A couple of weeks ago, I was on vacation in Michigan, walking down a path to collect my dog, when two old friends said hello from a cottage porch. One, from Cincinnati, gets the magazine and asked what the subject of my next column would be.
I told him I was writing about the November election in Allegheny County and how important it would be. I told them, “In the last five years, the county has lost 50,000 jobs — five times more than any other Pennsylvania county. Our labor force is actually shrinking and we have the highest natural population decline — that’s more deaths than births — of any metro area in the country. Way more than anywhere else.
“We desperately need good leadership, but it’s a one-party town — Democrat — and the whole place is being turned over to Progressives. I think it’s a disaster, and I don’t believe they’re representative of the population. But not only are they way over on one side, they don’t have experience leading anything. No matter, the Democrats vote the party line — like lemmings.”
The guy from Detroit said, “Oh I read about that! Last November, people in Pittsburgh actually elected a dead guy!” I nodded — Democratic State Rep. Tony Deluca from Penn Hills was elected a month after he died.
“And Fetterman!” said the Cincinnatian. “They elected him, even though he had a stroke and couldn’t talk. It’s like Chicago.”
I started to object and say Pittsburgh was nothing like Chicago — nowhere near as bad — but I stopped mid-sentence, as I considered the mounting evidence, and just trailed off, saying, “People in Pittsburgh don’t seem to be able to think independently anymore. Or they don’t care.”
If you take any kind of serious look at Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, you would be hard-pressed to disagree with the observation that we are moving in the wrong direction — quickly — and that we need leadership that understands our problems and how to solve them. Whether we want to face it or not, this region is in a period of crisis, demographically and economically. And yet, we are on the verge of having the weakest and least experienced political leadership — on every level — since I moved here 38 years ago.
Virtually the entire leadership group of Allegheny County is way over on the political left. Our congressional leaders — U.S. Reps Summer Lee and Chris Deluzio and Sen. John Fetterman — are all first-term progressives. So is Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey. The Democrat favorites in the race for Allegheny County District Attorney — Matt Dugan — and Allegheny County Executive — Sara Innamorato — also are way over on the left. There isn’t a moderate among them, and now we are one election away from an ironclad political domination of Allegheny County by far left “Progressives.”
I’ll add here that I’ve always been an independent. I believe it’s my duty as a journalist not to belong to a political party. Had I run for Allegheny County Executive this year (I mentioned in my Spring column that I thoroughly examined that possibility for much of last year), I likely would have run as a Democrat because that party has a 2-1 registration advantage over Republicans. Had I done that, I likely would have further split the vote between the three other experienced, moderate candidates — and lost to Innamorato, the far-left Progressive, just as the others did. She won that race with about 64,000 votes in a county of just under 900,000 voters.
I’ll also add here, that in my view, politics in Allegheny County is broken and on the verge of leading us into a cascading decline.
In my view, being dominated by these Progressives is a big problem for this region’s future for three reasons. First, in a free and pluralistic society, it’s never good to have the leadership be dominated by one side — especially if it’s way over on the right or way over on the left. It’s unhealthy. It’s extreme. And it leads to poor outcomes. I defy anyone to refute that.
Second, whatever their ideology, the politicians listed above generally have little if any experience effectively leading anything. Whether from their lack of actual leadership experience, or from their zeal to correct what they perceive as society’s wrongs, or from their failure to acknowledge and or grasp the fundamental economic issues that endanger this area’s future — population loss and an unfavorable business climate — there is no evidence they’re up to the task of solving this area’s serious economic problems.
The third problem is more complex and more pernicious, in my view. Despite the fact that they were elected, I don’t believe that these politicians and their relatively extreme views actually represent the majority of Allegheny County voters, whom I believe are moderates, whether somewhat right or left of center.
But if they got elected, how could it be that they aren’t really representative of the electorate? I believe there are two reasons.
First, this is a one-party town, and generally, the Democrat primary is all that matters: If you win the Democrat primary, you win the general election. The trouble with that is that primary elections increasingly are won by the most extreme candidate in the party. So the current primary system needs to be changed. By the way, I don’t blame the Democratic Party for wanting to hold and keep power. I blame the Republicans for being no-shows. Except in a few notable municipalities, the Republican Party really doesn’t exist in Allegheny County. It’s a lazy non-entity. Not enough people put in the work to make this a viable, two-party county — and our region suffers because of it. We seldom get viable Republican alternative candidates.
