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By Charlie Wolfson, Emma Folts, Eric Jankiewicz and Alexandra Ross
State Rep. Sara Innamorato, a 37-year-old Lawrenceville Democrat who burst onto the political scene in 2018, won a crowded and contentious Democratic primary for Allegheny County executive, signaling a leftward turn for the county government with longtime Executive Rich Fitzgerald exiting in January after the maximum three terms.
Her win is a new high-water mark for the progressive political movement in southwestern Pennsylvania.
By 9 p.m., as in-person votes filtered in, Innamorato pulled ahead of John Weinstein. Her margin only grew as more precincts reported. Her supporters began to declare her the winner shortly before the county showed her handily ahead with more than 90% of precincts counted.
“Tonight I am honored to accept the Democratic nomination for Allegheny County executive,” Innamorato told supporters around 10:30 p.m. “We did this. We did this. This is our seat.”
Innamorato will face Republican Joe Rockey in the General Election. Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 registration advantage in the county.
She was introduced by Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, who endorsed Innamorato.
“Good people of Allegheny County: it’s because of you that we just changed county government for the better,” the mayor said. “It’s because of you that we can create a county for all. … We made history tonight.”
The local progressive movement picked up speed in the 2010s and matured in the 2020s, with the election of Gainey and Congresswoman Summer Lee.
“The power of the people is always greater than the people in power,” Lee told the crowd at Trace Brewing in Bloomfield. “We’re here today because you loved your neighbor more than they hated our movement.”
“Let me say, it’s looking like a real progressive Allegheny County.”
Innamorato said she ran “because I wanted to build a county for us all. And the county executive will chart the direction for the next generation, and our refrain continues to be: Let’s create a region where we can all thrive, and we have shared and sustained prosperity for all.”
She said her campaign brought together organized labor, formerly incarcerated people, Black, Jewish and LGBTQ-led organizations and environmentalists, among others. These are people who have been excluded from the political process and “are ready to build a county government that works for them,” she said.
She said the county has the opportunity to create significant change, highlighting plans to attract infrastructure investments, build a mass transit system and create a housing-for-all plan, among others.
“That’s a lot of work to do. And I’ll tell you, I’ll be the first to say: I cannot do it alone. … But that’s why we built this coalition. We built this coalition that looks like the county, because that’s how you govern effectively and inclusively,” she said.
While Innamorato’s own characteristics are revealing of the direction of local politics, a lot can be learned from looking at who she bested on Tuesday. She finished ahead of John Weinstein, a throwback politician who rose to countywide office in the 1990s, enjoyed a network of allies throughout the suburbs and raised well over $1 million for his run. She topped Michael Lamb, a fixture of city politics who laid claim to the progressive mantle long before its recent run of success.
Innamorato said she entered politics to serve her community, which she largely attributed to her personal story. She spoke about the loss of her father to the opioid epidemic, and addressed her mother, with the two sharing a tearful embrace. She recalled that, when she was 16, her mother told her: “I just wish I gave you a better life than what I had.”
“But you did it,” she said. “In that moment, when she was talking about giving a better life to me and my sister, she expressed what so many people in this county feel.
“They want to give their kids more opportunity than what they had, make sure our future includes our neighbors and leave the world a little bit better than when we found it.”
Innamorato’s approach matches one last year by Lee, who proclaimed that the people “closest to the pain should be the closest to the power.” While Weinstein highlighted crime and safety issues and talked up his experience as county treasurer, Innamorato’s ads showed her interacting with supporters and pledging to make “housing for all” her top priority.
Her win is also a validation for Service Employees International Union locals, which backed her campaign and have flexed increasing political muscle in recent years. Tuesday their champion came out ahead of the building trades unions’ pick (Weinstein), despite those more traditional power brokers spending more money on the race.
Weinstein finished second, with Lamb third and attorney Dave Fawcett a distant fourth.
Weinstein conceded shortly after 10:30 p.m., leading with his assessment of why he lost: “There were too many white men running in this race, that’s the reality of it,” he said. He said that he, Lamb and Fawcett effectively defeated each other, allowing Innamorato a path to victory.
He offered Innamorato a brief congratulations and said he will back her in the general election. That was as far as he went in offering kind words to the newly crowned Democratic nominee.
