"Somebody's running against Jake?"
That was Hill District resident Rick Davis' reaction upon hearing that his Democratic state representative, Jake Wheatley, faced a challenger, Deidra Washington, to represent District 19.
Davis' next thought: "What can she do that he can't do?"
That will be the question for a lot of voters in the district, which stretches from the North Side to Hazelwood, dipping down to include the South Side.
"Most races like this come down to a vote on the incumbent's track record," says Wheatley, who has held the office since 2002. "We're ready to put our record up against any opponent."
That's what Washington is hoping for.
"There is no cohesiveness with the district," says Washington, sitting in a small, makeshift campaign office tucked behind Ryan's Auto Glass in Uptown. "We have no communication." The district is divided by different community groups who often fight over turf and agenda, she says ... and because those factions don't present a united front, they get little help from the state.
There's no question that political relations have been fractious. Within the Hill District itself, Wheatley is allied with former City Councilor Sala Udin, who was defeated by former aide Tonya Payne. Now Payne is backing Washington, who was Wheatley's aide for four months. Both Washington and Wheatley deny that bad blood is a factor in the race; Wheatley wrote a letter of recommendation to get Washington a job at the Housing Authority, where she worked until February.
Even so, Wheatley doubts the political newcomer has the experience the district needs.
"Harrisburg is a seniority-based system," says Wheatley, who serves on a number of state committees, including the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and the Health and Human Services Committee on Health. "When I come to the table, there is a certain level of respect. When you're a freshman, [other legislators] think you need a little more seasoning.
"We are in a critical stage in the 19th District," Wheatley adds. Currently, the spotlight is on the multi-million-dollar arena and casino developments slated for the Hill and the North Side. Dozens of organizations in the district are fighting for community benefits agreements (CBAs) that would guarantee the projects would include living-wage jobs and community-controlled development funds. With so much at stake, Wheatley explains, "You need someone who has the ability to bring state resources down to help those things continue to move on." Wheatley says he's helping to organize the various community groups and guide them in their CBA efforts.
"[Wheatley] understands the dynamic between the community and the leadership that political folks can give," says Barney Oursler, campaign director for Pittsburgh-UNITED, a local community alliance group that has been advocating for CBAs in both the Hill District and North Side. "He's not just talking; he's showing the organizations how to affect the [government and the developers]."
Despite such support, and the advantages of incumbency, Wheatley only narrowly defeated Washington 55-52 for the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement.
Washington says she was surprised that the race for the endorsement was so close. A lifelong Hill District resident, Washington acknowledges that she would spend her first year "learning the ropes" of state government. But she questions the significance of her opponent's six years in office.
"You can be the chair of the appropriations committee, but if the money is not being appropriated to really help the district, then what's the use of it?" she asks. "I'm hearing people very dissatisfied with the service that they're receiving from [Wheatley]. A lot of people I'm speaking to don't feel he has their best interests in mind."
Both candidates' biographies have some rough patches. In 1992, Wheatley pled guilty to felony charges of larceny and assault and battery. He has since dismissed the incident as nothing more than a minor fistfight. Washington, meanwhile, has struggled with mortgage payments in the past, which have resulted in several court filings by her lender.
In any case, Washington will have to work hard to convince residents that she's a better option than her opponent. Even Rick Davis, who bluntly says Wheatley "ain't done nothing," will be casting his vote for the incumbent.
"Why bring in somebody new?" he says. "They're going to have to start from scratch. [Washington] probably doesn't know her ass from a hole in the ground."