The second reason I don’t believe these Progressives represent the electorate is us, the voters. When we actually get a good viable alternative, We the People are too timid to “step out of line” and publicly support and vote for the best candidate. We’re afraid that our Democratic Party cronies might punish us somehow if we defy the orthodoxy and do what’s best for this region.
The lone example to the contrary was 24 years ago in 1999 when Republican Jim Roddey won the election to become the first Allegheny County Executive. A dynamic and successful businessman whose civic bona fides were unmatched by any candidate since, he barely beat the odds because the stars aligned. Then Democratic County Commissioner Mike Dawida very narrowly lost to the brilliant but polarizing former County Coroner Cyril Wecht. That gave Roddey a chance, which political insiders say grew when the Wecht campaign brought in former O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran to stump for him just before election day. Whether it was Pittsburghers’ aversion to O.J. or to Los Angeles celebrities, it boosted Roddey’s chances.
The other thing that lifted his chances was that prominent Democrats came out in support of him, forming “Democrats for Roddey.” That not only opened the doors for Roddey to raise more campaign money, it also gave political “cover” for other Democrats to cross party lines and vote for whomever they considered the best candidate to be. It was enough for Roddey to win by less than 1.5 percent of the vote.
That election heralded a new kind of county government with a strong central county executive — one of the strongest such positions in the country. The idea was that this region needed a strong leader who would effectively be the chief salesman for this area, which was struggling economically. We need that now more than ever.
As I said earlier, however, I don’t blame the Democratic Party. But I do blame its leaders and the many prominent, wealthy local Democrats for being silent — for not having the guts to disregard political party and stand up and support the candidates they believe will be best for the future of this county. I’m told the governor is telling these Democrats that if they can’t support the local Democrats in the November race, just be silent. That’s what’s happening in this election. It’s just the kind of self-serving, parochial behavior that keeps this region down — that keeps it from mattering again in the life of this nation.
The two key local elections this fall involve the race for District Attorney and Allegheny County Executive. Each race offers a series of contrasts that couldn’t be more stark: Far-left Progressives versus moderates; inexperienced candidates versus experienced leaders; and out-of-town funding versus local funding.
Matt Dugan won the Democratic primary for District Attorney by about 19,000 votes. He received about 93,000 votes, which is about 10 percent of the registered voters in Allegheny County. He was funded almost exclusively by one person — billionaire George Soros who is bent on reshaping the American justice system by lavishing money on candidates who follow the Progressive agenda. Dugan has worked in the Public Defender’s Office for 15 years and has been Chief Public Defender for the past three years.
Longtime Democrat Steve Zappala has been Allegheny County District Attorney since 1998 but lost the Democratic primary to Dugan. Nearly 10,000 Republicans wrote in his name in the Republican primary, so Zappala is squaring off against Dugan again, this time as the Republican candidate. Though Zappala raised $227,000 locally versus the $77,000 raised by Dugan, the $759,000 donated by Soros to Dugan swamped Zappala’s efforts.
By far the most important race in the region is that of Allegheny County Executive, featuring the heavily favored winner of the Democratic primary Sara Innamorato, 37, versus political newcomer Republican Joe Rockey, 58. The County Executive is the third most important political office in Pennsylvania, behind the Governor and the Mayor of Philadelphia. Allegheny County has nearly 7,000 employees and an annual budget of more than $1 billion. It’s a huge job.
Innamorato’s personal story involves her family’s struggle because her father became an opioid addict who never beat it and died suddenly 14 years ago. She grew up in Ross and overcame those difficulties, graduating magna cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh with a business degree. Then, she was an Apple store concierge for two years and an associate in a store leadership program for two more. Then she became a barista, then did marketing for a local tech firm and from 2015-2017, launched a marketing business with the mission of “marketing for social good.” Then, as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, she ran for the state House in 2018 and won. Before resigning from the State House earlier this year, she had a relatively lackluster output, the Post-Gazette reported: “Since taking office in 2019, none of the 25 bills on which she is listed as the prime sponsor even advanced out of committee.” Her campaign mission statement is that she wants to put “people first — over corporate profits and greedy individuals.” For the May primary, her major funding came from two left-wing sources outside of the region — the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which largely financed and is heavily influencing Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s office, and a New York-based entity called the Working Families Party.
