Candidates for state legislature debate their merits at Sarah Heinz House


Top from left: Mark Purcell, Tim Tuinstra, Adam Ravenstahl and Dan Keller. Bottom from left: Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-19, and former city councilwoman Tonya Payne.

The primary election races for the State House’s 19th and 20th Districts couldn’t be more different.

With four political lightweights vying for the 20th seat that represents eastern and northern sections of the Northside, candidates’ seeming inability to strongly contrast themselves with competitors at a candidates debate for both races held at the Sarah Heinz House Wednesday night is making for a race without a clear frontrunner.

Only Adam Ravenstahl, due to being the Mayor’s 25-year-old younger brother, has district-wide name recognition and the Democratic Party nomination. Some voters, however, will recognize Mark Purcell, a five-term Ross Township commissioner, for running against the 20th District’s previous incumbent Don Walko in 2006.

Businessman Dan Keller is winning in the endorsements race, with both a nod of approval from Pennsylvania’s branch of the Service Employees International Union, the city’s firefighters union and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Former State auditor Tim Tuinstra fashioned himself as “the only outsider in the race” and, according to his website, is endorsed by former District 13 Rep. Brenda Frazier.

But everyone was familiar with the 19th District’s two central characters, who led the night in verbal fireworks. Incumbent Rep. Jake Wheatley has served four terms in the 19th District, which represents the majority of Northside neighborhoods. His challenger, former city councilwoman Tonya Payne, has been his archrival ever since she beat his mentor, Sala Udin, for council’s District 6 seat. A third candidate in the race, Pittsburgh School Board member Mark Brentley, didn’t show up for the event.

Although Wheatley tried to hold himself above reacting to Payne’s steady barrage of jabs, at one memorable point he fired back.

Moderator John Graf asked candidates what their take was on term limits for State representatives. Payne said she favored term limits, adding, in an obvious reference to Wheatley, that most legislators in Harrisburg lose track of their constituents’ needs.

When it was Wheatley’s turn to speak, he responded, “Personally, I think citizens are smart enough to unelect those who aren’t serving them well. It happened last year in city council District 6.”

During that race Wheatley campaigned for his former staffer Daniel Lavelle, who beat then incumbent Payne in the primary.

Beside the verbal chastising, Wheatley and Payne also disagreed on a slew of other issues.

While Payne said she would oppose new taxes, Wheatley argued that some combination of taxes and spending cuts would have to be part of next year’s budget. When Payne suggested that under her watch the budget would get approved on time, Wheatley said he expected the budget process to overstep the July 1 deadline and deflected criticism of the budget being overdue the prior year.

“I’m just not for cuts to education or the public safety net,” Wheatley said. “Some of us thought people needed a safety net and it took some time.”

Though there were scant jabs between 20th District debaters, Dan Keller remarked, “I believe one should volunteer [for public service] once you’ve accomplished something,” obviously intended against Ravenstahl; and Mark Purcell said, “You can’t run Harrisburg like a business,” a sleight toward Keller, who brought up his 29 years of business experience many times.

Tim Tuinstra was the most aggressive about reigning in the lavish lifestyles of State representatives. “If I’m elected, I will not take the per diem for food and lodging expenses … I will not take a state car … and I will not take lifetime health benefits,” Tuinstra said.

Ravenstahl championed the expected revenue from such vogue policies as taxing oil shale and smokeless tobacco and closing the Delaware loophole. But Purcell pointed to figures that expect those three tax changes to bring in less than $500 million, when the state requires $3 billion in new revenues to fix existing infrastructure. Taxing all the federal highways in the Commonwealth is a more realistic approach, he said.

Purcell was also the most outspoken about getting a referendum on the ballot to allow voters to choose whether to hold a constitutional convention. Purcell said this was necessary to add an amendment to turn the legislature into a smaller, part-time body.

Less of a policy expert, Keller said his contribution to the office would be to bring “a sense of urgency and accepting good ideas no matter where they come from.”

“Rep. [Mike] Turzai’s idea to sell the state’s liquor stores is a good idea,” Keller said, “and he’s nothing if not conservative.”

After the debate, attendee William Schultz said he thought Mark Purcell was the victor of the debate among 20th District candidates.

"I liked the way he presents himself," Schultz said.

"The special amendment is a good idea," Schultz’s wife Sue added.

The debate was hosted by the Northside Northshore Chamber of Commerce and the Northside Leadership Conference.

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