By Nick Keppler
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
When Bethany Hallam is at community cookouts and political events, trying to gain votes for a seat on Allegheny County Council, she gets one question more often than any other: What is Allegheny County Council?
She then gives a brief explainer on local legislatures. “That’s my favorite part!” says Hallam, a 29-year-old office administrator and first-time political candidate from Ross Township. “I love that. I want people to understand what they are voting for.”
In short, the Council is the 15-person legislative body of Allegheny County, established in 2000. Members are elected from 13 districts and two to at-large seats, elected by and representing the whole county. They are part-time lawmakers who receive an annual salary of $9,000.
The council’s actions are rarely attention-grabbing, especially in recent years. The agenda of its latest bimonthly meeting, that of April 23, includes granting licenses to stage public events, the acquisition of abandoned property, appointments of people to advisory councils, amendments to budgets, and 13 motions to bestow official congratulations (recognizing a high school bocce ball team’s championship win, a resident’s 90th birthday and a Boy Scout’s attainment of Eagle Scout rank, among others). It was a typical meeting.
Hallam says it shouldn’t be.
“It’s almost all congratulatory pronouncements and appointments from the county executive,” she says. She wants laws passed — legislation extending Port Authority bus lines, mandating humanitarian standards at the county jail, addressing air quality, establishing a countywide civilian-police review board and more. “People haven’t paid attention to County Council … because there was nothing exciting to talk about,” she says, “no major legislation had been passed.”
Hallam is challenging Council President John DeFazio for an at-large seat in the May 21 Democratic primary. Her bid gives DeFazio his first major challenge since he was elected to council at its founding. DeFazio, a 77-year-old Shaler resident, comes from that classic pillar of political power in the Rust Belt, a steel workers’ union. According to his official biography, he worked in the mills and rose through the union ranks to become the director of the United Steel Workers of America in Pennsylvania. On the weekends, he was a wrestler known as “Jumpin’ Johnny” and appeared on local TV in the ’60s and ’70s.
While Hallam has never been in a literal ring, her background also includes a battle, one againstopioid addiction. She took prescription painkillers for lacrosse injuries in high school and became hooked. Attending Duquesne University to study public relations, she moved on to heroin and worked restaurant jobs to support her habit. (“It seemed good to have a job that paid cash that day,” she recalls.) As her addiction spiraled, she racked up convictions for DUI and drug possession. She failed a urinalysis test while on parole in 2016 and was incarcerated at the county jail for almost six months while her case was adjudicated (and one of her top issues is improving conditions and sexual assault prevention at the jail). There, she was forced into a painful detox. She says she’s been sober since.
She has been open about her history while campaigning. “I think people are open to it because [opioid addiction] has touched so many of their lives,” says Hallam.
She says she does not fear relapse. “I don’t miss anything about [using] … and there would be so many people who would kick my ass for doing that.”
Hallam said the shoe-leather campaigning and underdog victory of a childhood friend, Sara Innamorato, inspired her to seek elected office herself. Last year, Innamorato challenged incumbent Dom Costa, who held a state house seat since 2009, in a primary and won. Hallam volunteered for Innamorato’s campaign. She saw her gather support by walking the district, which encompasses Pittsburgh’s northern neighborhoods and suburbs.
People remembered Innamorato after talking to her, Hallam recalled. “People would always say, ‘Oh, I saw Sara at this event and she was so nice to my kid.’ They hadn’t seen anyone out there campaigning in that seat for so long.” About 10,000 voted in that primary, 64 percent of them for Innamorato. It proved a point to Hallam: A young candidate with no preexisting name recognition could win a local election against an incumbent by interacting with voters one-on-one and giving them a reason to show up for what is usually a low-turnout election.
Hallam had been active in local politics, even during her addiction, serving on the county Democratic Committee. Once sober and stabilized, she turned her sights to Allegheny County Council.
