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A Progressive Wave Washed Away the Competition in Western Pennsylvania

"Government should reflect the people, its priorities. If it doesn’t ‘it’s our duty to change that,’" Democratic Allegheny County Executive nominee Sara Innamorato said.
Democratic Allegheny county executive nominee Sara Innamorato (center) with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-12th District, on Tuesday, May 16, 2023 (Photo courtesy of the Innamorato Campaign).

Sara Innamorato continued her streak of victories, winning the Democratic primary for Allegheny County Executive. 

The 37-year-old, three-time state representative from the city’s Lawrenceville neighborhood beat Democratic Party stalwarts John Weinstein, Allegheny County’s treasurer since 1999, and Michael Lamb, Pittsburgh city controller since 2008, according to unofficial tallies.

“We knew we had a path to victory, but I didn’t get into this because I wanted to be a politician,” Innamorato told an audience at her victory party on Tuesday. “I always wanted to just be in it to serve my community.” 

The people powered her campaign, Innamorato said. 

“Government is a reflection of us, is a reflection of our identity, our values, our priorities, our worlds. And if we do not see that reflected back to us it’s our duty to change that.”

So far, Innamorato, a progressive who first took office in the blue wave of the 2018 midterms, beating a longtime incumbent, has never lost an election. 

The progressive movement in Allegheny County has not only propelled her into power, but helped campaigns by such unlikely politicians as U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa.;, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey; U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio D-17th District, and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-12th District.

After years of moderate Democrats controlling the political narrative in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, progressives such as  Innamorato have shown their victories can’t be dismissed as one-offs or flukes. 

Theirs is a movement that resonates, and their supporters organize voters and win.

“We used to say, back in the day when they doubted us, and they said ‘these crazy women can’t win those state House seats,” Lee told the election night audience. “What we showed them tonight, what we showed them in every single election cycle since we started is that the power of the people is greater than the people in power.” 

People will look at Allegheny County’s progressive movement and what it’s done in the past five years as a “blueprint for the nation,” Lee tweeted on Wednesday.

IMG 5802 - Bucks County Beacon - A Progressive Wave Washed Away the Competition in Western Pennsylvania
 Democratic Allegheny County district attorney nominee Matt Dugan (L) and county executive nominee Sara Innamorato (R) | Photo courtesy of the Innamorato campaign.

Even candidates like Matt Dugan, who has said he doesn’t identify as a progressive, but promised change from the status quo of the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, convinced enough Democrats that a new way of doing things was needed. 

“We saw it in 2021 as well, with Summer being elected,” Dugan told the Capital-Star in the days after he won the Democratic primary, beating longtime incumbent Stephen Zappala. “The race that made us confident to run was the Chris Deluzio race.” 

Deluzio, a Navy veteran and attorney who sought to protect voting rights while working for organizations including the Brennan Center for Justice, was elected to the 17th House district seat formerly held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb.

Deluzio beat Republican challenger Jeremy Shaffer in the 2022 midterms by nearly 7 points, after running a populist campaign with a progressive message that included support for labor unions. 

“We saw the lead up to this, we saw where the electorate was heading,” Dugan said. After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, the interest in criminal justice issues has not gone away, he added. “I think the narrative has changed a little bit because we know violent crime is up. But I think folks are looking for different ways of handling that. And, you know, our message stayed consistent the entire time.”

Sam Wasserman, communications director for the Innamorato campaign, told the Capital-Star that consistency was a hallmark of that campaign as well. 

“I think it’s really about sticking to this true and passionate message that the people have been really wanting for years, which is just to actually deliver,” Wasserman said. 

He noted that Innnamorato didn’t just carry the city of Pittsburgh, perhaps the most left-leaning segment of Allegheny County voters, but took areas like the wealthy, traditionally conservative North Hills suburbs as well. Innamorato grew up in the northern suburb of Ross Township. 

Wasserman, who has been communications manager in Mayor Gainey’s administration since 2022, said progressives such as  Gainey and Innamorato run campaigns that reflect the people they want to represent. 

