"I'm sure you could characterize it as a nasty race," says Chelsa Wagner, the Democratic hopeful seeking to represent Pittsburgh's South Hills in the state House. The attorney and first-time political candidate with the well-known Pittsburgh name is challenging Michael Diven, former city councilor, former write-in candidate and former Democrat.
While her name casts a big shadow -- her father is Democratic ward chair Pete Wagner, her aunt is Register of Wills Eileen Wagner and her uncle is state auditor Jack Wagner -- Diven's political intrigues have proven just as dramatic. In 1997, he was then the youngest person, at 27, to be elected to Pittsburgh City Council. He was elected to the House as a Democrat in 2000, but feuded openly with Democratic leaders. When Diven sought re-election in 2004, he faced an opponent recruited by his own party. He kept his seat, but switched to the Republican Party.
In this year's May primary, his petition to be put on the ballot was thrown out, based on signatures that, in some instances, came from dead people. He got on the November ballot anyway, as the Republican write-in candidate.
"The party issue is more of a red herring," he says, sitting in his Brookline Boulevard office, which features a huge framed photo of him running with the bulls in Spain wearing a Rendell campaign T-shirt. "Thirty years ago, it meant something. I'm not the first one to switch parties. ... I was driven out of the Democratic Party by leadership."
Much of Diven's criticism of Wagner stems from her family ties; Diven has a longstanding feud with the Wagners. Chelsa Wagner, he asserts, is "going to be getting a lot of direction, a lot of input" from her family. "It really flies in the face of what she wants to portray herself as -- an independent."
For instance, Wagner, a proponent of reducing the size of the legislature and cutting back perks like per diems, has said she'd drive her own car for state business. Says Diven: "She didn't have a problem when her uncle Jack drove a state vehicle. I think it's a little hypocritical of her."
But while Wagner acknowledges that her name sometimes makes people prejudge her, she says legislative reform is tops in her list of priorities. She says she'd be happy to legislate herself out of a job, if it came to that. "I'm certainly not running because I'm unhappy with my [current] job."
She says that with the upcoming census, the time is ripe to re-examine where Pennsylvania's population is, and how much representation it really needs. While she favors term limits, she says lengthening the terms themselves might be appropriate -- it would strike the balance between curtailing "career politicians" while still allowing them time to get work done, instead of constantly campaigning for re-election.
She also says property-tax reform is critical and must be fair. "The reform thus far has only targeted seniors," she contends. "If you're only fixing it for seniors, it's a Band-Aid. We need to make sure that relief is across the board." She says she's open to replacing the tax with a combination of hikes in sales and income taxes.
Diven, meanwhile, is largely running on his record. He touts the purchase of the building now occupied by the Brookline branch of the Carnegie Library -- a purchase brought about with state aid. He also trumpets a $9 million improvement project for Brookline Boulevard that's in the final design stages, and a $1 million state grant for a local senior center. He says that increasing the state minimum wage is something to be proud of. He too would pay for a reduction in property tax with a combination of increased income and sales taxes. He also says a dedicated funding stream is needed to save transit.
"On the issues, we're not arguing," he says. "I have a record I'm prepared to defend."