“I saw that they had the power to affect so much change for the 1.1 million people in Allegheny County,” she said, “and instead they were being placeholders and rubberstamps and that’s not what County Council was set up to be.”
She was surprised to learn that her dad — who had once kicked her out of the house for heroin use — bought a handful of domain names for the political career he foresaw: BethanyHallam.com, BethanyforPA, HallamforAlleghenyCounty, etc. “He knew that was where I was going to be before I knew myself”
DeFazio sailed to reelection unopposed through several cycles. He told a reporter for WESA FM that he had never shopped for yard signs before. His signs have since popped up around the county. But the former “Jumpin’ Johnny” isn’t saying whether or not Hallam — whose Facebook campaign page has more than 1,100 followers to DeFazio’s approximately 200 — has him on the ropes.
DeFazio was unavailable to comment for this story, apparently. Over a span of two weeks, a Pittsburgh Current reporter tried to contact him to arrange an interview through his county government email address, the administrative staff of the County Council, his home phone and his campaign’s Facebook page. An exchange of calls and text messages with a person who identified himself as his campaign manager did not yield a time DeFazio would be available for an interview for this story or the attached video.
Today, however, Hallam’s campaign posted on Twitter that DeFazio has confirmed that he will attend a debate on May 15. We will provide more details as they become available.
When reached through his home landline, DeFazio requested a reporter call him later in the day. When reached later, DeFazio said he could not speak at the time. He said he would call back to set up an interview. As of this writing, he has not.
Hallam’s campaign for a more active County Council might have already affected him.
As part of the usual process, candidates vie for endorsements from local political groups. This often means filling out the groups’ questionnaires. The Steel City Stonewall Democrats, which champions LGBTQ issues within the party, asked if candidates would commit to banning “conversion therapy” for minors. Several jurisdictions, including the City of Pittsburgh, prohibit the scientifically debunked practice, in which clergy or a purported psychology professional attempts to change a client’s sexual orientation. Both Hallam and DeFazio said they would commit to such a ban.
Hallam, who received the group’s endorsement on Feb. 24, publicly called on the County Council to pass such a law. “If you are already holding this office and there’s something you want to do, let’s do it,” she says.
At the next County Council meeting, on March 5, DeFazio and Councilman Paul Klein introduced a bill outlawing conversation therapy for minors in Allegheny County.
“Some people talk about what they’re going to do. I prefer to do,” DeFazio’s campaign Facebook account stated, alongside to a link to a news article about the bill.
Ian Price, political co-chair of the Stonewall Democrats, says Hallam deserves some credit for calling attention to the County Council’s previous inaction on the matter. “Personally, I’m very happy she brought it up,” he says.
Hallam says that, if elected, she will lead a flurry of activity, pushing the County Council into issues that burn in voters’ minds. She said she is eager to tackle police reform because of the death of Antwon Rose II, the unarmed African-American teenager shot and killed by an East Pittsburgh police officer last year. (A jury acquitted the former officer on homicide charges.)
She is calling for a county-wide civilian police review board that will have oversight over “all the police forces in Allegheny County that are separate [from one another].” She also wants to develop a database where departments can share officers’ disciplinary and performance history. (According to news accounts and a lawsuit filed by Rose’s family, officer Michael Rosfeld left the University of Pittsburgh police force under suspicion of falsifying a report before East Pittsburgh hired him.)
The race between Hallam and DeFazio is a rare opportunity for voters to pick between candidates separated by two generations. When asked about her opponent’s years of leadership positions, Hallam said, “I don’t think experience means as much as being out there in the community.”
She said that her most pressing commitment, if elected, will be to stay visible and accessible.
“When people have been in office for a long time, we’re not able to get into contact with them,” she said. “They are not out in the community. They are not seen anymore. They are not heard from once they are elected to office …. I don’t want anyone to ever say that about someone who is representing them. I want my constituents to know I will always be out and about and they will always be able to get ahold of me. That’s what co-governing is about. It’s not about holding a title and disappearing when they need you.”