“And making sure that it’s actually a people-first movement, with people-first priorities and people-first policies that deliver tangible results,” he said. 

Innamorato’s county executive campaign, Wasserman added, was about “how to create a county government that invests in a better quality of life for our communities.”

Even the response to what may have once been effective attack ads has shifted, Wasserman said.

 Late in the campaign, when it was clear she was the front-runner, her opponents started  to run ads questioning Innamorato’s experience in the Legislature. 

One ad by Michael Lamb’s campaign noted she had not passed any bills as lead sponsor in her four years in Harrisburg — but left out important context.

“Our electorate is smarter than those attacks give them credit for,” Wasserman said. “They know that we had a Republican Legislature up until this year, and they know that no bill advanced with a Democrat as its lead sponsor.” And, voters were aware of a key piece of legislation that Innamorato sponsored in the House: the Whole Home Repairs program, even if they weren’t aware Innamorato was involved, he said. 

The response from voters as the Innamorato campaign knocked on doors in the closing days of the campaign, was not to question her on the content of the attack ads, but to ask “why are they so afraid of her?” Wasserman  said.

Allegheny County Council candidate Bethany Hallam (Twitter).
 Allegheny County Council candidate Bethany Hallam (Twitter).

Bethany Hallam, a progressive who has gone toe-to-toe with county officials over conditions at the Allegheny County Jail, also faced negative attacks during her bid for reelection to the county council at large seat. 

Joanna Doven, press secretary for former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, ran a campaign where she questioned Hallam’s past substance abuse, which along with her past incarceration, are two things Hallam has discussed freely both before and during her tenure on county council. 

Her position has been that as a formerly incarcerated person, she is uniquely qualified to speak on issues that affect people at the county jail. 

But even with the endorsement of outgoing county executive Rich Fitzgerald, Doven’s tactics didn’t appear to resonate with voters. Hallam won the primary with 56% of the vote, unofficial tallies showed.

Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, chair of Innamorato’s campaign committee and managing director of progressive coalition Pennsylvania United, told the Capital-Star that the organizations in her coalition have been working together on issues they identified as important to people in western Pennsylvania for a long time. 

 “We’ve done really incredible things that nobody thought was possible,” Rafanan Kennedy said. “Who ever thought Meadville in Crawford County would have a climate action plan or a rental registry for anti-retaliation against tenants? Those are things that can come from people in a community having a vision, and electing someone who shares their values and working together to actually make change.”

Gainey, Lee, and Innamorato all had campaigns that presented voters with a vision, Rafanan Kennedy added. “That vision has not just been ‘I’m a singular politician and I’m offering these things.’ They’re actually about the things we’ve organized around, the issues that people care about and that actually matter deeply in their lives.”

A coalition of people and organizations have worked together to create the conditions for change and the leaders who share their values, she said.

“And building that muscle and working as a coalition, we have really become a majority,” she continued. 

“We have been working on affordable housing and making sure every single one of our neighbors has a safe, affordable place to call home. We are working on making sure people have clean air and clean water. We are working on making sure that workers in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are respected and have a voice in the workplace and can have a union, and a decent wage to take care of their families. These are the things that really matter here.”

Rafanan Kenney noted that Lee often says: “The people closest to the pain should be the people in power,” the people who are helping create solutions. 

“That’s the kind of coalition we’ve built, where people can really participate, where their voices can be heard. And they can see themselves in the people they elected to represent them,” she said. 

Wasserman said western Pennsylvania progressives are a very politically active and aware electorate, and he expects that to continue.

“This summer we’re already planning on doing major voter registration and making sure we are reaching people in new communities,” he said. “Because come 2024, this is the battleground, Allegheny County. It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re not afraid of work because we understand that it pays off when we work collaboratively, and when we work inclusively.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

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Picture of Kim Lyons, Author at Penn-Capital Star

Kim Lyons, Author at Penn-Capital Star

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly

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