With a vote of 74-49, former city Councilwoman Tonya Payne won the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement for state House representative over incumbent Rep. Jake Wheatley.
“Tonya Payne is very popular in the Democratic committee and especially the city committee,” said James Burn, Allegheny Democratic Committee chair. “The committeemen and women are very familiar with her and she worked it very hard.”
This race is only one in a long line of elections between opposing forces battling to represent the Hill District and North Side neighborhoods. Throwing his hat in the ring with Wheatley and Payne for the 19th Legislative District seat will be Pittsburgh Public School Board representative Mark Brentley. Brentley declined to comment on the race.
The rivalry between Payne and Wheatley stretches back to 2005 when Payne beat former city councilman Sala Udin for the District 6 seat. Both Payne and Wheatley were once members of Udin’s staff.
Payne, once a city ward chair of the Allegheny Democratic Committee, said she was thankful for the endorsement. She also noted it would be difficult for an incumbent to overcome not getting the endorsement.
“It was unbelievable how many people were saying ‘we miss you, we support you,’” Payne said. “People showed great courage and belief in me and my record.”
On March 5 Wheatley gained the Allegheny County Labor Council’s endorsement. In light of this he said the weekend ended in a draw.
“I’ve always respected the democratic process; people have the ability to voice their opinions,” Wheatley said. “We went in knowing (Payne) had an advantage in that area. I definitely appreciate the fact of open and fair democratic process.”
Despite the elephant in the room, both Wheatley and Payne have strayed somewhat from attacking their opponents and focusing on past elections. Instead both have illustrated what they see as their major accomplishments in office.
“I’ve had seven years of working on behalf of this district, producing results. I think we’ve developed a relationship,” Wheatley said. “We just had a tour of all of the critical developments we had a role in. (My office) has played a critical part in making those things happen.”
Though Payne was critical of Wheatley, she focused most of her comments on the state as a whole, particularly the state’s approximately five-month delay in passing the budget.
“If you look at the state legislature, it’s too big, far too ineffective and inept,” Payne said. “They can’t get a budget passed on time. The budget is the biggest thing. We lost a lot by that budget being delayed. People don’t realize that; we lost jobs.”
Payne pointed to her efforts in the Hill District’s battle for a community benefits agreements as a measure of what she accomplished during her time in office. She also noted her battle to create the Oak Hill development, now sitting on land once sought by the University of Pittsburgh.
“We were up against people who didn’t want the neighborhood to get anything. There were people who were already in power who I needed to keep dragging to the table,” Payne said. “Is it difficult to fight entities like Pitt, yes, but I’m not going to be bossed. If I’m going to fight for anybody it’s going to be the people.”
As representatives who once served a large portion of the same neighborhoods, Wheatley and Payne have played key roles in the same developments for their constituents. Still Wheatley said his accomplishments outweigh those of his opponent.
“There’s a clear case to be made,” Wheatley said. “There are two individuals in this race who have records, records of accomplishment and not so much records of accomplishment.”
Payne continued her criticism of the state, highlighting government controversies. With specific regard to Wheatley, she said he is too inaccessible.
“I don’t come with dirty hands, I’m not going to do anything that will put a blemish on the people of this district,” Payne said. “We see it all the time, people being indicted every week. I didn’t have that when I was in office. If people know anything about me they know I’m honest.
In last year’s May Democratic primary, Payne was ousted from her city council seat by Daniel Lavelle, a former member of Wheatley’s staff.