Thanks to a member-v-member redistricting battle, Sen. Jim Ferlo’s progressive resume means he faces a tough path to re-election.
Ferlo, a former Pittsburgh City Councilman, enjoyed strong support in his safe Democratic district. He was elected in 2002 with 65% of the primary vote and re-elected in 2006 with 84%. He was unopposed in 2010.
But the district changes under new lines effective in 2014. Big time. In order to stay in office past next year, Ferlo would have to defeat freshman Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R), the former police officer who won convicted ex-Sen. Jane Orie’s seat in a 2012 special election.
GOP map-drawers added the deep-red North Hills of Allegheny County and removed thousands of Democrats from Pittsburgh. The 38th retains little more than one neighborhood in the city.
Ferlo has not said whether he intends to seek re-election. He declined multiple requests for an interview for this story. Asked by PoliticsPA Tuesday about his plans he said simply, “I don’t want to talk about that.”
The new SD-38 is good for Republicans. Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama there by 6.4% there in 2012 despite losing the state overall by 5.4%. However, it’s not a slam dunk for the GOP. Sen. Bob Casey won the district by 0.6% and Kathleen Kane won by 5.8%. (Figures use a two-person percentages derived by removing third party contenders).
But in a competitive district, the leftist roots that endeared Ferlo to his constituents may be a headache.
Prior to his tenure in the Senate and on Council, Ferlo was as fiery an activist as he is now a legislator. In 1986 he was escorted out of City Council because he would not stop shouting at then Mayor Richard Caliguiri about a subsidy the city was giving to the Pirates.
The Senator’s progressive record is highlighted by an ambitious legislative agenda including a moratorium on shale drilling, the creation of a single payer health care system, and a payroll tax on non-profits.
He’s a vocal supporter of labor unions, most recently as the voice against GOP efforts to privatize the state-owned wine and spirits stores.
And the item that Republican operatives would be most eager to share with voters: Ferlo’s ties to the Communist Party.
During the course of a hearing about Communist activity among youth, testimony to the U.S. Attorney General identified Ferlo as High School Director for the Communist Party.
“Ferlo is a member of the Western Pennsylvania District of the Communist Party who once belonged to the same Party group as the witness Jackson,” said a 1973 report by the Subversive Activities Control Board.
The report details a 1970 rally at the University of Pittsburgh where Ferlo, then 18 years old, helped raised $100 for the Young Workers Liberation League – a party offshoot.
Ray Zaborney is a prominent Republican operative based in Harrisburg. He said Ferlo’s teenage activism would play in a campaign because it matches his left-leaning legislative record.
“Even bigger than the fact that Ferlo did this years ago is that it’s confirmation of his lifetime voting record here in Harrisburg,” Zaborney said.
“It’ll be a huge liability in a center-right district.”
City Council Redux?
Ferlo may have another option. Councilman Patrick Dowd in the city’s fifth district – where Ferlo lives – abruptly announced his plans to resign on Monday morning.
The Senator left the door open in a comment to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
“I have rec’d many supportive comments from community leaders and business folks because of my Senate and URA initiatives, but quite frankly not ready yet to suit up and get on the field,” he wrote in an email.
It wouldn’t be the first time Ferlo pondered a foray back into Pittsburgh politics. In March of this year the Senator filed a petition to enter the city’s Mayoral race, but later withdrew and endorsed Jack Wagner.