Aerion Abney, Natisha Washington running for State House

AFRICAN AMERICAN CANDIDATES EMERGING FOR STATE HOUSE SEATS—Aerion Abney, left, is vying for Jake Wheatley’s 19th District seat; NaTisha Washington is vying for Ed Gainey’s 24th District seat.

House Districts 19, 24 soon to be up for grabs

Jake Wheatley and Ed Gainey have been state House mainstays. The two African American men have more than 25 years combined experience representing majority-African American communities in the Pittsburgh area on the state level in Harrisburg.

But as you know, nothing lasts forever.

Gainey made history, and now he’s en route to the City-County Building, Downtown, in January to serve as Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor. And the New Pittsburgh Courier confirmed that Wheatley is going to become Gainey’s deputy mayor.

That leaves two open state House seats—Gainey’s 24th District seat, and Wheatley’s 19th District seat. No special election dates have been finalized, but African American candidates for those seats are beginning to emerge.

Washington vying for the 24th District seat

NATISHA WASHINGTON

Environmental racism is a topic that isn’t brought up at the water cooler every day—Black communities being disproportionately affected by everything from air pollution, flooding, polluted water, and being in proximity to power plants and factories.

Thirty-year-old NaTisha Washington has become quite the expert in environmental issues. The Wilkinsburg native has, for years, sat down with Black families across the region, hearing their concerns such as basement flooding, or even bathing in brown water, and came up with solutions to the issues.

Now, she’s decided to take things one step further—she is running for the soon-to-be vacant state House District 24 seat, the position that Ed Gainey currently holds, but come January, will relinquish to take the seat as mayor of the City of Pittsburgh.

Washington, the 2013 Penn State University graduate who majored in landscape contracting design, said merging her knowledge of environmental issues with being a community advocate is the perfect recipe for her to become a state representative.

“If we’re not speaking up for the issues, other people make plans for us,” Washington told the New Pittsburgh Courier in an exclusive interview, Nov. 15. “The community can advocate for themselves instead of just someone telling them how the problem should be solved.”

Washington said she’s always had the notion to help her community; she worked with Jamil Bey (President/CEO of the UrbanKind Institute) as a farm manager and designer, who also helped with youth education pertaining to horticulture in Beltzhoover and the surrounding areas; was the green initiative coordinator for Operation Better Block in Homewood, meeting with community members about environmental issues and solutions, and helping OBB’s Junior Green Corps high school members better understand the environment; and currently is the environmental justice organizer for One Pa, a civic engagement organization that aims to transform local communities for the better.

Washington told the Courier that watching One Pa work to change policies and programs via voter engagement, political lobbying and a constant informing of residents of underserved communities was the nudge she needed to ultimately get into politics. She said she realized that she can be the person who properly handles complex issues and relay them in a way that lawmakers and residents can clearly understand.

When Homewood residents continuously complained of the basements that flooded in their homes on Finance Street and other areas, Washington helped them with various stormwater projects, which included rain barrels and rain gardens. When it came to residents complaining about the polluted air, Washington helped with obtaining air filters for residents.

She also isn’t afraid to hold various borough council members accountable in the Mon Valley, whom she said aren’t taking many African American residents’ concerns about the quality of the air or water seriously. Washington said that in McKeesport, one family has no choice but to use brownish water for showers, etc. The family purchases bottled water to drink.

“The Mon Valley, some of the most toxic pollution that I’ve seen, and they (council members) are not talking to their residents, they’re not taking their residents’ concerns serious enough,” Washington said.

House District 24 encompasses primarily East Liberty, Highland Park, Lincoln-Lemington, Homewood, Wilkinsburg and East Hills. It’s a district that has been served the past eight years by Mayor-elect Gainey, a person who seemed to always be in the community. Washington isn’t the only person vying for the seat, of which there has not been a date set for its special election. Former Wilkinsburg School Board member Ashley Comans announced prior to the Nov. 2 General Election that she would be running for the seat.

“Natisha has an impressive work ethic,” voiced Gina McMillan, director of operations for Operation Better Block, a former employer of Washington. “She’s a dedicated worker, very passionate about her work. I believe she would be an asset to the political scene.”

“I’ve always had the passion to help my community,” Washington told the Courier. “That’s been my goal since I was young.”

Abney says this time, the 19th is his

AERION ABNEY

For nearly 25 years and for no pay, Kenneth Abney would volunteer his time in Philadelphia as a youth track and field coach, propelling African American prodigies into acquiring full scholarships to college.

Aerion Abney never told Kenneth, his father, that watching his father’s dedication to helping other people truly laid the foundation for Aerion to want to help others.

“My dad is a very hard-working man,” Aerion Abney told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “I saw him sacrifice a lot of his time and energy to help young kids.”

Now 33 years old, Aerion Abney continues to help others in his new hometown, Pittsburgh. But he hopes this time, it comes with an official title of “state representative.”

Abney is running for Rep. Jake Wheatley’s soon-to-be vacant House District 19 seat. But he’s no stranger to politics. Abney ran against Rep. Wheatley in the 2018 primary election, where he came up 367 votes shy of Rep. Wheatley’s 2,790 votes. Thus, Abney already has made a name for himself in this arena.

“They (the residents) are going to have a representative in Harrisburg that is going to fight for the issues they care most about,” Abney told the Courier in an exclusive interview, Nov. 15. “I’ll bring resources back from Harrisburg to impact the quality of life for people that live in the district. I will be an accessible state representative for all neighborhoods in the district, not just one.”

Those neighborhoods include the Hill District, Manchester and other parts of the North Side, Downtown, Beltzhoover and parts of the South Side Hilltop.

Abney attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he earned a bachelor’s in communication in 2010 and a Master of Social Work in 2012. He’s a former program officer at the POISE Foundation and currently serves on the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County’s My Brother’s Keeper task force.

“I’m sure there will be folks that are interested in the position (House District 19 seat), but the difference between me and anybody else is, for me, this is not fly-by-night politics,” Abney told the Courier. “You cannot show up for the first time ever at a community meeting just three months before an election and ask people for their vote. That can be seen as disrespectful…I’ve knocked on doors in every part of this district. I’ve taken the time over the years to put in the work and the community leaders here can attest to my efforts.”

Abney, a Manchester resident who lives with his wife and two sons, said his fellow residents care about access to quality jobs, education, health care, public safety and housing. He sees being a state representative as an opportunity to address those concerns. But people in the Hill, North Side, etc., also have a feeling of being left out of community development plans, Abney said.

“People want to see respectable development in their neighborhoods but they don’t want to be ethnically cleansed from their communities,” Abney remarked. He said that his open-door policy will give people the opportunity to know what type of investments are being made in their neighborhoods before the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted.

Representative Wheatley is expected to resign from the state House and become deputy mayor under Pittsburgh Mayor-elect Ed Gainey in January. That’s when a date for a special election for the House District 19 seat will be determined.

“I’m inspired by the people that I meet and their lived experiences and their stories, and their desire to do certain things in their lives,” Abney told the Courier. “Being able to use the platform as state representative, I see how that can help change the realities of struggle for certain people. Pittsburgh has been really great to me. I came here as a 17-year-old kid not knowing much and I was able to graduate from college, gain employment, get married and have a home and raise a family, and now is my opportunity to give back to a city that’s given so much to me.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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