomes also suggested that the old guard's grip on power is increasingly arthritic.
Want proof? Take a closer look at Molchany's win. Not long ago, some no-talent hack contended that Schmotzer had the edge in this race, because he had the Democratic Party endorsement and Wagner's backing. The 19th makes up a large chunk of the district: When combined with Schmotzer's own clout -- he was a longtime school board member in the Baldwin-Whitehall district, which overlaps some of the 22nd -- Schomtzer looked tough to beat.
And yet Wagner couldn't deliver his own backyard. The 19th ward, in fact, is where Molchany had her best numbers.
Molchany won this race with 52 percent of the vote. But the margin would have been higher had it not been for Schmotzer's strength in the suburbs. In city neighborhoods, Molchany drew 58 percent of the vote ... and in Ward 19? She outpolled Schmotzer by a two-to-one margin of 60 to 30 percent.
Having overstated Schmotzer's advantage going into this thing, I don't want to overstate the significance of the outcome. But as I said before, "If Molchany did pull this off, it would be a sign that the political geography is shifting under Wagner's feet."
And this isn't the first sign of that upheaval. City councilor Natalia Rudiak, another young progressive, won her seat representing the South Hills in 2009, thanks in large part to a split between Wagner and a former ally, Tony Coghill. Coghill lost to Rudiak in 2009, but joined with her in supporting Molchany. That's just the kind of soap opera that makes the South Hills so much fun ... but this spring's drama has implications for progressives all around the city.
Conventional wisdom is that to win a citywide race in Pittsburgh, you have to triumph in two of its three regions: north of the rivers, south of the rivers, and between the rivers. The knock on Peduto in particular, and progressives in general, is that they only really appealed to the East End neighborhoods wedged between the Allegheny and the Mon. We've now seen that the progressive message can resonate in the South Hills, and that under Merriman-Preston's generalship, it has a pretty good ground game out there. Last night Rudiak herself wasted little time trumpeting the area as the birthplace of a coming progressive revolution.
Another longstanding concern for progressives has been how well they go over with black voters. But Gainey's success in the majority-black 24th district, with Merriman-Preston at his side, also bodes well.
What's more, City Paper's Chris Young reports that when Peduto showed up at the Gainey victory party, he did so alongside none other than Tonya Payne, a former council colleague. Payne was a frequent ally of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and she and Peduto were often at odds. Peduto, in fact, helped campaign for Daniel Lavelle, who ended up replacing her. And yet there the two of them were last night, joined in a common cause. (At least for now.)
What's it all mean? When you consider that last year's municipal elections were also also very good for progressives, well ... a pattern of increasing progressive strength, over an increasingly wide swath of the city, begins to emerge. The mayor can probably still count on his North Side fiefdom -- his brother, Adam, had a fairly easy victory in his own state Rep race last night -- but beyond that? Much of the city is in play.
And last night's results put Peduto in the best position to make a game of it. He is building a reservoir of goodwill with a growing roster of new leaders, and assembling a coalition forged on the ground. That too could have ramifications for the mayor's race. The 2013 primary is a year away, but last night helped shape the silent primary that leads up to it: the behind-the-scenes process of cobbling together support from campaign contributors, unions, and other groups.
In his bid to be the contender taking on Ravenstahl next year, Peduto has at least two rivals: city controller Michael Lamb, and former state Auditor General Jack Wagner. Both have their roots in the South Hills, and on paper, both look like viable challengers. Wagner has a magic name, statewide cred, and a ward chair brother. Lamb has won a citywide race, can lay claim to reformist credentials, and doesn't have the baggage of an abortive mayoral run, which Peduto still carries from 2007. I've previously suggested that Lamb might actually be more dangerous to Ravenstahl than Peduto is.
But that was a year ago. And while Peduto's presence looms large over last night's results, Lamb played no significant role I'm aware of. As for Wagner, Molchany's win makes his clam on the South Hills looks a little shakier.
I don't want to overstate the implications for Peduto in all this. Gainey and Molchany are strong candidates in their own right, after all. Gainey came within 100 votes of beating Preston in a previous match-up, for one thing, and Molchany ran an aggressive campaign, blasting Schmotzer for an ethical lapse early in hie career. Each race has its own dynamic, and there's no guarantee Peduto could replicate their success.
But it sure won't hurt to have them in his corner.