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Entering the Race

Individuals decide to run for public office for different reasons. Usually it’s a personal decision based on the belief that they’ll make a positive contribution to the community or the nation.

In January of 1978,  I knew I could make a positive difference and be a different kind of state legislator – so I resigned my position as a local newspaper reporter and announced my candidacy for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in the upcoming May Democratic primary outside Pittsburgh.

Many of my friends and co-workers thought this was a mistake - that I couldn't win. But I believed differently.

My opponent was an entrenched Democrat incumbent named George Miscevich. In addition to the two of us, there were six other announced candidates – some of them popular local officials. It was my first run for office. I had no name recognition and had lived in the state for only five years. Because there were eight announced candidates, observers believed that the seven challengers would split the vote and the incumbent would win easily, beating us all.

But my theory was that every vote was obtainable – every vote was up for grabs. It didn’t matter how many candidates were in the race – I could penetrate the consciousness of the voter by going after every single vote and thus negate the crowded field of candidates.

The 39th District was located 12 miles southeast of the City of Pittsburgh and included the communities of Clairton, Glassport, Liberty, Lincoln, Elizabeth Township, Elizabeth, West Elizabeth, Forward Township, South Versailles Township in Allegheny County, and Sewickley Township in Westmoreland County.

I lived in the Boston section of Elizabeth Township - a wonderful and friendly town. I announced my candidacy pledging to be a full-time legislator (unheard of for legislators at the time), to open a legislative district office (a first in the 39th District), and fight against legislative pay raises. Up to that time it had been an acceptable practice to maintain a full-time job elsewhere and also collect the $18,720 annual legislative salary.

Because the district was overwhelmingly Democrat winning the primary election was tantamount to winning the election. In fact, when I decided to run a few months earlier I was a registered Republican but research convinced me that I could not win as a Republican in the 39th District - so in January of 1978 I changed my voter registration to Democrat.

My policies and beliefs were principal driven - not party - thus I changed parties but not my positions.

Verlee Prybyloski and Tom Reynolds

Organizing a campaign from scratch is a mammoth undertaking. I worked day and night recruiting volunteers and experienced individuals who would help me implement my campaign ideas. Former Clairton Mayor Lloyd Fuge was one of my first key supporters. We met while I was covering politics in Clairton for the newspaper. Mayor Fuge told me to see a young local professional named Verlee Prybyloski, who had organized the 39th District in the1976 Presidential primary for Jimmy Carter. Verlee was a Duquesne Law School student but had studied art design as an undergraduate. She agreed to help and referred me to a young college student from Glassport, Tom Reynolds, who had also worked for Carter.

Verlee and Tom became my most trusted advisers, providing unfiltered counsel that helped shape the campaign and me as a candidate. Both were in their early 20s, energetic and creative. Verlee created and designed the campaign’s images, logos, billboards, brochures, materials, and paid advertisements. Tom served as campaign manager and was responsible for managing my schedule, the campaign headquarters, direct mail operations, volunteer canvassing, and the sophisticated telephone banks which operated throughout the campaign.

Verlee and Tom were bright, fun, and true believers that we could win. We developed a plan that emphasized direct voter contact through an exhausting door-to-door campaign, accompanied by sophisticated advertising that delivered our messages in a series of creative newspaper advertisements, brochures, billboards, posters, and signs.

From an early age I had quietly studied the mechanics and nuances of modern campaigns and had immersed myself in the details of campaign strategy, image, and organization. I knew that you could feel a winning campaign, and I developed an innate ability to distinguish a good political idea from a bad one. This proved to be invaluable in my collaboration with Verlee and Tom.The early Kennedy campaigns - John and Bobby - were my templates and I read everything I could get my hands on about the 1960 and 1968 campaigns of those brothers.

I also brought another important ingredient to the campaign -- the ability to trust the advice of my advisers and managers, focus on the campaign’s goals, and work day and night to achieve them.

But it was the creative political advertising devised by Verlee that captured the imagination of 39th District voters. In a day before before the media referred to candidates as "rock stars," Verlee's images made me a local celebrity .

