Vanilla Pastry Studio on Main Street in the West End serves a chocolate-and-peanut-butter cupcake that is moist and divine, studded with jimmies and capped with a peanut-butter cup section. But neighbors better hurry to buy one.
"We're moving to Shadyside," says employee Christen Beddinger. "We anticipate three times the business. People don't just come to the West End to walk around."
That's the story in much of District 27, which encompasses the city's West End and adjoining suburbs to the west and south like Neville Island, Crafton, and Dormont. For-rent and for-sale signs dot McKee's Rocks, for example, though a Rent-A-Center and the state store seem to be doing good business.
Tom Petrone has been the state representative from the area for 28 years. Petrone's office prided itself on constituent services -- helping the district's many senior citizens with taxes, for instance. And some positive developments are taking shape. "This was pretty much a ghost town" five years ago, says James Fredrick, owner of James Gallery in the West End. "There wasn't a car in sight, and now parking is a bit of an issue."
But this year, Petrone finally decided to step down. Three Democratic challengers are seeking to replace him: Dan Deasy, who represents portions of the district on Pittsburgh City Council; Petrone's own chief of staff, Ryan Douglass; and John Paul Jones, a former employee of the state's Department of General Services. All three say they'd like to maintain Petrone's constituent services, and all three point to blight and abandoned cars and buildings as crime magnets.
The county Democratic Party made clear its choice for the seat: Deasy garnered 74 votes, far outstripping Douglass' 22 votes, and the 8 ballots cast for Jones.
"I had a feeling it might go that way," says Douglass, 29. But, he says, "It's the people that vote." Douglass, who grew up in Elliot, played baseball for the Kansas City Royals. After he retired in 2005, he says Petrone, who'd followed his athletic career since grade school, offered him a job. Douglass is pursuing a degree in public service at the University of Pittsburgh.
Douglass has the endorsements of Realtors and LifePAC, a pro-life group. Working with Petrone on legislation to clean up abandoned properties has been gratifying, he says, and he'd like to continue battling blight. He also proposes presenting municipalities with a "menu of taxes" so they can adjust the tax base according to their own circumstances. Senior citizens on fixed incomes paying property taxes for schools they don't use is unfair, he says: Their communities would do better with an income tax.
Jones, who calls Douglass Petrone's "handpicked successor," stresses his independence. "I'm offering a break from the past," he says, and he has the backing of numerous progressive groups: Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, Stonewall Democrats, the Gertrude Stein Club and Democracy for Pittsburgh.
He'd like to see the legislature cut down to size and made more transparent. "A lot of the problems are the non-responsiveness, the arrogance of power. 'Throw the bums out,' as they say. ... Overall the issues are property-tax reform, access to affordable health care and community development." And in a district that includes Neville Island -- home to numerous manufacturing plans -- environmentalism is crucial, he adds.
Deasy points to his experience on City Council as his main qualification for the post.
"We recently reopened the police station," he says of the Zone 6 station in the West End, which had been vacant for years do to budget cuts. He also points to a million-dollar Weed and Seed crime-reduction grant recently secured for the West End.
In addition to the party endorsement, Deasy's gotten the nod from the Allegheny County Labor Council and the Fraternal Order of Police.
"People are ready for change," he says of the long Petrone era. Deasy says Petrone's much-vaunted constituent services don't go far enough: The satellite office is only open a few hours a week, for example, and neither office is handicapped-accessible. Senior citizen tax services should be taken to the seniors, he says, not the other way around.
"I'm a lifelong resident, unlike the other two who've grown up and come back," he says. "I've seen the changes, both bad and good."
So far the campaign has been relatively quiet, though Douglass charges, "City officials who have my sign in their yard [have] gotten calls from the city. ... People are feeling threatened with their jobs."
"Nobody's threatened anybody," Deasy says. "I don't know what that's about."
And despite the crumbling sidewalks and vacant storefronts, constituents are hoping for the best.
"With Petrone, we had great support," says Doug Sample of the Crafton Planning Commission. "We just hope that support continues."