Name Game: Incumbent Adam Ravenstahl faces suburban challenger, brother's past in new 20th District | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Name Game: Incumbent Adam Ravenstahl faces suburban challenger, brother's past in new 20th District

"People are judging Adam as Luke, and that's a mistake."

Adam Ravenstahl and Tom Michalow
Adam Ravenstahl and Tom Michalow

In most years, state Rep. Adam Ravenstahl would figure to have an easy path to re-election: He's the 20th district's two-term incumbent, and he has one of the most notable names in local politics.

On the other hand ... he has one of the most notable names in local politics. And the 20th is no longer the same district.

Ravenstahl's opponent in the May 20 Democratic primary is teacher Tom Michalow. But media coverage has sometimes made it sound like he's running alongside his brother, controversial former Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. When KDKA's Jon Delano reported on Adam Ravenstahl's re-election bid on March 17, for example, he began by saying "Call him the lesser-known brother ..." The story focused heavily on the former mayor's potential impact, even while Ravenstahl and Michalow were both quoted saying Luke wasn't an issue.

The former mayor "is always going to be my brother," says Ravenstahl. "But we are different people." He notes that he's already reached out to Mayor Bill Peduto, his brother's nemesis, on changing state law to help local ride-sharing services — a cause dear to Peduto's heart. (Even so, Matt Merriman-Preston, Peduto's longtime political field general, has been consulting for the Michalow campaign.)

"People are judging Adam as Luke, and that's a mistake," says fellow state Rep. Dom Costa (D-Stanton Heights), who's endorsed Ravenstahl in the District 20 race. "He's a hard worker and a good member of the [county's Democratic] delegation." What's more, Costa adds, "I'd hate to see a city seat lost to the suburbs."

The 20th includes Pittsburgh's northern neighborhoods and extends into Lawrenceville. But after the 2010 Census, it was redrawn to encompass portions of Ross Township and the Ohio River communities of Bellevue and Avalon, where Michalow has served as a borough councilor.

"I don't think [Ravenstahl] knows the community as well as I do," says Michalow.

Michalow, who teaches history and German in the Northgate School District, says "education needs a direct voice" in Harrisburg. While both men decry cuts in education funding during the Corbett Administration, Michalow has a broader critique of education policy. He's sharply critical of schools' increasing reliance on standardized tests, for example, and looks to Germany's strong vocational programs as a model for American schools.

Michalow lost a 2009 Allegheny County Council bid to incumbent Republican Matt Drozd — a defeat Michalow attributes to his previous vote for a tax increase in Avalon: "We had to either lay off police or balance the budget the hard way." But he touts his experience at solving municipal problems, and working with nearby communities on zoning and other issues.

Ravenstahl, meanwhile, notes that Republican control of Harrisburg has made it difficult to pass legislation: "It's very unfortunate, the lack of communication or even respect." More recently, Ravenstahl has been catching up on issues in the newly configured district. Among them: chronic air-pollution concerns at Neville Island's Shenango coke works, whose emissions are often carried into Avalon and other communities.

Tom Hoffman, of environmental group Clean Water Action, says that Michelow "has been an active supporter of our efforts for years." But Hoffman also credits Ravenstahl for recently sending "a very strongly worded letter" urging the county Health Department to police the plant. (Clean Water Action has not yet made an endorsement in the race.)

Ravenstahl has been moving to new ground in other ways as well.

Michalow has long supported abortion rights and same-sex marriage. His 2009 county-council bid was backed by the Gertrude Stein Political Club, a strident advocate of both causes. Ravenstahl is pro-life except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother, and as recently as two years ago, he opposed gay marriage while supporting civil unions for same-sex couples. (Gay marriage, he told the Steel City Stonewall Democrats in 2012, was an issue "I do not believe is winnable in ... a socially conservative state.") Today, however, he says he'd vote for such a law. "You talk to people in this job, and meet new ones, and my mind has changed a little bit."

But perhaps the campaign's highest-octane issue is how visible Ravenstahl has been. Michalow declined to criticize Ravenstahl during a City Paper interview, but Ravenstahl says, "I've already heard [accusations of invisibility] from my opponent." That charge "always comes your way as an incumbent," says Ravenstahl, partly because "We are in Harrisburg quite a bit." But "I try to meet with everybody that I can," and he touts his office's record of constituent service.

Ravenstahl has garnered backing from Costa and six other state representatives, as well as from the Pittsburgh Firefighters and other labor groups. Michalow has not received such support to date — elected officials are often reluctant to back challengers over incumbents — but if the Allegheny County Democratic Committee's endorsement vote is any indication, the vote on Election Day could be tight.

Weeks before party elders met March 9 to pick their favorite, Michalow predicted, "We're going to make it close." And he did: Ravenstahl edged him out with 76 votes to 65. (By contrast, in the area's other high-profile legislative fight — between incumbent state representatives Harry Readshaw and Erin Molchany — Readshaw's margin was 76-24.)

Ravenstahl says he was "excited by the result" of the endorsement, given that Michalow is the head of Avalon's Democratic committee. And political consultant Don Friedman says the numbers should favor Ravenstahl on Election Day: Based on voting trends, Friedman expects roughly 44 percent of the votes to be in the suburbs, where Michalow figures to be strongest. Still, Friedman says, Michalow could break out.

"If I were doing this race," Friedman says, "I'd go into the suburbs and say, ‘Isn't it time we got our own representative?' And I'd go into the city and say, ‘Aren't you tired of the Ravenstahls yet?'"

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