Verlee's newspaper ads and the campaign material she created are timeless. They remain great visuals and are well worth looking at (see image gallery) by anyone interested in knowing what an effective political ad campaign should look like. I'm convinced there have never been any better.

Volunteers and Political Professionals

First-time candidates usually draw from family and friends to build a base of support and enlist volunteers. My wife Claudia and her family and their many friends worked very hard and gave of themselves tremendously. The campaign headquarters was small but more importantly visible on the main street in Glassport, 719 Monongahela Avenue - a key voting community in the district. A second campaign office was also opened for the Clairton volunteers.

But it was the Glassport headquarters which bustled with volunteer activity 24/7. It was here that many mailings were organized (every piece of mail was hand addressed); where volunteers met for canvassing instructions; where yard sign teams were assembled; and where Tom Reynolds and I would meet each night to review and discuss the status of the campaign.

Unseating a popular incumbent also requires the support of mainstream political leaders, and I was blessed to win over some of the best. They included Clairton Mayor Rose Busch, former Clairton mayors Fuge and Bob Baird, and Councilman Jacques (pronounced Shack) Moragne, the city’s only black councilman. Legendary political leaders Alfred "Buddy" Pellegrini in Forward Twp., Luke Riley from Liberty Borough, Chuck McDevitt in West Elizabeth Borough, and Rod McNeil in Elizabeth Borough also supported me. These local leaders took a big political risk going against the incumbent and their support gave my campaign early legitimacy which it badly needed.

It's important to note that I spent hours and countless meetings with these individuals convincing them of my viability as a candidate and my dedication toward winning. I made sure they understood I intended to run a first-rate campaign and was not about to lose.

Inside the Campaign

The campaign relied on non-paid volunteers which enabled every available campaign dollar to be spent on direct voter contact through newspaper ads, billboards, events, yard signs, direct mail, brochures, buttons, bumper stickers, and telephone contact.

I also took seriously the issues that were important to my district. I pledged to represent the people full-time. The legislature had raised the gasoline tax with a promise to fix the roads – but the roads didn’t get fixed. I pledged not to vote for any tax increase until the roads in western Pennsylvania were improved. Legislators had put taxpayers through a lengthy and divisive budget impasse which resulted in inadequate funding for the state’s colleges. I pledged to work across party lines and not use schools as a political tool. Legislators had tried to raise their own pay through a back-door pay commission. I wanted the pay commission abolished and my position was that public service was a sacrifice, and if legislators wanted to get rich they should have stayed in private business.

Issues, however, must be accompanied by truthful images of the candidate. I was young and energetic and my team excelled in promoting me to the voters. Our official campaign picture was one example. It was unique – an image of a young and charismatic candidate who worked hard. My campaign picture was taken in the month of January along the snow-covered banks of the Monongahela River against the backdrop of the steel girders of the Mansfield Bridge. Verlee wanted voters to know that the candidate was visually "somewhere" – that the photograph had not been taken inside a "studio." The bridge background did the trick.

The particular photo chosen came from over 80 taken that day. It was also Verlee's idea for me to loosen my tie, take off my coat and fold it over my shoulder. By this time I had been working 18 hour days and the morning of the shoot Verlee saw dark shadows under my eyes. She applied makeup to conceal this. This attention to detail paid off – the photograph became a political classic and the brand image that was used on billboards, posters, yard signs, and all other campaign materials. Verlee also had the idea to dot the ‘i’ in Austin with a "star" and chose the campaign’s blue-green colors.

Meanwhile, my volunteers and I worked day and night. I relentlessly went door-to-door in all the district’s neighborhoods to reach voters one-on-one. The streets I canvassed were selected by Tom Reynolds who strategically targeted neighborhoods based on projected turnout and past voting history.

Tom's family was very active in Glassport and jumped into the campaign 100% - stuffing envelopes, making phone calls, and organizing yard sign locations.

I personally visited 60% of the households in the district while volunteers canvassed the remaining neighborhoods. Everyone in the district received either a personal visit from me or from a volunteer along with a follow-up mailing.

