Tonya Payne walked into the South Side Market House on April 20 with snacks in hand ... and a stump speech in mind. A year after losing her Pittsburgh City Council seat, she was back on the campaign trail -- serving cookies and fruit punch to a room full of South Side seniors.
"Hi, I'm Tonya Payne," the former city councilor said, as elderly residents shot pool and watched television. "I'm running for state rep."
With the television turned off and the pool cues put down, Payne soon had the floor. Addressing roughly 20 seniors, she discussed the need for jobs, better education and a reformed state legislature.
"I would ask that you support me for state rep for the 19th District," she concluded.
Most of the district lies in the North Side, Downtown and the Hill District. It's a sign of how irrepressible Payne is that she's here at all, pitching to a crowd that included 88-year-old Tony Gigliotti. While parts of the South Side lie within the 19th, Gigliotti lives outside it. Asked what he thought of Payne's pitch, he said, "I don't know what's going on."
But elsewhere, voters know all too well that bad blood stains the ballot.
Payne, of Uptown, is trying to unseat Jake Wheatley, the Hill District resident who has represented the district since 2002. A third challenger, school-board member Mark Brentley Sr., is also contending for the office.
Political pundit Bill Green says that unlike many other legislative contests, "I don't think the Harrisburg issues are going to be a major factor in this race. ... This is all a personal battle between [Payne and Wheatley]."
In 2005, Payne defeated Wheatley ally Sala Udin for his seat on city council. Then, last spring, she lost the seat to Daniel Lavelle, another one-time Udin staffer and Wheatley's former chief of staff. After losing to Lavelle in the primary, Payne was stripped of her post on the Democratic Party committee; she was accused of trying to defeat Lavelle -- the Democrat nominee -- by running her own "write-in" campaign.
But Payne always seems to bounce back. In March, Democratic Committee members gave Payne the party endorsement, by a 74-49 vote. She's also accused Lavelle of forging signatures on election petitions. Allegheny County police say the matter is currently under investigation. (Lavelle declined to comment.)
There are issues other than personality at stake. Chief among them is the ongoing struggle around Community Benefits Agreements (CBA), which are efforts to ensure that local residents reap benefits from big-ticket developments. One such agreement has been attached to the construction of a new arena for the Pittsburgh Penguins. A similar agreement is the subject of an ongoing battle on the North Side.
Payne has generally supported the CBA process. Wheatley has criticized the Hill District deal, which he contends "didn't have enough teeth in it."
"Tonya supported us when we did the CBA for the Hill," says Observatory Hill resident Bob Maddock, who worked with a grassroots coalition to win the historic deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins and government officials. "I appreciated that."
By contrast, Wheatley upset CBA advocates with a vote he made in August 2008 as a member of the city's Stadium Authority. Despite pressure from a group of North Side residents urging him to vote against selling a prime piece of North Shore real estate to developer Continental Real Estate, Wheatley joined a 3-1 vote in favor of the land deal.
Campaign records for Wheatley showed that County Executive Dan Onorato, who backed the Continental deal, contributed $5,000 a few months before that controversial vote. But "There's not enough money in the world to entice me to go against the things I believe in," Wheatley says. Continental's plans to build a hotel on the property would bring much-needed jobs to the neighborhood, he says.
In any case, it's not yet clear that Wheatley was wrong to criticize the Hill District CBA: Community leaders have struggled to keep the Penguins focused on their concerns. And while Maddock says Wheatley's vote "didn't make me feel very good," he adds that "Jake is probably the only one who can make a difference."
"My experience does speak for something," Wheatley agrees. He says his position on state committees, especially the Appropriations Committee, helps bring resources to the district. As an example, Wheatley cites $500,000 to pay for renovations to the Granada Theater, in the Hill.
Payne is campaigning heavily on popular resentment toward Harrisburg, which was stoked when last year's budget was passed months late. "Not passing the state budget was egregious," she says. "How will we let them get away with this?"
But if he wins, Wheatley says, at least there will be a bit of harmony in the district itself -- thanks to his close relationship with Lavelle on city council.
"Instead of arguing about who can be 'King of the Hill,' we're all focusing on representing the Hill and beyond," he says. "We need to be ... a united political force."
The conventional wisdom is that Brentley's presence in the race will make it easier for Wheatley to win, because Brentley will split the anti-incumbent vote. Then again, Brentley ran for city council in 2005 -- and Payne beat Udin anyway.
Brentley, of Perry South, ignores those who see him merely as a spoiler. "If you're looking for leadership," he says, "then I'm the one."
The 12-year school-board veteran has been an outspoken critic of Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt. And he's not shy about criticizing Wheatley, either.
"Most folks are tired of him," Brentley says. And, he adds, they're also tired of the never-ending feud between Wheatley and Payne.
"[The feud] is ongoing," he says. "It will be detrimental to the 19th District if either of them won."