Tom Michalow, who's challenging Adam Ravenstahl in the 20th state House District this May, got a tough break this week: He lost the endorsement of two teachers unions — the Pennsylvania State Education Association and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. And just as the unions' endorsement in another race summed up the political dynamics across town, so does their position here.
Michalow is a teacher and PSEA union member himself; in fact, as a former political director, he's participated in endorsement decisions for other elections. He was philosophical about the setback. "There is a litmus test of votes" that the union uses to determine a candidate's support, he says — and assuming an incumbent passes the test, "they don't not endorse an incumbent."
Ravenstahl, Michalow acknowledges, has a voting record consistent with pro-union positions. As he has throughout the campaign, Michalow stresses that he'll bring a higher energy level to the office: Ravesnstahl "may give you a vote. But I give you a vote and a voice." But against that promise, he says, unions weigh the fact that incumbents are very, very likely to be re-elected.
Michalow's take on the endorsement was largely confirmed by Jeremiah Dugan of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Last week, the union split with PSEA by picking Erin Molchany over Harry Readshaw in race to represent House District 36. At the time, Dugan said one difference between the two unions was that the PSEA "aren't big risk-takers."
But in the Michalow/Ravenstahl match-up, Dugan says, "The thinking was a little different."
"Ravenstahl has been real strong with us on every issue," says Dugan. "And when we brought them both in for an interview, Adam really did his homework." (PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis agrees, saying "what most impressed me was that we was very well versed in changes to the law on teacher evaluation" — an obvious top issue for teachers. "Not everyone is conversant with that.)
Dugan stresses that "[Michalow] wasn't bad either, but it was tough: I think he has a real uphill struggle without [Mayor Bill] Peduto coming out for him — which frankly surprised us."
Unfortunately for Michalow, that's been part of the story of these two races, the most hotly contested in Pittsburgh this year other than the gubernatorial primary. As Dugan acknowledged here last week, Molchany is facing a tough battle: The first-term rep was drawn into Readshaw's district as a result of redistricting. Even so, she's an incumbent too. That makes it easier for other elected officials — like Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald — to support her openly. And of course it eases the path for unions and other organizations too.
Michalow isn't running on his own here: Yesterday both he and Molchany earned the backing of Clean Water Action — a progressive-allied environmental group that has had nice things to say about Michalow in the past. He's been backed by other progressive groups too, and perhaps more importantly, he says he's also receiving help from the Laborers union — a deep-pocketed ally of Peduto's campaign.
Still, while Michalow says, "We've put together an amazing campaign" with a huge investment in door-knocking, "I'm the underdog. There's no doubt."
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