"If he had competition that was worthy, who was a Democrat, I would vote for that," says Herman Jones, when asked about his support for City Council District 6 Republican candidate Alan Perry. "But I'm looking at these other people and I'd rather go with Alan because he has a good heart."
Jones, like Perry, is a black family man living in Manchester and a prominent member of Bidwell Presbyterian Church, one of the oldest and most socially active black churches of that neighborhood, perhaps in the city.
As many in his church and some in his immediate neighborhood will tell you, Perry is a really nice guy -- maybe not the kind that will finish last. Before May, he was the longest shot among four contenders for Udin's City Council seat. In many of the heated tirades between Payne and Udin during debates and forums, Perry was mostly an observer -- because he wasn't invited.
City council hasn't had a Republican member since the 1930s, but neither has District 6 ever been represented by someone from outside the Hill District. Since Payne won the Democratic vote in May's primaries, Perry has gone from long shot to possibility. Payne was outvoted on the North Side two-to-one; Udin lost by less than 250 votes in a race where 5,009 votes were cast.
While millions of dollars were poured into the North Side section of District 6, particularly in Manchester, for housing and commercial development while Udin was in office, it never visibly matched the revitalization in East Liberty. Homes in Manchester have been upgraded to the point where Manchester may soon be the new gentrified neighborhood of note, but it doesn't resemble the line of new homes in the Hill District.
North Side residents have the same concerns as their neighbors in the Hill: the need for a major business district and the presence of drugs and crime. But are blacks in this district, who've historically voted for Democrats, ready to change their tune?
Herman Jones has saved a number of North Side properties through his own efforts and funds; his current house is an extreme makeover in progress, with a long, winding patio and gardens. His family also contributes to a community garden on his block. He works as an associate professor of social work at Slippery Rock University and runs a consulting firm that does market research and educational programming for a number of institutions like the Kingsley Association and Primary Healthcare, which provides healthcare for poor people.
All of which makes Jones a highly desirable voter for any candidate to have on his side -- especially the little-known Perry.
"When it comes down to city council, I would err on the side of someone who is new or may not know politics," says Jones, "but whose character would seem unblemished from not being involved." He is unimpressed with Tonya Payne, who unseated incumbent Sala Udin in the May primary. Part of his dissatisfaction with the Democrats comes from feeling the North Side has been ignored, and would continue to be underserved, by officeholders from the Hill, like Payne and Udin. When Udin began his re-election campaign, he made it a point to keep up with Jones to see how he'd do on the North Side.
"I told him point blank that his stuff was lacking," says Jones. "There were things that happened in this neighborhood that really needed tended to and it just never got tended to."
Nonetheless, Jones supported Udin in the primary because he was smart, knew politics and "knew where the money was," he says. While Jones is afraid Payne doesn't know where the money is, he says Perry "knows something about finance" as owner of Perry Insurance Group. "If he could do anything he can understand the money, so maybe his political naiveté would be helpful, because he can keep city council at least focused on the right direction."
Payne did not return calls seeking comment.
Like Jones, Perry and his family live in the slowly revitalizing Manchester neighborhood. He's also a former elder of Bidwell Presbyterian Church, whose legacy goes hand-in-hand with its former pastor Rev. James "Jimmy Joe" Robinson, a civil-rights luminary who helped steer black Presbyterian churches toward social leadership. Through its associations with such groups as the Pittsburgh Presbytery Social, Racial and Justice Committee and the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, Bidwell remains a powerful political voice, especially in District 6.
The candidate who receives the support of prominent members of these black institutions will have the ear of influential congregations.
Perry's major drawback, says Jones, has been getting the people on the other side of the district aware of his experience, and getting them over the Republican stigma.
"He has the background to do it, he has the community interest to do it," says Robert Lavelle, president of Lavelle Real Estate Inc. and executive vice president of Dwelling House Savings and Loan Association in the Hill District. He is a black Republican and a prominent member of Grace Memorial Presbyterian Church in the Hill District, another influential congregation.
"I don't think that I look at him as a Republican," says Lavelle, so much "as I do just a capable candidate in this race."
"It doesn't matter who won" the primary, "it's a matter of if people want a change," says Alan Perry, reading from his campaign literature. "The city of Pittsburgh is in a crisis. It doesn't mean if you're Democrat or Republican, it means who is best qualified to get you out of this state."
Perry says he is concerned about the decimation of population in the city and in the Hill. He believes the answer is in retaining college students and young professionals through jobs.
"The Pennsylvania state [net income tax rate] is too high -- 9.9 percent," says Perry, sounding very Republican. "If that was cut, more corporations would come to the city." Perry believes that with a Republican on council, a bipartisan team of city council members could successfully lobby the Republican majority state legislature to bring the rate down.
He also believes in "absolute intolerance" of crime, restoring and expanding the police force and reducing city council from nine seats to six, which may reduce black representation on council from two to one.
Whether he has a chance to win or not, Perry is making the most of what he has. He's bankrolling his campaign almost entirely himself, paying for billboards throughout his district and on buses. He doesn't have a Web site, but he says he's knocking on doors. If he can throw the North Side on his back, and some of the Hill, he stands a chance.
As for his opponent, the endorsed Democrat: "She has her agenda and I have mine. It's up to the people to see what mine is ... and one thing I can do that she can't, because I happen to be a Republican, is go together" with a Democrat councilor "to the state and lobby, and lobby!"