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Crowded House

Six candidates scrambling to take Lisa Bennington's seat in the state legislature

After defeating a 28-year incumbent to win a seat in the state House of Representatives, Lisa Bennington is hanging it up with only a single term behind her.

The state representative for District 21 announced in January that she is returning to full-time practice as a divorce lawyer, and not seeking re-election.

For Bennington, who ran a reformist's campaign in 2006, it's been two years of frustration and one long, sobering look at Harrisburg.

"I think the legislature as it currently exists ... the wheels have come off," she says. "I don't know that one person individually can make a difference."

Bennington's departure creates two questions in her district, which includes eastern city neighborhoods like Bloomfield, Garfield, Friendship and Stanton Heights, as well as several north-of-the-river suburbs: Sharpsburg, Millvale, Etna and portions of Ross, Reserve and Shaler townships. The first question, of course, is who will replace her? The second question is harder to answer: Can any of the candidates fulfill the promise of change and liberal social policies that sent Bennington to the capital in the first place?

"When the White House is controlled by [Republican presidential candidate Mike] Huckabee, and all hell breaks loose, it's going to come down to the states," Bennington cautions.

Six contenders have filed for the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement. Among them is the man Bennington unseated in 2006, Frank Pistella.

Bennington toppled the entrenched incumbent by focusing on Pistella's vote in favor of the July 2005 late-night legislative pay raise.

"She focused on one issue," Pistella says -- and in doing so left little room for discussion of his record as a social liberal on issues like gay marriage and abortion rights. Pistella, who works as an attorney for low-income clients at the Neighborhood Legal Services Association, also returned a portion of the raise. He brandishes a photocopied check for $4,204.62 -- the amount legislators received in an un-vouchered expense check to get extra money into their hands as quickly as possible.

If he could do it over, Pistella says, "I never would have voted for the pay raise." But he notes that voting against the pay raise would have meant voting against the party leadership, which could have cost him his Aging and Older Adult Services committee chair.

Pistella isn't the only ousted politician back for another run -- and touting his reformist credentials. Former City Councilor Leonard Bodack, whose father spent 24 years in the state Senate, is trying to retool his public persona from Grant Street insider to change agent.

"I don't see myself as part of the old regime," says Bodack, who lost his council seat to Patrick Dowd last year. Bodack says that voters want an end to "midnight deals."

Bodack takes a more limited approach to social issues than Bennington. He says he supports civil union for same-sex couples, but not gay marriage. And while he is pro-life, he says he respects a woman's right to choose.

A more strident voice is that of Paul McKrell, a former Pennsylvania executive director of the Young Democrats of America, who at 32 is easily the youngest face of the batch.

McKrell calls himself a "solid progressive, 100 percent," and cites his experience walking door-to-door for signatures against a proposed statewide gay-marriage ban as evidence of his liberal street cred.

"That's the difference between myself and anyone who would call themselves a progressive," McKrell says. "It's easy to [just] vote on something."

Another well-known candidate is former Pittsburgh Police Chief Dominic Costa, who resigned from that post in September 2006, citing an old bullet wound.

Costa, who could not be reached for comment by City Paper's press time, brings to the race a powerful surname. Among other political heavyweights in his family, his cousin, Jay Costa, is a state senator, and his brother, Guy Costa, is Pittsburgh's director of public works.

The lone candidate from outside city limits is Ross Township Commissioner Dan DeMarco.

The fact that he lacks a base in the city doesn't trouble him, DeMarco says: "People, I think, need to focus on what issues are affecting the entire region," he says, laying out property- and school-tax reform as his priorities. Specifically, DeMarco wants to see Pennsylvania adopt bigger pools for its pension systems, to generate more cash flow and free the state to meet its obligations in terms of funding for education.

As for government reform, DeMarco says voters feel the legislature is "too fat.

"I think it's time for a constitutional convention," he adds.

County Councilor Brenda Frazier is the only woman and the only African American seeking the endorsement, though she says she isn't running for the seat "just to break down barriers." Among the issues on her agenda is finding a "fair way" to get revenue from nonprofits.

Frazier says that after Bennington announced she wouldn't be running again, Frazier's phone "lit up" with calls urging her to be a progressive and female voice in the race.

One of those calls came from Bennington, though she says she isn't endorsing anyone yet.

"I think the last thing we need in Harrisburg is more old, white, conservative men," Bennington says. She lauds Pistella as "a good, progressive candidate." But, she adds, "For God's sake, he's been there for 28 years.

"When people are choosing a candidate," she says, "I think a record of government work your entire life should not be viewed favorably." That criticism applies to any candidate -- including McKrell -- whose resume is long on politics but short on what Bennington calls "real-world work."

On Feb. 6, the candidates will participate in a forum, hosted by the Democratic Committee, at the Millvale Recreation Center on Lincoln Avenue, at 6:30 p.m.

Jim Burn, the chairman of Allegheny County's Democratic committee, says the forum is going to be a "litmus test" for how well the committee is communicating with, and acknowledging, voters. Burn, who will moderate the forum and has already met with all six candidates, is making no predictions about the endorsement.

In a race for a seat that two years ago went to a candidate who didn't even seek the endorsement -- and following a year in which two endorsed city council candidates (Bodack and Jeff Koch) lost to challengers in the primary -- Burn says he is more focused on getting the committee to take and ask questions of the voters.

"This is going to be one of those test runs," he says. "This is part of what I want to do with the committee."

After Sun., Feb. 10, one candidate will have the committee endorsement, and it's unclear how many candidates will still be in the race afterward. Bodack says he isn't considering that possibility yet; Pistella believes there's a "strong possibility" that not getting the endorsement could end his run. McKrell and DeMarco say they are both leaning toward running regardless of the endorsement. As for Frazier, she's already run (and won) against an endorsed candidate for county council three times.

And Bennington says her own short-lived political career proves there's more to a campaign than winning the endorsement.

"Do people vote what's on their slate cards?" she asks. "They didn't in my case."

Joe Mistick, a former staffer to Mayor Sophie Masloff and a Duquesne University law professor who taught Bennington, agrees the race is too crowded to call.

"When it's that kind of free-for-all," he says, "anyone that tells you that they know who has the advantage is lying to you."

click to enlarge Lisa Bennington moving into her district office in January 2007. - CHAD BARTLETT
Lisa Bennington moving into her district office in January 2007.

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