Say what you want about state Rep. Joseph Preston, but you can't say he's been able to take his job for granted.
The 24th House District includes Wilkinsburg and some of the poorest neighborhoods in the East End, including Homewood, Lincoln-Larimer, Garfield and East Liberty. Not surprisingly, discontent with civic leadership often runs high, and while Preston has been in office for a quarter-century, he barely won re-election in 2006, edging out challenger Ed Gainey by fewer than 100 votes.
Preston was arguably saved by the presence of a third candidate, William Anderson, who peeled off more than 500 anti-incumbent votes. A similar split-the-opposition dynamic may take place this time around: Anderson is challenging Preston once again, and this time there are three challengers in the race. Preston also has superior financial resources: Even after spending more than $22,000 last year, his campaign still had more than $15,000 left over in the bank. His rivals -- Anderson, Lucille Prater-Holliday and Todd Eliot Koger -- had not reported any contributions as of press time.
To those who criticize the lack of progress in the district, Preston's response is, "These things take time."
While acknowledging struggles in his district, Preston points to the resurgence of development in long-dormant East Liberty as proof that that change is happening, however slowly. "Eight years ago we planted the seeds" for the East Liberty renewal, he told a crowd gathered at the Hill House for a Just Harvest candidate's forum on April 3. And he pledged to extend development into Larimer and Homewood. "It's about effectively doing it and not talking about it," he said, calling himself the "only local official who's never had a press conference."
But if Preston is shy about taking credit, few of his rivals are willing to give him any.
During his own presentation to the Just Harvest crowd, Anderson stressed a need to avoid gentrifying the neighborhood, seeking to preserve and improve the community for those who already live there. "Instead of tearing down our communities," he said, "vacant properties in our community could be job creators," especially for area youth. Anderson, who owns an automobile body shop in Homewood, also said he'd also seek to raise the state's minimum wage, and overhaul the school system.
Prater-Holliday, meanwhile, says she "doesn't intend to sit at a table and wait for a crumb, as our current representative does." She's campaigning on a reform platform to reduce the size of the legislature and prevent further legislative pay hikes.
Both Holliday and Koger have also made a campaign issue of Preston's vote in favor of Act 201 in 2006, a utility-friendly bill that made it easier to cut off customers with delinquent bills -- even in the dead of winter. (Preston has since sought to amend the utility bill and to wrest more heating-assistance money from the federal government to help low-income families pay their bills.) "I think Mr. Preston sold out to utility companies," Koger says, flatly.
Koger adds that voters "have been played by politicians year after year" on issues like property-tax reform and anti-gun measures. "The rate of homicides among black males is alarming," he says, but the legislature has done little to stop the problem. Koger believes some failed gun-control measures were unconstitutional anyway. "The leadership hasn't been there on the gun-violence issue," he says, pledging to change that if elected.
Both Anderson and Koger have delinquent taxes on properties they own, and Anderson has twice been convicted of drug charges. Still, in a race where Prater-Holliday speaks at length about her own financial troubles getting prescription drugs, such issues may not register as much. (Koger, for example, explains his tax debt by saying "I don't make $70,000 a year like Mr. Preston. I'm struggling barely above minimum wage.") Preston himself was charged with harassment by a former staffer last year; his conviction was overturned, but that hasn't stopped Prater-Holliday from listing "lawmakers who commit domestic violence and other crimes" as a public-safety issue on her campaign Web site.
And Preston is fighting fire with fire. During his own Just Harvest appearance, Preston began by asserting "I don't make sly remarks about others" -- and ended by slyly inviting constituents to drop by his house, "where the taxes are paid."