The mayor of a small town introduced his constituents to candidates for state and federal offices while complimentary hot dogs sizzled on a grill and cans of Pepsi sat on ice. The event had a grounded, refreshing feel to it, in an age when so much of politics takes place online and on television.
April 30, a sunny Saturday afternoon, a few dozen Wilkinsburg voters heard from and could actually shake hands with their Democratic primary candidates — Chris Deluzio and Sean Meloy for Congress, and Abigail Salisbury and Summer Lee for state House. Dontae Comans, the mayor, took the stage along with his young daughter (and some of her toys) and said regardless of the political topic of the event, he was glad to bring Wilkinsburgers together.
The names and faces of the candidates, though, may have been a surprise to some in attendance. Less than two months earlier, through the once-a-decade redraw of Pennsylvania’s congressional district map, a process known as redistricting, Wilkinsburg was transferred from Pittsburgh’s mostly urban district to a more suburban and rural one. Now, while the borough contemplates its future as an independent entity, its voters must become acquainted with a new political landscape in which their needs will likely compete with those of suburban and rural areas.
“I feel like we were plucked up like a grape out of a cluster and put in with another bowl of fruit,” said Renee Haynes-Johnson, a Wilkinsburg resident who helped organize the April 30 meet-and-greet. “What exactly do we have in common? How do we relate?”
Wilkinsburg, along with some of Pittsburgh’s other eastern neighbors including Edgewood, Churchill and part of Swissvale, is now part of the 17th congressional district, which is mostly comprised of voters to Pittsburgh’s west, including Beaver County all the way to the Ohio border.
Forest Hills and Braddock Hills also moved from Pittsburgh’s old 18th district to the new 17th, and Trafford moved from the heavily conservative 14th district to the Pittsburgh’s new 12th district.
Both the 12th and 17th districts will have new representatives after this election. In the 12th, longtime Congressman Mike Doyle is retiring. Congressman Conor Lamb is vacating his seat in the 17th so he can run for U.S. Senate.
The map was drawn by a group of Democratic voters and selected by the state Supreme Court in February after elected officials failed to agree on any proposal for redrawing congressional districts. Now, with days to go before parties elect their nominees for key federal and state legislative offices, some voters are left trying to understand new districts and new candidates.
Haynes-Johnson pointed out that the government did not alert voters that their district had changed. That responsibility has fallen on the news media and political actors.
“A lot of people just don’t know, that’s the thing,” said Comans, the emcee at the April 30 event. “So it’s our job as elected officials to get the word out.”
‘I didn’t understand it and I don’t like it.’
When the new map was released Feb. 23, it came as a surprise to most in Wilkinsburg who were paying attention. The borough has a lot in common with its neighbor Pittsburgh. On top of sharing garbage collection, fire departments and some public schooling, the borough and the city have long shared a congressional representative.
To learn that Wilkinsburg would be grouped with Beaver Falls, Aliquippa and Coraopolis and not Pittsburgh was “a shock” to Comans.
“I didn’t understand it and I don’t like it,” said Comans, who took on the part-time role of mayor in January. “It took us away from where we’ve always been. We’re with Beaver and Butler County. Us and Penn Hills are there, but you’ve got Plum [with] the city.”
Marita Garrett, a former mayor of Wilkinsburg who runs the nonprofit Civically in the borough, said she was set on supporting Jerry Dickinson for Congress before the new map came out and she learned she wouldn’t have the chance to vote for him. Dickinson, of nearby Swissvale, is running in the Pittsburgh-centric 12th district.
“I thought I’d be able to support and vote for him, and now he will not appear on my ballot,” Garrett said. “It was a little bit sad to see that.”
Adding to the confusion is the fact that Lee is running for state representative and U.S. representative simultaneously. The new maps mean that her state House district includes Wilkinsburg, but her congressional district does not. So on April 30, she asked Wilkinsburgers for their vote for state House, though she did not hide the fact that she hopes to head to Congress instead.
Some are concerned that Wilkinsburg will be neglected by a representative who has to tend to communities with very different needs. Being grouped with Pittsburgh has meant that most of the district shares Wilkinsburg’s urban characteristics. In the 17th district, though, Wilkinsburg is an outlier.
Haynes-Johnson said while that could be a concern, she is confident that Wilkinsburg can make its voice heard no matter the environment.
“If we did find ourselves being ignored, we’re vocal, we’re active, I don’t think it would go without saying,” she said. “It is our responsibility to make sure that they serve us.”
The candidates, for their part, were quick to point out they had no hand in the redistricting process and are eager to serve everyone in their new territory.
“I didn’t draw the district, I’m just running in the district,” Meloy said. “This district is what it is for this decade, and I’d be honored to represent it.”
Deluzio, the other Democratic candidate for the seat, said paying attention to Wilkinsburg will be crucial in this campaign. “Anyone who’s going to ignore voters and constituents is making a big mistake,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of work to try to meet folks, see their issues, hear what’s important to them.”
Both candidates live in Pittsburgh, which is outside the district they hope to represent, but campaign materials cite their roots in the 17th district. Meloy says he grew up in Hampton, which is about a half-hour’s drive north of the city, and Deluzio talks of his roots in Thornburg to the city’s west. Congressional representatives are not required to live in their district.
The remapping did not only move Wilkinsburg and a handful of other boroughs into a new district. Some are going from a district that was reliably Democratic to one that is a toss-up and will be a battleground in the coming fight between the parties for control of the House of Representatives.
There are three Republicans running for the seat — Jeremy Shaffer, Jason Killmeyer and Kathleen Coder. They were not invited to the April 30 forum in Wilkinsburg, a borough whose party-affiliated voters are more than 90% Democratic.
The redistricting does appear to guarantee that Wilkinsburg, which is a majority Black borough, will not be represented by a Black lawmaker. Both Meloy and Deluzio are white, as are the three Republican candidates. Racial minorities make up only 16% of adults in the new 17th district. In the neighboring 12th district, by comparison, 24% of adults are minorities and two of the three candidates in the Democratic congressional primary are Black.
Garrett said while this is disappointing, it is also the status quo.
“I can’t say it’s worse because we’ve been represented by a non-Black person for so long,” she said. “When this year started I thought we’d have a chance to have a Black congressperson, but now we don’t.”
This story was fact-checked by Punya Bhasin.
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