In a typical election year, the state House race for the 33rd legislative district would seem like an arm-wrestling match between Goliath and David. Cheswick Republican Eileen Watt, a relative unknown, takes on Frank Dermody, an Oakmont Democrat running for his ninth term.
But thanks to public outrage over the Harrisburg pay-raise fiasco, this year is anything but typical. Nearly a score of incumbent legislators, including some of Dermody's allies, were toppled in the May primary. Dermody, who voted for the legislative pay raise, had a Democratic challenger removed from the ballot in the May primary, but political observers suspect he could be vulnerable on Nov. 7.
Ever since her maiden run for public office, her successful 2003 Allegheny County Council bid, Watt has cast herself as a champion of small business. A carpenter's daughter from Cheswick who struggled to finish college as a mother of two, Watt certainly has the bio to back it up. Dermody, meanwhile, says he's worked to keep and attract retail, manufacturing and technology jobs to his district. He would also work on strengthening transit links between the valley and the city.
Besides Cheswick and Oakmont, the 33rd District includes Brackenridge, East Deer, West Deer, Fawn, Frazer, Harmar, Harrison, Indiana, Springdale, Tarentum and parts of Plum.
Although Watt is supported by Run Baby Run, a grassroots political group that aims to launch more women in politics, Dermody is backed by the Planned Parenthood Western Pennsylvania Action Fund, an abortion-rights group. Dermody says he has represented women's interests well, pointing to his support for more funding for health programs for low-income women.
His opponent, Dermody says, "doesn't have a plan and doesn't have a vision."
Watt, who declined CP's repeated requests for an interview, is running on common Republican refrains: tax cuts, government reform, job growth. But with barely two years on council, Watt has little to show for her stint in politics. Her campaign brochure lists few legislative accomplishments on council.
The Dermody camp has derided Watt as a "one-issue candidate" who harps on his vote for the raise. "All she can talk about is the pay raise," says Dermody, who emphasizes that he also voted to repeal the hike.
"It was a mistake. I paid it back."
Still, even Democrats acknowledge that Dermody faces a serious challenge.
"Watt gives him some serious competition," says Oakmont Mayor Robert Fescemyer, a Democrat.
And Watt has out-fundraised the eight-term state representative. Campaign-finance reports filed in June show that Watt had raised more than $112,000 -- nearly twice as much as Dermody.
Watt's coffers have been bolstered with donations from corporate fat cats. U.S. Steel and Massaro Corporation, a regional construction and real-estate concern, accounted for some of her largest donations, as did the political action committees of Mike Turzai, R-McCandless, and Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods. Though she has said that she was raised in a family of Democrats, Watt got her start in politics as an intern at Hart's Congressional office and was the political director of the county's GOP committee. Dermody's campaign, meanwhile, saw contributions mostly from business executives and labor unions.
It might seem too ambitious for Watt, with barely two years of political experience, to challenge Dermody, but it is not the first time she's taken on a heavyweight. In 2003, Watt pulled off an upset by beating Allegheny County Council President Rick Schwartz. Her platform? Row-office consolidation and government reform.