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Primary race in redrawn 20th state House district appears to be tight

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Tom Michalow, a high school teacher and former Avalon borough councilman, is running in the 20th House district.
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Pennsylvania Rep. Adam Ravenstahl, D-Summer Hill

The Democratic primary race in the redrawn 20th state House district pits a junior lawmaker with a well-known last name and growing political network against a local government alumnus and high school teacher with a history of volunteer work.

Rep. Adam Ravenstahl, D-Summer Hill, who is in his second term, is being challenged by Tom Michalow, a former Avalon councilman who teaches history and German at Northgate High School. Though Ravenstahl has endorsements from labor unions and senior legislators, Michalow has earned favor among local progressive groups such as nonprofit Clean Water Action and Progress Pittsburgh, a political action committee.

Michalow, 43, of Avalon said a desire to change public education policies drives him. He said Ravenstahl has not “embraced” the job.

“I feel the job can be done better, and there needs to be a strong voice for the Pennsylvania 20th in Harrisburg,” Michalow said.

There’s at least one sign the race could be tight. In the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement vote in March, Ravenstahl received 76 votes. Michalow had 65. Two years ago, Ravenstahl fared better among the insider tally with 111 to 21 votes against a primary opponent.

Michalow said he decided to run for the office when his address became part of the 20th in legislative redistricting. The district is centered on the city’s North Side neighborhoods and stretches into Lawrenceville. It includes Avalon and Bellevue, and more of Ross.

Ravenstahl, 29, a member of the Democratic minority caucus, said his role involves being part of unified opposition to Republican policies. Last year, he voted against the approved state budget, citing its deep cuts to education.

“A lot of what I’ve been able to do, along with my colleagues, is really play defense against some of the policies I don’t believe are in the best interests of the commonwealth,” Ravenstahl said.

Seniority matters in Harrisburg, and Ravenstahl has curried favor among leaders. Fellow incumbents, including caucus leader Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, have endorsed his re-election bid. Caucus chairman Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, called him an asset.

“From my observation, which is on a day-to-day basis on the floor and when I’ve seen him out in the community; he is a diligent, hardworking legislator that deserves to be re-elected,” Frankel said.

Past challengers have criticized Ravenstahl for not speaking up on the floor of the House during debate. Ravenstahl said he prefers face-to-face meetings and constituent outreach. In recent months, his inbox has been flooded with worries over the UPMC and Highmark contract dispute. He co-sponsored a bill along with other Allegheny County Democrats to force a discussion between the two parties at the order of the insurance commissioner.

Ravenstahl comes from a family with deep roots in Pittsburgh politics. His grandfather once held the statehouse seat. His brother is former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who stepped aside from a re-election bid last year amid a federal investigation of the city. Rep. Ravenstahl said he has worked to establish his political identity.

Michalow said he has seen firsthand the consequences of cuts to state education funding and required standardized testing. He loses 13 lesson days a year at Northgate because of testing, he said. His children’s class sizes have grown.

Steve Hvozdovich, the Pennsylvania election coordinator for Clean Water Action, said Michalow has partnered with the group on air quality improvement efforts near the Shenango Coke Works.

“Tom’s been involved in our efforts going back several years now,” he said. “Tom is somebody who has a history of making environmental efforts a priority and carrying that history with him should he be elected.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or [email protected].

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