On the bread-and-butter issues, there doesn't seem to be much argument between the candidates for state House District 21. Everyone is for more affordable health care, for example, and supports examining the state's tax structure.
The real debate in this sprawling district boils down to who has enough experience ... and who has too much.
District 21 includes some eastern city neighborhoods (Bloomfield and Stanton Heights, for example), as well as Sharpsburg, Etna, Millvale and parts of Shaler, Reserve and Ross townships. But all three candidates are city-dwellers.
The odds-on favorite is Len Bodack, a former Pittsburgh city councilor who carries some big sticks into this fight. While he lost a council re-election bid last year, he began 2008 with more than $60,000 in his campaign war chest, and he's added to that sum since -- most publicly at a $100-per-ticket Downtown fundraiser. With a father who was a state senator, he's also got name recognition and a slew of endorsements, starting with the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, and ranging from labor unions to LIFEPAC, a pro-life group.
Former county councilor Brenda Frazier brings some advantages of her own. The lone pro-choice candidate in the race -- and the only candidate who isn't white and male -- she has the backing of Planned Parenthood and Teresa Heinz-Kerry. The ketchup heiress, and wife of former presidential candidate John Kerry, has donated $10,000 to Frazier, more than half of Frazier's fundraising total.
By contrast, Dom Costa is campaigning like he's running for rural sheriff. As of March 3, he'd raised only $3,045.
Boasting no official endorsement -- "I count on good people spreading the word," Costa says -- the former police chief is back to walking a beat. "When I run out of money, if I do, then a little shoe leather, a little gasoline, I'll knock on doors," Costa says. "A politician would look at it and say, 'Are you crazy?' Do I need money? Yes, [but] do more with less."
Costa is trying to turn his lack of connections into an advantage. While acknowledging that "the family name has been good" -- he's cousin to a state senator, a state representative, and the city's public-works chief -- he's positioning himself as the outsider.
Bodack and Frazier "are both good people," Costa says, "but I think people are tired of political people. I think there's a difference between a public servant and a career politician."
"I'm not a career politician," counters Frazier, who's won election to county council three times. "I've had a very full and fulfilling career before running for office." She retired from teaching in 1997.
Pointing out that she hasn't been endorsed by the party in any of those victories, Frazier adds, "[Bodack] has been a part of the Democratic machine; I have not."
For Bodack, his ascension to Grant Street is a badge of honor.
"Sure, I'm a party guy. I've always been a party guy," says Bodack. "But if you're wrong, I'm going to tell you you're wrong."
As is often the case in the city, winning the Democratic endorsement could lock up the general election for the victor -- no Republican filed to be on the primary ballot. But the race is not necessarily over on April 22.
Dan DeMarco, president of Ross Township's board of commissioners, is leaving open the possibility that he will run as an independent. DeMarco originally ran as a Democrat, but dropped out of the race when he lost the party endorsement.
Running as a non-Democrat from the suburbs makes DeMarco a long shot. In order to win, he'd need to unite Republicans, previously uninterested voters, and Democrats unhappy with their party's pick.
But he does have a strong rallying cry, faulting the city's domination of the district and a "lack of concern in Harrisburg for the citizens of the North Hills."
Beyond the common concerns that can be found almost anywhere in Allegheny County (e.g., property taxes), those northern suburbs have problems of their own.
"We're not worried about getting flooded over here," Costa observes while standing in a Morningside deli. "They always are [in Etna, Sharpsburg and Millvale]."
The areas that flood the worst "really haven't gotten fair treatment," Bodack agrees. "I don't want to point my finger at Ross, but something has to be done about the storm water."