The Campaign Ads

It was our newspaper ads that set the campaign apart from all the others. They were creative, clean, and professionally done. The campaign ran an ad each week focusing on a different message. The ad campaign started with a full page with our official campaign photo with the heading, "Robb Austin. One Good Reason to vote on May 16th" on the day I announced my candidacy. Our highway billboards were unveiled on the same day.

Another ad coincided with the launch of my door-to-door campaign. The ad was a photo of me at the door of a voter with a headline, "Robb Austin wants to talk to you about Harrisburg."

Other full-page ads followed. They focused on roads and bridges, state school funding, and campaign promises not kept. The ads never mentioned our opponents. The final ad was a simple statement creatively wrapped around a small visual of the campaign picture – with the only mention of my name being the last sentence which said, "By the way, my name is Robb Austin. I’d appreciate your vote tomorrow, Thanks."

By the end of the campaign voters thought they had seen me on television when in reality it was the combination of the newspaper ads, billboards, and visual campaign material that left this impression in voters’ minds. I had become a local celebrity.

Jacques Moragne and Joe Solsky

The city of Clairton was the district’s largest voting community with a large number of African-American voters. Councilman Moragne was a legendary political figure in the black community and had become a mentor to me. We consulted regularly. It was Morgagne who introduced me to the city’s important black leaders and headed up my campaign in the African-American wards.

Moragne made sure I was welcomed into the city’s black churches on the Sunday before election day. I spoke to parishioners from the pulpit while the pastors looked on with approval.

Meanwhile, Mayor Busch was popular with the women voters and organized the women vote in Clairton . She hosted a ladies luncheon for us which attracted over 200 women at a campaign event at Keck’s Restaurant in the Wilson section of the city. We were further aided by the dedicated help of many members of the city’s police, fire, and street departments as well as members of the city’s organized Democratic Committee.

The final vote total in Clairton went overwhelmingly for us. We received 1,695 votes to Miscevich’s 673 – a 2 ½ to 1 margin of victory. In the black wards of Clairton – where Councilman Moragne managed the effort -- we received 809 votes to Miscevich’s 210 – nearly a 4-1 margin. In two predominantly black precincts we out polled Miscevich 187-0.

Our campaign reached into every community including Sewickley, the only part of the 39th District that was located in Westmoreland County. In Sewickley the campaign relied on one man -- Joe Solsky, a former street commissioner who thought his political career was over.

I was given Joe's name and on the day that I met him waited four hours for him to return from running a local erand. We talked another four hours and he agreed to help me in Sewickley Twp. - the largest community being that of Hermine.

No one worked harder than Joe who single-handedly organized the township and walked house-to-house (he didn't own a car) in rural Sewickley, asking farmers and coal miners to vote for me. In the end I received 686 votes to Miscevich’s 504 with very minimum personal effort. Solsky later regained his political power and was elected to the township Board of Supervisors.

Election Day

Tuesday, May 16, 1978, was a typical cold, windy, grey Pittsburgh day. Still, we left nothing to chance. Election Day organization was as sophisticated as the rest of the campaign.

We secured court orders to allow campaign representatives to monitor polling sites from the inside and address any reported irregularities that might occur. Every polling location in the district was staffed with volunteers. We offered rides to the polls for voters and turned out voters pre-identified as pro-Austin through phone banks which volunteers worked all day.

I spent the day of the election visiting polling places and meeting voters. The final results were overwhelmingly in our favor. We had won by over a 2-1 margin - 5,116 votes to 2,428 for Miscevich with the remaining six candidates splitting the rest of the vote.

Epilogue and Sal Sirabella

I went on to win the 1978 November election with 12,055 votes to my Republican opponent’s 3,196 – a near 4-1 margin and one of the largest pluralities in state legislative races that year.

Of the hundreds of congratulatory letters and telegraphs I received after the primary election, one stood out among the others. It was from well-known veteran Pittsburgh political operative Sal Sirabella. Sal later served as Deputy Mayor of Pittsburgh.

In a handwritten letter, Sal Sirabella simply wrote, "Robb, Congratulations on one of the best run local campaigns I have ever seen."

Indeed, the campaign set the standard for all others that followed.