In an election season where the old guard has been challenged as never before, two Young Turks are battling for the chance to represent the South Hills in the state House.
The excitement in this 42nd district began during a three-person race in the Republican primary, when two-term incumbent Tim Stevenson was toppled by Mark Harris, a 21-year-old upstart who was then a few weeks shy of graduating from Georgetown.
Now with his diploma in hand, Harris is facing an even tougher race -- against Democrat Matt Smith, 34, a Downtown attorney.
On the surface, the race seems to be between two reformers. Harris proposes making the state legislator's job a term-limited, part-time position. He also vows not to take many of the perks enjoyed by the legislators, including pension and lifetime health benefits. Similarly, Smith recommends halving the General Assembly and plowing the savings into tax relief.
But there wasn't much to Harris' agenda, at least until two weeks or so ago. The prominent issues on his campaign Web site were the Second Amendment and abortion. Harris vows to fight any law restricting the right to bear arms and any efforts to repeal the state Abortion Control Act, which among other things mandates 24-hour waiting periods for a woman seeking an abortion, and requires a parental consent for abortions on women under age 18. But it seems that Harris, a Web designer by profession, has since revamped his campaign site to play up issues such as government reform, which might better appeal to more moderate voters in the mostly affluent district.
Harris says he tinkered with the site to "better highlight the issues that are important in this election." But if he was trying to soften his image, it might be too late, say some Republicans who have crossed the aisle to support Smith.
"[Harris] is too far right," says Mount Lebanon Republican Dan Hackett, who lost to Harris and Stevenson in the primary but garnered about 1,200 votes. Hackett says he's urging his supporters to get behind Smith. Hackett says that while Harris won on the "I hate Stevenson" votes, he might not be able to muster enough "I like Harris" voters in order to win again. In the primary, Harris won with just under 2,900 votes; Smith, facing no opposition on the Democratic side of the ballot, garnered more than 5,100.
Smith advocates for great transparency in the way the legislature conducts business, business- and property-tax reforms as well as affordable health care.
"Everybody wants to be a reformer," says his campaign manager, Dan Miller. Smith, though, has "put a plan up. It's like a business plan."
Among other things, that plan calls for a strong lobbyist-disclosure law and prompt public access to all bills and amendments introduced by the legislature.
But Harris contends that Smith will kowtow to the state's Democratic machine because his campaign is heavily financed by the party: According to the latest available campaign-finance reports, Smith had $39,000 left in his war chest as of mid-June, some of the largest contributions of which came from unions, other lawyers and political action committees allied with Democrats. Harris, by contrast, had less than $4,000 in cash on hand, and has tapped his college fund for as much as $15,000 to fund his race.
"He's willing to cut the deal," Harris says of Smith. "I stay independent and I'm proud of it."
He says that the state GOP leadership withheld financial support for his campaign because he criticized House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, on the pay-raise issue. The lack of support, Harris says, is the price he has to pay for his "strong stand."
Political observers in Mount Lebanon, the most populous community in the 42nd legislative district, say the borough has a history of voting on the candidates instead of along party lines. (Stevenson's predecessor was Democrat Greg Fajt.) And Mount Lebanon has been trending more Democratic over the past decade; registered voters are evenly split between the two parties.
The district also includes Green Tree, Rosslyn Farms, Thornburg and parts of Scott and Bethel Park.
"[Harris] ran a good race" during the primary, but "he is a very, very conservative Republican," says Greg Daubner, Democratic committee chair of Mount Lebanon's 4th Ward. By contrast, he says, Smith is "not out there with the left wing. The election will be won in the middle."