Joe Rockey’s personal story is that he grew up on the North Side and when he was five, his Dad, a union man, became disabled. His mother went to work, and the family pulled together and raised six children. The family had no car and clipped coupons, and he worked his way through high school with a variety of jobs, ultimately getting a scholarship to Duquesne. He became a banker, rising to the job of Chief Risk Officer at PNC, one of the key top leadership roles in the country’s sixth-largest bank. His job was to anticipate risks of all kinds and solve problems. He’s a low-key moderate Republican, who rejects the divisive politics of Trump, has worked hard, succeeded at the highest levels of business and wants to try and help his hometown get back on its feet. He’s long been on the boards of St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality and Little Sisters of the Poor among others, was President of Ronald McDonald House of Children’s Hospital, and played a key role in getting the new homeless shelter on Second Avenue Downtown built last year. He and his wife of 36 years, Diana, have three children and five grandchildren, all of whom live in Allegheny County. His campaign motto is: “Extremists and career politicians have failed us. I’m a problem solver, not a politician.”
I’ve known Steve Zappala for a long time. I don’t know him well, but I like him. I believe he’s done a good job and represents a steady hand on the tiller during these volatile times. I don’t know Matt Dugan, but I’ve heard some good things about him. However, I don’t like the idea of Soros controlling our election from New York City and affecting our criminal justice prosecution.
I have never met Sara Innamorato. Clearly, being magna cum laude from Pitt, she’s smart, and I’m sure she believes fervently in the causes she pursues. If she’s elected, perhaps she will become more moderate in her views about business and, despite her relative lack of leadership experience, will grow into this important job. I certainly hope so, but this election is too important to just hope she’ll change. Mayor Gainey certainly hasn’t. I met Joe Rockey earlier this year, have spoken with him several times, and have encouraged others to meet him. To me, there is simply no comparison between the two candidates. Rockey has the kind of seasoned leadership experience, moderate and compassionate views, business background and problem-solving skills that will give us the best chance for stopping this region’s slide and getting us moving forward again.
But those are just my views, which is appropriate, given that this is my column. As I said to my friends who asked me about what I was writing about, “Writing this column will do me no good. Writing about politics in a regional magazine is a loser. But someone has to say these things, and I feel a duty to say them.”
Whoever wins this election, I will work with them to try to turn the economic and demographic situation around, via the Pittsburgh Tomorrow project. But my view isn’t what’s important here. Nor is it why I’m writing this column. I’m not trying to get you to change your vote. I’m trying to get you to think and to get informed on the issues. This is where you live. It’s your home. I’m trying to get you to vote and to vote for the candidate you think will be best for this county and region because in the most critical sense, the future depends on it.
The coming political ads will try to scare citizens by highlighting national issues that have absolutely nothing to do with the governing of Allegheny County — abortion and gun control, and whatever they can think of — the ghost of Donald Trump. Those all will be scare tactics, obfuscatory strategies to try and get you to take your eye off the ball. And the ball is the future of Allegheny County — and therefore the heart of this region. As Allegheny County goes, so goes Western Pennsylvania.
Every time I hear someone say, “He’s the best candidate by far, but he can never win” — even from people whose job it is to lead this region — I shake my head and say, “If you keep believing the best candidate can never win, you should resign your job because you must not believe this place can ever get better.”
I know some prominent Democrats who say they are “sitting out this election,” and will get involved in the next election. There is no next election. This is the election. This is the time when we need to turn the tide and elect people who are capable of leading. We were not even in the ballpark for the recent $20 billion chip-making plant Intel is building outside Columbus. We still have hundreds of millions of federal COVID stimulus money that is just sitting around unspent, with no vision of how to use it.
It is rare that we get good candidates. If we’re not smart enough to elect them, our chances of moving this area ahead will become much slimmer. We need to have at least one public-sector leader in Allegheny County who is capable of moving this area toward a prosperous, sustainable future.
Becoming informed and voting is literally the least you can do as a citizen of this great country.
As the filmmaker Spike Lee once said, “Do the Right Thing.”