Can Democrats take back Randy Vulakovich’s 38th Pa. senate district

It’s not the same ‘ol 38th that Democrat Jim Ferlo represented for more than a decade.

Randy Vulakovich, left; from top right: Lindsey Williams, Stephanie Walsh and Michelle Boyle.

Randy Vulakovich, left; from top right: Lindsey Williams, Stephanie Walsh and Michelle Boyle.

Courtesy the campaigns; photo of Lindsey Williams by Ren Rathbone
Sarah Anne Hughes

A handful of Democrats are gearing up for a 2018 primary race in an attempt to take back the Pennsylvania Senate’s 38th district.

District 38 was represented by Jim Ferlo — one of the most progressive Democrats in the Senate — for more than a decade.

But when the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission redrew the boundaries after the 2010 census, the makeup of the district radically changed. Large chunks of Pittsburgh, including the North Side, were out; the North Hills and Wexford were in.

Ferlo decided to retire, in part, because of the new map.

Republican Randy Vulakovich served in the state House for many years before winning a special election in 2012 for the District 40 Senate seat vacated by Republican Jane Orie. At the time, the district included West View, Ross Township and Wexford.

After the map was redrawn, Districts 38 and 40 merged. District 40 moved across the state, to Northeast Pa., and with Ferlo out, Vulakovich went unchallenged in the primary and general election in 2014.

That won’t be the case in 2018.

There are at least three people vying for the Democratic nomination:

  • Michelle Boyle, a nurse from Highland Park;
  • Stephanie Walsh, a public policy consultant from Highland Park;
  • and Lindsey Williams, the West View-based communications director for the ‎Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

Michael Krogmann previously announced his intention to run, but told The Incline he no longer plans to do so because of a career change.

All three candidates are confident they can defeat Vulakovich by focusing on the district’s issues, not their party registration. Still, Democrats have a slight advantage in the district.

According to numbers provided by the Pa. Department of State: As of Oct. 9, 92,830 voters in the district were registered Democrats while 72,782 were Republicans. There are also 27,120 people registered as something else.

Vulakovich won the 2014 general election, unopposed, with 58,599 votes. His campaign did not provide comment for this story.

“It’s a district we could flip,” Williams told The Incline. “Because of gerrymandering, there are few like this.”

“If we don’t start flipping these seats now, we’re not going to make Pennsylvania blue in 2020.”

Meet the candidates

Michelle Boyle

Boyle has been a nurse for more than two decades.

“What I like best about being a nurse is that I’m an advocate for the patients,” she told The Incline.

She has hundreds of stories about the people she’s cared for, but there’s one that really sticks out in her memory.

Boyle was working on a kidney transplant floor, and she recalls coming into the room of a female patient. “No, no, it’s more important that you get this,” the female patient told her spouse. “No,” the patient’s husband replied. “We need you to have this.”

The couple had insurance, Boyle said, but couldn’t afford the medication the female patient needed for her transplant, as well as the chemotherapy the husband needed for stage 4 cancer.

“It’s the worst of what’s happening in America right now,” she said of the decision they were forced to make. “What gives me hope is what they did for one another.”

Boyle said she got to the point where she couldn’t look her patients in the eye and say she was doing everything she could to help them.

“Now that I’m running for office, I can,” she said.

Boyle said she believes in an expanded and improved Medicare for all, but has a realistic view of what can get done. “I haven’t been able to walk on water recently,” she joked.

She has ideas about how to improve health care in Pennsylvania, but she’s also been consulting with experts so she can put forward bipartisan solutions.

“We have experts living next door to us, and we should be listening to them,” she said.

Stephanie Walsh

Walsh, who spoke to The Incline in September for a story on first-time candidates, wants to bring her background in state legislature consulting to Harrisburg.

She worked for the Colorado State Legislature as a budget analyst for seven years and now works for a public policy consulting firm, where she helps “state governments be more effective and efficient.

Like in her work, Walsh said she wants to present a “solutions-oriented” campaign that doesn’t provide answers that are necessarily Democratic or Republican.

Her background is in “nonpartisan policy analysis and effectiveness and government efficiency,” she said, something Pennsylvania needs “a health dose of.”

Walsh said her campaign should appeal to voters who “want to get the job done” and are “tired of the quagmire here in Harrisburg.”

Lindsey Williams

Lindsey Williams

Ren Rathbone

Lindsey Williams

Williams grew up in a union household, went to law school in the city and now works as communications director for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

“I was raised with the understanding that you work together to fight for the things that everybody needs,” she told The Incline. “When workers do better, we all do better.”

Previously, she had a job she loved working as director of advocacy for the National Whistleblowers Center in D.C. In that role, she used the stories of whistleblowers to protect employees and “to advocate for legislation to protect whistleblowers in the future.”

What happened next is basically a sequel to “Norma Rae.” Williams and her co-workers weren’t being paid market-rate wages, she said, and when the law firm that bankrolled her nonprofit got a big settlement, there was an expectation some of that money would raise their wages.

That didn’t happen, so Williams and her co-workers decided to form a union. “They fired all five of us a week later,” she said.

Fast forward and Williams gets a severance agreement from her employer that included a broad non-disclosure agreement. Instead of signing, she filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, told her story to the New York Times and won.

“I saw not only what it took to protect these people,” she said of whistleblowers. “I felt what it was like to be on the receiving end of that.”

Williams said that’s why she’s running: She wants to be the person fighting for working families, supporting small businesses and investing in early childhood education.