Four Democratic hopefuls look to succeed Summer Lee in Pa. House

click to enlarge Four Democratic hopefuls look to succeed Summer Lee in Pa. House
Left to right: NaTisha Washington, Bhavini Patel, Ashley Comans, Abigail Salisbury.

The historic election of Summer Lee to U.S. Congress last month has left a crowded field of candidates vying for her state House seat ahead of a special election.

Four contestants have so far announced bids for the Democratic nomination in the solidly blue district. Lee, whose congressional term will not begin until January, remains seated in the state House until then.

When she does step down, parties will have the chance to nominate a candidate for a special election that will likely take place in the spring. Unlike a regular primary, local party committees will select their nominee through a closed voting system. Once the ballot is populated, a special election will follow, open to every registered voter in the district.

District 34 is one of three races where winning Democrats will not be filling their seats because they have secured a higher office, or in one case, the nominee has died since winning the primary.

Taken together, these seats surpass the party’s single-seat majority, giving Republicans additional influence in the chamber while the seats are being filled.

District 34 encompasses a swathe of Pittsburgh’s eastern neighborhoods in addition to the surrounding communities of Rankin, Swissvale, and Wilkinsburg. Republicans did not nominate a candidate during last year’s primary, and none have emerged since November.

Abigail Salisbury

Abigail Salisbury of Swissvale was Lee’s sole competitor in the May primary, where she won 34% of the vote on a modest campaign budget. Anticipating Lee’s congressional win, Salisbury showed continued interest in the seat after her defeat and formally relaunched her campaign Tuesday.

If elected, Salisbury tells Pittsburgh City Paper that her immediate focus would be on upgrading the region’s aging infrastructure.

“We have to catch up on decades of deferred maintenance,” says Salisbury, referencing pothole-strewn streets and decaying bridges throughout Pittsburgh’s eastern neighborhoods and surrounding suburbs.

She also says she would push for more investment in renewable energy sources.

Salisbury, an attorney, began her career as a specialist in international human rights law, working against human trafficking in Kosovo then teaching at a university in Ethiopia, where an essay she penned in support of free speech angered government officials and forced her out of the country.

Now, she runs a private law practice providing discounted rates to non-profit organizations and small businesses.

Taken as a whole, Salisbury says her legal career reflects a consistent model of advocacy.

“When I was kid, I got bullied a lot,” she says. “I don't like bullies. So I felt like I grew up and became an attorney, and one of the things you can do as an attorney is stand up for people.”

Salisbury first entered politics as a Swissvale council member in 2017 and later served a term as president.

She says she ran her first campaign on a single platform: “I will listen to you.”

Salisbury hopes that strategy will once again bring her victory. “Apparently that resonated because I won.”

NaTisha Washington

Wilkinsburg resident NaTisha Washington also enters the race after falling short in a May primary contest. Although, in her case, she sought to replace Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s vacated District 24 seat.

The latest round of redistricting means the Wilkinsburg resident now lives in District 34. Looking to win there, Washington says she will draw on her years of community advocacy to elevate local concerns.

“I’ve built my life around engaging people to figure out and problem solve how to improve their communities,” she tells City Paper.

Washington, an environmental organizer for 412 Justice who also runs a consulting company, says her district needs someone in Harrisburg championing affordable housing, education, and environmental policies.

Over the years, she’s seen many families pushed out of the community by rising housing costs and would like to see more housing initiatives at the state level like the recently passed Whole Homes Repair Program.

“People want to stay in their communities,” Washington says. But “a lot of times they can't find a home that they can afford in their community.”

Washington says the public schools in the 34th district are plagued by underinvestment, while the surrounding neighborhoods lack public spaces where children can safely socialize and develop.

“Having street lights when it's dark outside and making sure that our kids are safe is a big priority,” she says, adding, “I want to make sure that the future of our youth and their families is better than how ours is.”

Bhavini Patel

Edgewood Councilmember Bhavini Patel says she is running for the state House on the assumption that good leadership stems from first-hand knowledge of ordinary human struggles.

As a woman of color raised in a single-parent home who went on to launch a tech startup, Patel says she can relate to many of the challenges facing District 34 residents.

“I want to be able to bring those life experiences to the districts and lead on policy issues that bring forth a bold vision for change,” Patel tells City Paper.

If elected, Patel says, her legislative priorities would center around issues like small business support, school funding, and workforce development.

As a former entrepreneur, she believes small businesses can offer families and individuals economic independence and flexible work schedules, and she wants to encourage this through policy and legislation.

“The question is, how do we build legislation so it becomes easier for working-class families to seek that upward mobility and to build the lives and futures that they want?”

As a local councilmember, Patel says she’s been engaged in work to improve sewage infrastructure and has facilitated tough conversations about public safety.

By taking this conversation to the state level, she says she wants to encourage “good community policing, but also making sure that we're supporting our police force.”

In terms of education, Patel says public school funding also needs to account for much more than essential classroom needs. To that end, she supports “investing in resources to make sure that children that are dealing with at-home challenges and trauma have the mental health care services that they need in their schools, and that teachers are getting that sort of support that they need to make sure that they're creating lively classrooms where children can thrive.”

Ashley Comans

As a school director and the wife of Wilkinsburg’s mayor, Ashley Comans says she is steeped in the concerns of her community and well-positioned to represent them in Harrisburg.

“I am running for my seat in a community that has literally raised me,” Comans tells City Paper.

Comans said she gave up her corporate career several years ago to get involved in community advocacy because she sensed a changing political climate.

“We knew there was a movement happening in our region,” Comans says, referencing Lee’s 2018 election amid a swathe of progressive gains in Allegheny County.

Comans now works as the government and media relations coordinator for Healthy Start, a local nonprofit advocating for children and families, and also sits on several boards, including the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project and UNITE for PA.

Like Washington, Comans last year ran for Gainey’s vacated House seat, but she withdrew before election day.

She has also worked with the Alliance for Police Accountability and 1Hood Media on law enforcement reform and supports increased social services as part of the solution to community distrust of police.

“We see a lot of things happening in the communities,” Comans says. “And we know there are things that do work and things that don’t work.”

If elected, she says, her top priorities will be improving the state’s public education and care infrastructure — a term for social supports like paid family leave and affordable child care.

“I want to see Pennsylvania do better at taking care of Pennsylvanians,” Comans says.

Since her stint on the Wilkinsburg school board, Comans says she’s seen small improvements to school funding but hopes to see much more now that the state House is on the cusp of Democrat control.

“One of my big focuses is equitable funding for our public schools,” she says. “We have got to do a better job at that.”

Correction: This story was updated at 8.00 p.m. on Dec. 1 to state that Comans is a current school director and to note she withdrew from her previous House race. An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to her as a former school director and stated she lost her election bid.