Jewish candidate runs for Summer Lee’s vacant PA House seat
“It’s not your job to fix the whole world, but neither are you free to desist from trying.”
Abigail Salisbury wants to be the first Jewish representative in Pennsylvania’s 34th District.
Salisbury is the Democratic candidate running against Republican Robert Pagane, a retired police officer from Wilkins Township, for the commonwealth’s House of Representatives seat vacated by Summer Lee. Lee was elected on Nov. 8 to represent Pennsylvania newly created 12th Congressional District in Washington, D.C.
The 34th District, which abuts Squirrel Hill, encompasses several eastern suburbs, including Wilkinsburg, Swissvale, Forest Hills, Churchill, Braddock, North Braddock and Wilkins Township.
Salisbury is a Swissvale resident who currently serves on the borough’s council as chair of community initiatives. An attorney, in 2015 she started a reduced-cost law practice catering to nonprofits and small businesses struggling to find affordable legal advice.
“I’m a sole proprietor, so it’s just me, although I’ll be bringing on an associate if I go to the State House,” she said. “The U.S. government thinks a small business is under 200 employees but many of my clients are like me, small businesses with one person, or a couple of people.”
Salisbury started her law office from her second bedroom before paying off her student loans and buying a building in the city.
“I found a niche that I made for myself serving people who might not otherwise have that opportunity,” she said, noting that owning the building fulfilled a campaign promise when she first ran to serve on the Swissvale’s council.
While not a Pennsylvania native — she moved to the state while still in grade school — Salisbury understands the needs of the district she wants to serve.
“Wilkinsburg has its own personality and needs, as Chalfont has its own personality. So does Swissvale,” she said. “They share a lot of commonalities because they have that shared Mon Valley post-industrial history, but they all vary in ways.”
Salisbury has a history of working with various constituents, all with different needs, through her professional work and during her time on Swissvale’s council, she said.
“Swissvale is a very diverse community, not just racially but socioeconomically,” Salisbury said. “In the Regent Square part of Swissvale, you can purchase a million-dollar home but if you go into the heart of Swissvale, near Rankin, you can buy a home for $50,000. A substantial portion of the community is highly educated and high-income earners, but we have a substantial portion living below the poverty line.”
The State House hopeful said that different services are needed throughout the district. It’s a question of equity versus equality, she said.
“It’s like the meme that shows people trying to look over a fence,” she explained. “They’re all different heights, so people need different things to get to the same place.”
Salisbury said her focus will reflect her campaign’s tagline: “Service, safety, success.”’
Infrastructure, she said, will be a big part of that work, adding that it was one of the main reasons she decided to get into politics. There is a bridge in the borough that has a worse rating than the recently reopened Fern Hollow Bridge that collapsed in Squirrel Hill, she said.
The council member has experience dealing with failed infrastructure. In 2020, the back portion of the council chamber building collapsed in Swissvale. Salisbury was the council president at the time. She worked with state Sen. Jay Costa (D-District 43) to secure a $2.5 million grant to help rebuild.
“You have to have a high degree of functionality and drive and knowledge within your borough government to go after grants like that,” she said.
In fact, she said, infrastructure is vital to the success of communities.
Communities will suffer, she said, “if people’s sewer laterals fail and people abandon their homes and commercial district because they can’t afford to spend $50,000 on a $70,000 property. You can’t have successful schools if the roads won’t bear the weight of a school bus. Infrastructure issues maybe aren’t the most exciting — I know that the hearts and minds of Americans don’t light up when you talk about sewers — but these are real issues that absolutely have to get handled.”
Salisbury and her husband have been members of Temple Sinai, and ran the young adult program there for a while. The two also taught Torah classes and previously attended Rodef Shalom Congregation. Pre-pandemic, she said, the couple attended services at Congregation Beth Shalom.
She said the Jewish concept of tikkun olam — each person doing their part to help correct the world — is what motivates her.
“It’s not your job to fix the whole world, but neither are you free to desist from trying,” she said. “I keep that in my mind and keep plugging along, moving forward and doing what I can.”
The special election takes place Feb. 7, 2023. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at [email protected]