Michael Devine’s year changed with just five words.
“I know where you live.”
Devine was, as you can guess, a little weirded out. He was finally feeling good after Donald Trump’s election, which left him unable to sleep. The lack of positivity he felt was replaced with an “explosion” of it at the Resistance Inaugural Ball, an event with progressive activists and Democratic lawmakers that he offered his DJ services to.
But this? “Now I have a stalker?” Devine recalled thinking, with a laugh.
Daniel Moraff did know where Devine lives, down to the street in Lawrenceville. Moraff is a member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and Devine said Moraff asked him to join a committee to find a candidate to challenge state Rep. Adam Ravenstahl.
Devine isn’t a politician. He’s a musician and DJ known as Zombo who you may have heard at Kelly’s, Arsenal Bowling or even a holiday party thrown by Mayor Bill Peduto. Until recently, he hosted a show on WRCT, Zombo in Your Brain, and once owned an art gallery in Lawrenceville, Zombo Gallery. He describes himself as a “political outsider” and a “community insider.”
But after doing a brief search on Ravenstahl’s positions that night at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, Devine said he knew he was the man to oppose Ravenstahl.
Now the fun-loving, Bernie-supporting DJ is officially running for office. Is Pittsburgh ready for Rep. Zombo?
The Trump effect
“I’ve always had my toe in the water politically,” Devine told The Incline by phone.
He’s campaigned for presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders, whom he helped raise $3,000 for through his Pitts-Bern concerts.
But the result of the November election changed something: It urged him to get off the sidelines and to “do something.”
“This last presidential election was a hell of a wakeup call for local politics,” he said. Or, in Pittsburgh-specific terms: “It took political zombies and made fireworks.”
Devine’s taking cues from Sanders, he said, from “a lot of [Sanders’] positions” to the way the Vermont senator’s “able to contact people in a no-nonsense way.” He believes in “all the good stuff that’s democracy supposed to be about.” That includes a woman’s right to choose, single-payer healthcare and a $15 minimum wage.
Devine wasn’t familiar with Ravenstahl’s policies before Moraff approached him. It took him all of three minutes, he said, to figure out “what this guy is all about.”
“I thought I was on Rick Santorum’s page,” he said.
Ravenstahl represents Lawrenceville, Polish Hill, the Strip District, parts of the North Side and neighboring boroughs including Bellevue and West View. He’s a Democrat, but opposes abortion access.
Calling him an “ineffective” lawmaker who wants to “crush women’s reproductive rights,” Devine also pointed to Ravenstahl’s stances on the environment and on an ACLU-opposed mandatory minimums bill. Ravenstahl voted in favor of a 2014 bill that required general assembly approval for a carbon reduction plan, a move decried by local environmental groups. He previously supported reinstating mandatory minimums on drug and violent crimes, but changed his position this session.
“I changed my mind on it, to be completely honest with you,” Ravenstahl told The Incline of that position, adding that he researched the topic more and found mandatory minimums don’t have the desired outcome.
Ravenstahl, the brother of former Pittsburgh Mayor Luke, was first elected in 2010 and won his first full term with 40 percent of the primary vote and more than 58 percent in the general. He’s faced at least one opponent during every cycle since, but the closest race was in spring 2014, when teacher Tom Michalow came within roughly 260 votes of the primary win. Visibility was an issue during the Michalow race, and it appears Devine will raise it again.
“I know people that say Ravenstahl never set foot in Lawrenceville,” Devine said. Ravenstahl previously defended himself against that charge to City Paper, saying it’s territory of being the incumbent.
“It’s a criticism since I started,” Ravenstahl told The Incline, one that he disagrees with “100 percent.”
He also defended his record on the environment. Ravenstahl said he couldn’t remember the specific vote Devine cited, but pointed to his high ratings from environmental groups. Penn Environment, for example, gave him an 82 percent score for the 2015-16 session.
But both men can agree on this: Ravenstahl opposes abortion.
“I am pro-life,” Ravenstahl said, adding that he looks at each piece of legislation regarding reproductive rights individually. He said he hasn’t decided how he would vote on Rep. Kathy Rapp’s bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks if it comes before him during this session. He voted in favor of similar legislation from Rapp in 2016.
“It’s something I can see where there’s a great division” in his district, Ravenstahl said. He added that he’s talked to people both for and against the ban and that he takes pride in his willingness to sit down with people on the other side of an issue.
Ravenstahl’s comfortable with his record, both as a representative and as a politician able to defeat opponents. He said he welcomes the challenge.
“Voters at the end of the day have the ultimate say,” he said. “I’m confident in the job that I’ve done.”
No labels, just fun
The word “fun” came up more than a dozen times during Devine’s conversation with The Incline.
“I consider myself a modern-day Tom Sawyer,” he said. “I think I have a really good knack of making things fun.”
He’s the organizer behind the annual Rock All Night Tour, or RANT, which brings hundreds of bands to dozens of venues in Pittsburgh. Devine also started Steel City PizzaFest, which took place last weekend.
Devine isn’t the only Lawrenceville resident planning to challenge a Pittsburgh Democrat who leans conservative as progressive Pittsburghers organize around local races.
Sara Innamorato, who owns her own marketing company, announced last week she plans to seek Rep. Dom Costa’s seat in the 21st District. She attended, but did not speak at, a recent town hall held with Costa’s constituents (but without the representative).
Both Devine and Innamorato plan to run as Democrats with progressive leanings. Innamorato is a member of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, while Devine said he’s label-adverse when it comes to politics.
“The labels aren’t as important as the policy,” he said.
The Costa event was co-sponsored by the Pittsburgh DSA, which hasn’t made any official endorsements for the 2018 primary yet.
Adam Shuck, who serves as communications chair for the chapter, said members of DSA are independently volunteering for Devine but that endorsements are made by the larger body.
“Getting Democratic Socialists elected to office is important,” Shuck said. “We do intend to continue and grow our electoral efforts.”
Devine does already have a key backing: his wife, Julie.
“I’ve never seen her in cheerleader mode ever,” he said. “She just said, ‘You have to do this.'”
Now, Devine plans on doing just that for the next year. He wants to visit “each and every neighborhood” in District 20 and draw people in with “fun stuff” to get them engaged. He feels he can be part of a wave of progressives “taking the Democratic party to where it’s supposed to go.”
“This isn’t as broken as everyone tells us it is,” he said. “We can really knock this out of the park if we try.”