In a move that could foreshadow a hotly contested legislative race in 2020, Democrat Tay Waltenbaugh — who recently retired after 29 years at the helm of Westmoreland Community Action — on Wednesday plans to formally announce that he is running for election in the state Senate’s 39th District.
The announcement means the well-known outdoorsman who has served on a number of nonprofit boards and taken his advocacy for the disadvantaged to Harrisburg countless times likely will face Republican Kim Ward, a popular three-term incumbent in the district that encompasses most of central Westmoreland County.
Waltenbaugh, 64, of Hempfield, said he decided to announce his candidacy at noon Wednesday in Jeannette in front of a neighborhood of 25 new homes to illustrate what is possible when officials come together for communities in need. His agency spearheaded the construction project and more recently was integral in bringing an amphitheater to the community many had previously written off.
“We built or rehabbed 50 homes in Jeannette. We brought legislators and county commissioners to the table along with foundations. We had 20 different funding sources,” Waltenbaugh said. “People are always looking for someone they can trust, someone who is a team builder and a leader. When I say I will do something, I get it done.”
He said his experience tackling issues including homelessness, behavioral health, economic development, early childhood education and addiction at the community action agency led him to believe he could contribute to the community in the state Senate.
“I think people are looking for something different in Westmoreland County. I don’t want to be a career politician, but I’m not ready to retire,” Waltenbaugh said.
County Democratic Committee Chair Rachel Shaw said she’s excited Waltenbaugh has stepped forward to run.
“I think he’s Westmoreland County through and through. He’s spent his entire career helping our community. I think he will be a great candidate,” Shaw said.
Those who don’t know him through his work with nonprofits and human service agencies may know him as a former assistant basketball coach at the middle school and high school levels in Hempfield Area School District or from “High and Wide Outdoors,” a radio show the avid hunter and fisherman hosts and which airs on CNS every Sunday.
But Waltenbaugh conceded he faces an uphill battle. That’s why he is launching his campaign early.
Republicans hold a 3,000-voter registration edge in the 39th District and have consistently won local elections for the past decade.
Meanwhile, Ward, 62, has built a reputation as a force to be reckoned with as majority chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and a member of the Republican leadership caucus.
After winning her first election in 2008 in a tight race, she went on to win re-election in 2012 with 87% of the vote and faced no opposition in either the primary or the general election in 2016.
She said she has no intention of stepping aside. Her years in office and stature in the party mean she will likely be able to amass a substantial campaign war chest to ward off any serious challenge.
The mother of three adult sons and one grandchild, Ward has been a fixture in local GOP circles for 25 years, beginning in 1994 as county chair of former Sen. Rick Santorum’s 1994 senate campaign.
In the intervening years, she operated a political consulting firm and was elected Hempfield supervisor and Westmoreland County commissioner.
She touts a record of successfully marshaling through bills including changes to child abuse laws, the launch of the Real ID program, a grant program for middle-income college students and a program requiring individuals receiving subsidies for transportation to methadone clinics to use the clinic closest to their homes.
Waltenbaugh, the towering 6-foot-7 father of three adult children and grandfather of two, lives in rural Hempfield with his wife Brenda.
He said he considered making a bid for public office about six years ago. But he knew he had to steer clear of politics while heading the community action agency, which receives federal funds.
He said his retirement opened the door to that possibility.
His experience — personal and professional — helped form his perspectives on service.
The son of a union bricklayer father and a homemaker mother who grew up in Tarentum, Waltenbaugh attended college on a basketball scholarship and graduated with a degree in psychology and sociology. He immediately went to work as a counselor at Adelphoi Village’s first secure group home. Several years later, he jumped to Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Westmoreland County, where the agency expanded matches from 10 to 90 and saw five new staffers added to its roster during his five-year tenure.
Five years later, he took the helm of Westmoreland Community Action, where he steered the agency as its portfolio expanded from five to 26 programs. There, Waltenbaugh laid the groundwork to entice foundations to underwrite about 10% of the agency’s $15 million budget, with a new emphasis on fostering economic development and affordable housing in struggling communities. He launched the operation of a nonprofit that owns commercial real estate that it leases back to other nonprofits at below market rates.
When his son began struggling with substance abuse, Waltenbaugh worked with the team that launched the Westmoreland County Drug Overdose Task Force. Today, he said, his son is in recovery and operates a construction company that employs others who faced similar battles.
“He is proof of what can happen with treatment and support. We still need community-based treatment and support,” Waltenbaugh said.
Other family members, including a daughter who is an assistant principal in a rural school, a daughter-in-law who is a teacher and a son- in-law who is a state trooper, have brought their perspectives to the family dinner table.
“I’m definitely a public school guy. I want to support our public schools,” he said.
For now, though, Waltenbaugh is committed to offering voters a different perspective on public service.