By Tom Lisi
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Tuesday’s municipal elections could provide the latest evidence of a new normal emerging out of Allegheny County politics: older Democratic incumbents in a town long dominated by their party can no longer cruise to reelection.
A mostly young, progressive-minded group has quickly developed an organizational structure that’s led to serious challenges against officeholders like Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr.
Before this year, the 62-year-old had not faced an opponent in an election since 1999. Zappala was appointed to the position the year before. He now finds himself up against a serious competitor for the second time in 2019. In the general election it’s Lisa Middleman, a longtime public defender who is running as an independent.
In May, Zappala survived a primary challenge from Turahn Jenkins, a criminal defense attorney. A month later, Middleman announced her run in the Nov. 5 general municipal election as an independent.
Middleman’s platform is centered on criminal justice reforms — a set of policies that have gained traction from both progressives and libertarian-minded conservatives. Among the changes she calls for are removing mandatory minimum sentencing and attacking racial biases throughout the justice system.
Zappala’s campaign has highlighted his office’s use of diversionary courts like drug court to keep people with dealing with substance abuse or mental health illnesses out of jail. However, Middleman, and Jenkins before her, say the programs aren’t true diversion programs because the individual has to be put into the system in order to take advantage of the programs.
Middleman, 57, is just one of a spate of insurgents in the Pittsburgh region who is leveraging a new generation of voters, organizers and political committees to take on what some of them call the “old guard” of local Democrats.
The crop of challengers is no coincidence. Successful insurgents, like Bethany Hallam, who defeated 20-year incumbent John DeFazio in May’s primary for his county council seat, have leveraged a demand from some voters for fresh blood and a more progressive platform, with campaign support from UNITE! PAC, a political action committee formed in January by Democratic state Rep. Summer Lee of North Braddock.
Lee and fellow progressive state Rep. Sara Innamoratto of Pittsburgh came out of nowhere last year to beat longtime incumbents in their own party. They did it outside the normal political channels, with no support or guidance from the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.
“We recognized that there are so many people who don’t know who these old-school politicians even are,” Lee says. “They might know their names, they might know the family name exists, but they don’t know these people. They don’t even know what they do.”
UNITE! Contributed $11,000 to Hallam’s May primary campaign, and now the PAC has lent support to Middleman. Last week, UNITE! Wrote a check to Middleman’s campaign for $25,000, Lee said.
Middleman’s campaign committee reported $196,000 in fundraising last week, mostly from individuals. Zappala’s committee reported $212,000 in contributions since June, the biggest checks coming from trades unions.
“Steve’s been involved with us with this council for a long, long time, he’s done nothing to hurt members of this council,” said Darrin Kelly, president of Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council’s executive board. The council has endorsed Zappala in the race. The council’s 135 local unions mostly represent workers in the trades and public sector.
Kelly said the council’s long relationship is not a knock on Middleman. But he said the unions he represents have run into disagreements with progressive candidates on environmental issues, specifically the region’s natural gas industry.
The emergence of UNITE! and its early success is a study in contrasts to places like Chicago and New Orleans, where political dynasties and an entrenched Democratic organization have survived into the 21st century.
“I think the Allegheny County Democrats are fairly laissez faire, ‘Run your best race and win,’” said George Doughtery, a professor of public policy at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of International and Public Affairs.
Election spoils, like patronage jobs, are not numerous enough in Pittsburgh to do the kind of favor-trading needed to sustain a true political machine, he said.
Despite three years of notable upsets, Lee said the committee hasn’t really acknowledged a new political reality.
“I think they have not taken notice of what’s happened in these last three cycles,” Lee said. “If they have not taken notice of that, then they are foolish and taking on their own obsolescence.”
Turnout from union members could be the key to Zappala’s reelection, something Kelly said the council is working hard to get done.
For his part, Zappala said after a campaign stop in Verona last week that he doesn’t consider the election competitive and the Democratic committee has been overwhelmingly behind him. Some area Democrats, who Zappala described as “extremely liberal” have endorsed Middleman.
Zappala is not a liberal, he said. “I’m not sure how I would describe myself,” he said. “I follow the law.”
Middleman has not branded herself as a liberal or progressive either, though her platform makes familiar progressive calls for an end to mass incarceration and the cash bail system.
“Criminal justice reform transcends partisanship,” said Middleman’s campaign manager Darwin Leuba. “It’s not a Democrat versus Republican, it’s a qualified competent attorney versus someone who has a 20-year reord of not getting it right.”
Middleman is not without her endorsements. Besides Unite!, she has been endorsed by SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, One Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh NORML. She has also been endorsed by a number of Democratic officeholders who are breaking with the party including Lee, Innamorato, state Rep. Ed Gainey, Pittsburgh CIty Councilors Erika Strassburger and Deb Gross, Allegheny County Councilor Anita Prizio, Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones, Former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht and many others.
Zappala has cross-registered as a Republican. Voters can choose the incumbent under the ballot line of either major party.
When asked to respond to the criticism that he had been in office too long, Zappala said he would cede the office to a qualified newcomer if one came along, intimating Middleman did not fit that bill.
“If I saw somebody who was talented enough to do this, then I’d say, ‘Fine,’ and get out of the way,” Zappala said. “I haven’t seen them.”
If Zappala hangs on to win a sixth term, the days of running without an opponent may be over for him and other incumbent Democrats.
UNITE! PAC is not only bundling money for challenger candidates, it’s also trying to help local communities in Allegheny County build the needed political infrastructure to get residents involved in local issues and recruit new leaders for future primaries, according to Lee.
“We want to help these communities find and empower their own folks,” Lee said.