Friendships survive political differences in 18th District race, beyond |
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Stephen Huba
Loni Yatsko (left) and Michelle Kozakiewicz show off their creations at Painting with a Twist in 2017. The Greensburg neighbors are best friends despite having strong political differences.

A political season has been prematurely thrust upon the Western Pennsylvania electorate two months before the primary election.

The signs are everywhere.

In neighborhoods across the 18th Congressional District and beyond, the familiar blue and red of political campaign signs has added color to the drab lawns of late winter.

Conor Lamb supporters and Rick Saccone supporters who live next door to each other silently declare their political allegiances while talking about the weather. Sometimes they even talk about politics.

Loni Yatsko and Michelle Kozakiewicz live kitty-corner from each other in a quiet Greensburg neighborhood and have become good friends in the past seven years — despite their political differences.

Yatsko, a registered Democrat, proudly displays her Lamb sign and has volunteered for his campaign. Koza­kiewicz, a longtime Republican, doesn’t normally post political signs but plans to vote for Saccone.

“We have nothing in common politically, but we get along really well. We spend a lot of time together,” said Yatsko, 32.

The two manage their friendship by downplaying politics and focusing on their shared interests — things such as children, crafting and cooking.

“I think we both try to shy away from it,” said Kozakiewicz, 52. “I’ve just learned that if I value a friend, I’m not going to let something like political differences pull us apart.”

The differences exposed by the Lamb-Saccone race were even stronger for them in the 2016 presidential election.

Yatsko, a Hillary Clinton supporter, said she took it personally that Kozakiewicz would vote for Donald Trump, a candidate who she felt was anti-gay rights. Yatsko married her female partner in 2015, four months after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

Her feelings were raw after the election, so the friends kept their distance for a while.

“I’ve had to say to her … ‘I’m feeling really betrayed because you’re one of my best friends, and I know you love me and you love my family. I don’t understand how you can vote for a candidate who would throw us under the bus,’ ” Yatsko said. “But it wasn’t personal (for her) — she just didn’t like the other candidate. It was hard to get past that, but we have.”

The friends have reached a modus vivendi on politics, so much so that Yatsko even offered to get Kozakiewicz an absentee ballot for the March 13 special election.

“She knows that everybody’s voice should be heard. I was pretty impressed by that,” said Kozakiewicz, who travels for work and may not be home on Election Day.

Voice opinions, move on

Paul and Laura Stillitano of Greensburg feel a little outnumbered these days, but that doesn’t bother them.

They have two Saccone signs on their corner lot, but they’re surrounded by Lamb supporters with their own signs.

“We’ve talked about (the race), but we’re still friends with everyone. We just don’t let it come between us,” said Laura, 60. “We just voice our opinion and move on.”

She is a former Democrat who changed parties during the George W. Bush administration, while her husband, Paul, 77, is a Democrat who is voting Republican in the Saccone-Lamb race, she said.

“We used to have the same signs,” said Lamb supporter Rachel Lloyd, who lives next door to the Stillitanos.

Lloyd, 55, agreed that the neighbors all get along despite their differing, and sometimes shifting, political allegiances. She limits her political involvement to voting and posting the occasional sign but doesn’t see the point in getting into “unproductive” conversations.

“Everybody really believes what they believe,” she said, noting that the political climate has felt more uncomfortable since the 2016 election.

‘We’re all Americans’

James Rega, 69, of Mt. Pleasant said he’s voting for Saccone despite being a lifelong Democrat. He voted for Trump in 2016 because of his dislike for Clinton and a belief that the Democratic Party had moved too far to the left.

Rega noticed the Lamb-Saccone sign imbalance in the Stillitanos’ neighborhood while working on their home recently.

“When the neighbors oppose what you might believe, that just gives you a conversation piece,” he said. “I don’t care, because after (March 13) all the signs will come down and the yards will be green again. … We’re all Americans.”

Although she doesn’t live in the 18th District, Allison “Allie” Kowalewski, a Democrat, has noticed at least one Saccone sign in her Lower Burrell neighborhood. The Lamb-Saccone race has reopened political discussions that she had with her Republican friend, Jaclyn “Jackie” Nichols, in 2016.

“We’re not next-door neighbors, but if we did have signs in our front yard, they would be different,” Nichols said.

The two recently came to a meeting of the minds on gun control, agreeing that Lamb’s comments after the Parkland, Fla., shooting were politically astute. Unlike many Democrats, Lamb did not immediately call for new gun restrictions after the Feb. 14 high school shooting in which 17 died.

“I think he’s running a smart race by doing that,” said Kowalewski, 26.

“I think that’s genius because you appeal to the other side and people who are on the fence,” said Nichols, 27, of Natrona Heights.

The women, who met in the Duquesne University paralegal program in 2012, are now lawyers who keep up a friendly, running conversation on the political issues of the day. Nichols describes herself as moderate right, while Kowalewski describes herself as moderate left.

“My parents were a tiny speck of blue in Somerset County while I was growing up,” Kowalewski said.

Her political awareness grew while she attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania and again during the 2016 election. On that night, the “inseparable” friends sat on the same couch and watched the election returns together.

Kowalewski was “devastated,” while Nichols held a silent victory party.

“She’s rooting for Hillary, and I’m rooting for Trump. It was comical. We’d sit there and laugh at each other,” Nichols said.

Since then, they have agreed to disagree and learned to value each other’s opinions — and sometimes find common ground.

“There’s no point in fighting over something that has no resolution,” Kowalewski said. “We don’t have any answers.”

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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