Candidates for 35th House seat tackle crime, other issues in Homestead debate

January 9, 2018

Two state House candidates campaigning for a Jan. 23 special election to represent the Monongahela Valley blurred traditional party boundaries on several issues during a Monday night debate in Homestead.

Republican Fawn Walker-Montgomery, 37, of McKeesport bucked party trends by supporting sanctuary city protections for undocumented immigrants and a severance tax for natural gas development, while saying she opposes right-to-work legislation.

Democrat Austin Davis, 28, of McKeesport said he would be in favor of reinstating state funding for charter schools.

The candidates stuck more closely to party lines on other issues in the debate, hosted by the League of Women Voters.

Walker-Montgomery said existing state gun laws are sufficient to address the area’s high rate of violent crime, but that mental health should get more attention.

“Any time that you have somebody that would physically take another person’s life, then we’re talking about mental health,” she said.

Davis said he supports new gun laws, such as a requirement to report lost or stolen guns.

“I think gun safety, particularly in the Mon Valley, is something we need to focus on,” he said.

Davis said he supports a personal income tax increase to reduce the state’s budget deficit. Walker-Montgomery called for pension reform.

Davis called for strengthening the state Department of Environmental Protection to address pollution from the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works, while Walker-Montgomery suggested elected officials need to do a better job of holding the department accountable for enforcement.

Voters will pick one of the candidates in the Jan. 23 special election to replace former 35th District state Rep. Marc Gergely, a White Oak Democrat who resigned Nov. 6 after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor charges related to his role in an illegal gambling machine ring. Gergely, 48, was sentenced in December to 18 months of house arrest and three years of probation.

Davis is a vice chairman of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee and assistant to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. He has received endorsements from the Allegheny County Labor Council and Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council.

Walker-Montgomery is a second-term McKeesport councilwoman who founded anti-violence group Take Action Mon Valley.

Walker-Montgomery said her top priority would be decreasing crime, which she said should start with job creation and reducing regulations on small businesses. She said she would try to attract the robotics industry and Google to the valley.

Davis said he would make jobs his top priority, saying that he would be a salesman for the valley and would promote state investments in infrastructure in the region.

“Ultimately, we want to make sure that the kids who grow up here can stay here, raise a family here and live a productive life here,” he said.

The candidates agreed on the importance of fighting the opioid epidemic, improving public transportation between the Mon Valley and Pittsburgh, eliminating gerrymandering, supporting nonprofits and improving senior care.

Amzi Lightner, 65, of Clairton said pollution and jobs are more important issues than crime in the part of the valley where he lives. Lightner, who said he supports Davis, said whoever wins the election needs to focus on the oldest and the youngest in the community.

“Children are the future; the seniors you owe something to,” said Lightner, a retired truck driver.

Jeanetta Chapman, 22, of McKeesport said she is raising boys who are 2 and 3 years old, and she is worried about crime in the area.

“I have to raise boys, and it seems there’s more violent crime with men in McKeesport,” said Chapman, a certified nursing assistant.

She said she was impressed with the experience of both candidates on crime and hadn’t made up her mind which to vote for.

Both candidates said decisions about hydraulic fracturing, a natural gas extraction method that is taking place within McKeesport city limits, should be left to individual communities. Each said that the economic benefits of the industry should be balanced with any health risks.

The 35th Legislative District includes McKeesport, Munhall, White Oak, Clairton, Duquesne, Versailles, Whitaker, Lincoln, South Versailles and part of West Mifflin.

“My election is not about party and is not about race. It is about who is the best candidate, who has the proven track record to make effective changes in our district,” Walker-Montgomery said during closing remarks.

“When I decided to get into this race, I asked myself one question: How can I be effective?” Davis said. “I’m running because I’m trying to put my talent to work for you.”

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, wventeicher@tribweb.com or via Twitter @wesventeicher.