Most primary races in Western Pennsylvania are uncontested
Abandoned houses, overgrown weeds and in-progress plans to rehab her Wilkinsburg street gave Vanessa McCarthy-Johnson a reason to get involved in local politics. This was about a decade ago, after she purchased a home in the borough where she grew up.
“That's why I ran, to save my neighborhood,” she said, “to make sure rehabbing those houses happened.”
McCarthy-Johnson, a Democrat, is president of Wilkinsburg Borough Council and running unopposed for her third term. The choice to get involved, she said, comes down to passion.
“You have to love your community,” she said. “For the people who want to get involved, it takes baby steps. And once you take baby steps, you realize you can do this.”
Pennsylvanians have important decisions to make in the primary election Tuesday. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.
Statewide, an unprecedented three open seats on the Supreme Court drew 12 candidates, six in each major party. Open seats on the Superior and Commonwealth courts each have two Democratic candidates and one Republican on the ballot, and Philadelphia's mayoral race drew six Democratic hopefuls.
Yet interest in local government races tends to languish, for candidate and voters. Out of 493 primary races for magisterial district judges, commissioners, council members, supervisors and school board directors, 67 percent are unopposed, according to ballot information.
Influential government posts such as those held by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. drew no challengers.
Philip Harold, political science professor and an associate dean at Robert Morris University, said competitive races force candidates to practice retail politics — the door-knocking and hand-shaking that connects voters to their elected officials. Unopposed races generate less interest, he said.
“That does make a big difference as far as turnout is concerned,” he said, “and as far as the democratic process of representation, where you really know your constituents.”
Mark Wolosik, manager of the Allegheny County's Division of Elections, estimates 25 percent of the county's 507,000 registered Democrats and 21 percent of the 231,000 registered Republicans will vote. Turnout is typically lower in odd-year elections, he said, though every cycle is different.
In last year's gubernatorial race, about 24 percent of Democrats voted and fewer than 11 percent of Republicans.
“I think it just depends who's on the ballot,” Wolosik said.
With nearly 1,500 candidates competing in Allegheny County, including state races, there are pockets of competition. Fourteen candidates are vying for five spots on the West Mifflin Area School District board. Ten candidates are running for three council seats in Munhall, and eight are seeking the three seats on Common Pleas Court.
On the flip side, the borough of Aspinwall has three empty borough seats and no primary candidates.
“We have 160 municipalities, 45 school districts, approximately, 45 magisterial districts,” Wolosik said. “It's specific, many times, to the community issues.”
An Lewis, executive director of Steel City Council of Governments, said the region's fragmented municipal system is a double-edged sword. Though governments can have close relationships with taxpayers, it can be difficult to fill seats, she said.
“When local government is doing a good job, there's less of an incentive for people to get up and run,” she said. “But when residents feel like they're moving in a way that's contrary to the direction they would like it to move, or there are problems or some sort of controversy, in those cases there are more competition.”
Lewis said some would-be candidates shy away from the time commitment; councils generally meet monthly. But they do have the ability to immediately affect taxpayers, she said, from zoning rules to spending decisions on street sweepers or police officers.
“I think it's the place where individual people have the opportunity to effectuate change in their community and to be engaged and involved,” she said.
Melissa Daniels is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.