“She will need to build bridges,” he said of the nominee, specifically to the building trades unions that endorsed his campaign. “She will need to reach out to everybody.”
He did not offer concrete plans for his future, which, come January, will be outside government for the first time since the 1990s. “I have a lot of friends and I’m not going to let that go. I’m going to be a factor in some way, shape or form.”
Shortly before 10 p.m., Lamb conceded.
“We set out to build a better Allegheny County,” he told supporters at the Grandview Social Club in Mount Washington. “We came up short.”
He congratulated Innamorato, and his own deputy Rachel Heisler for her apparent victory as the nominee to replace him as Pittsburgh controller, saying supporters should “celebrate these historic victories. And that’s what we’re going to do tonight.”
Fitzgerald, though, provided a different interpretation, telling WESA that the results as a whole showed “the far left winning Democratic primaries in Allegheny County” and making a comparison to “San Francisco or Seattle or Portland with a far-left agenda of our elected officials.”
Innamorato said her primary victory comes at a critical moment for the county, as Pennsylvania will likely serve as a key battleground state in the 2024 election. In the next few months, Innamorato said her campaign is going to register new voters and focus on expanding the electorate.
She thanked each of the candidates in the Democratic primary and said she looked forward to working with them in the future.
She referenced the negative ads against her campaign and said that, while she expects them to return, “We must stick to a positive vision on how we can create that county that works for us all.”
If Innamorato ascends to the executive’s office in January, it will herald a new management style after 12 years of Fitzgerald’s leadership. Innamorato would be able to make dozens of appointments to unelected boards and commissions that shape policy in the region, such as the Jail Oversight Board, the Board of Health and the county’s Housing Authority.
She has pledged to prioritize affordable housing, with proposals for increasing emergency and transitional housing options for unhoused people, a Tenants’ Bill of Rights and a countywide land bank to deal with blight and increase housing stock.
She also vowed to shake up leadership at the county jail — though this was common among executive candidates. A string of deaths among incarcerated people have alarmed advocates and the public. During an April candidate forum, Innamorato said the county needs to “reinvent the jail” and that new jail leadership “needs to be in concert with the community.”
On air quality and pollution, another major topic on the campaign trail this year, Innamorato has said she would use the county Health Department’s regulatory powers to “crack down on polluters” that have made the county’s air quality dangerous at times, particularly in the Mon Valley.
Innamorato has signaled she is open to conducting a countywide property reassessment, something academics have said is vital to ensuring fair taxation but politicians have shied away from.
Rockey has campaigned as a moderate’s moderate, calling himself “the bipartisan problem-solver we need.” A Republican has not been elected county executive since Jim Roddey in 1999. Former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett narrowly carried the county in 2010.
Other countywide races
Matt Dugan beat Stephen A. Zappala Jr. in the race for Allegheny County district attorney. Zappala has been the county’s top prosecutor since 1998, while Dugan has been a county public defender since 2007, leading that office since 2019. There was no Republican on the ballot, though party leaders suggested writing in Zappala’s name. That could set up a November rematch if Dugan’s lead holds and if Zappala receives enough write-in votes to claim the GOP nomination.
Corey O’Connor easily brushed aside Darwin Leuba to hold the county controller’s post. O’Connor, previously on Pittsburgh City Council, was appointed in July to replace former controller Chelsa Wagner following her election as a judge in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Leuba is a computer scientist and activist. No Republican sought the nomination.
Erica Rocchi Brusselars nearly doubled the vote count of Anthony Coghill for county treasurer, taking aim at replacing Weinstein. Coghill serves on Pittsburgh City Council, while Brusselars is a pension actuary and former math teacher. No Republican sought the nomination.
Bethany Hallam defeated Joanna Doven for the at-large seat on Allegheny County Council that is virtually guaranteed to go to the Democratic nominee. Public relations consultant Doven challenged incumbent Hallam for the post. The other at-large seat on the 15-member panel is almost certain to go to the Republican nominee, incumbent Sam DeMarco, who was unopposed.
Charlie Wolfson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @chwolfson. Emma Folts can be reached at email@example.com. Eric Jankiewicz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz. Alexandra Ross can be reached at email@example.com.