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GOP picks nominee for special election to replace Innamorato in 21st House District

Local Republicans have selected a nominee to seek the state House seat vacated by Sara Innamorato, entering a race that will determine control of the state House this September.

GOP leaders on Sunday quietly selected Erin Connolly Autenreith to be their champion in the Sept. 19 special election to fill the seat in the 21st House District.

"I think I have a sense of hearing both sides and putting the best solutions together," said Autenreith, a realtor who has lived in Shaler Township for the past 15 years and who chairs the local Republican Party committee there.

"We're very excited to provide the voters of the 21st District a choice and a direction for that district," said Sam DeMarco, who chairs the Republican Committee of Allegheny County.

"Many folks don't feel they've been represented well by the outgoing representative," DeMarco said. "Erin will provide an opportunity for folks looking for someone who will represent the district and its specific needs, as opposed to national ideologies."

Democrats chose their nominee, Lawrenceville nonprofit manager Lindsay Powell, on Saturday.

The district includes portions of Pittsburgh as well as the nearby northern suburbs of Etna, Millvale, Reserve, and Shaler. But the implications of the race extend statewide: The House is divided 101 to 101, so the winning party here will control the General Assembly's lower chamber.

For her own part, Autenreith described herself as being "a very middle-of-the-road, very realistic person." Her parents both held elected office — as Democrats — in McKees Rocks.

"I grew up in a very Democratic world, but I kind of realized that the Republicans were more fiscally responsible," she said. "That's where I was."

A key issue for her, she said, is education. Having worked for German firms and witnessed the role vocational training plays in that country's education system first-hand, she said Pennsylvania should find ways to encourage students to take up trades.

Autenreith bemoaned political polarization on such issues as abortion — a topic on which she said she'd prefer voters to decide policy through a referendum. Politicians, she said, "have made politics so personal, as opposed to how can we make schools better and how can we prevent people from leaving Pittsburgh."

In Harrisburg, she said, "I'm sure there'd be people on both sides who wouldn't like me."

Innamorato is running for Allegheny County Executive, and her decision to resign from her legislator seat cost Democrats a one-seat majority in the House. But while the timing of her decision to step down came as a surprise to many, Democrats in Harrisburg chose the date to maintain their hold on the chamber as best as they could.

By stepping down in mid-July, Innamorato enabled House Speaker Joanna McClinton to set the special election date on Sept. 19 — the earliest date allowed by law, and one that falls a week before the House is set to go back into session. A Democratic win in the 21st District would minimize the disruption to the party's control.

In the 21st itself, Democrats have more than a 20-point voter registration advantage. But this won't be Autenreith's first campaign on difficult ground: In 2000, when she lived on Pittsburgh's South Side, she mounted a quixotic bid to challenge then-state Rep. William Robinson in the 19th House District. Robinson won by an 89-11 margin.

This time around, both parties had to contend with a very short calendar, which required them to submit a nominee by July 31.

Democrats had a more or less public process for choosing their nominee. Though the selection was ultimately made by just over 100 party officials in the Democratic committee, the party held a forum for the candidates and the vote itself was conducted at a gathering for party members.

Meanwhile, Republicans "were in a bind," thanks to a party rule that requires 15 days' notice before conferees can be gathered for a nomination, said DeMarco.

There wasn't time to convene such a meeting, and in such cases "the bylaws allow the leadership to interview nominees and make the decision," he said."That's the process we used."

DeMarco said that while the party did hear from some interested contenders, each of them faced hurdles of one kind or another. Autenreith "is the one who saved the day," he said.

Party leaders decided to put forward Autenreith's name Sunday afternoon.

"I didn't want to leave a blank on the ballot," Autenreith said. And whatever the outcome of the race, she said her campaign offered the heavily Democratic district a chance "to realize that Republicans aren't all bad."

Chris Potter