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Young Pittsburgh Progressives Challenge Traditional Democrats

Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Competing lawn signs in state House District 21 in Morningside.

The close-knit homes of Pittsburgh’s Morningside neighborhood could almost be the backdrop for the opening credits to 1970s sitcom "All In the Family." But when Sara Innamorato is out knocking doors, the first-time Democratic candidate can see at least one way she’s changing the landscape.

“It’s just a bizarre, bizarre thing to see your name on a sign,” she said.

Other changes are at work in the 21st state House District – which includes city neighborhoods like Stanton Heights and Lawrenceville as well as suburbs like Millvale and Aspinwall. A new hospital and an influx of younger residents have made the area an emblem of Pittsburgh’s resurgence.

At age 32, Innamoroto is a face for that change – even as the Ross Township native pledges to help residents contend with it.  Carla Knight, who answered Innamorato’s knock, says she's particularly concerned about housing prices.

“Our apartment got bought out by someone, and they tripled the rent," Knight said. "Luckily we found this one, but that same thing that happened to us was happening to everybody.”

Innamorato favors strong government action on such concerns: pledging to seek more money for affordable housing, and supporting Medicare-for-all health insurance.  She's a member of the staunchly progressive Democratic Socialists of America. Much like 2016 Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, whose rise invigorated the movement, DSA candidates often run as Democrats to shift the political spectrum left.

“A lot of people care about the same things,” said Innamorato. “They want to make sure that they can support their family, and that there’s money out of politics and that people are prioritized over corporations. “

Innamorato's rival in the May 15 primary is five-term incumbent Dom Costa. Costa is a former city of Pittsburg police chief whose family name is a fixture in local politics. He’s also a more traditional Western Pennsylvania Democrat: union-friendly but more conservative on social issues.

Even as American politics becomes increasingly polarized, Costa says there's a role for moderates like him.

“Don’t base local politics on national politics,” he cautioned. Noting that Innamorato has never held elective office before, “If I would lose this primary, I think the voters in the 21st district are going to suffer. They’re going to lose a lot of experience – life experience, number one, and job experience.”

That's why union activist Joe Hughes is backing Costa.

“My street has become younger, more progressive,” said Hughes during a meet-and-greet event at a recent rally held in an Aspinwall American Legion hall. “I’m a big fan of that, and I agree with most of Sara’s positions on things.”

Still, Hughes worries that a Democratic Socialist would struggle to effectively represent the district, which he said includes many voters well to the right of her positions. As for Costa, Hughes said, “Probably of all political figures in the area, he never votes against our interests” as union members.

Indeed, Costa has earned crucial backing from the county’s labor council and its Democratic committee. Innamorato, meanwhile, is running with grassroots energy from the DSA. Pittsburgh’s 500-member chapter backed two successful challengers last fall, including one who toppled district judge Ron Costa, Dom Costa's distant cousin.

Innamorato is one of three DSA candidates running in area House districts: The others are Summer Lee, who is running against another Costa cousin – Braddock state Rep. Paul Costa – and Kareem Kandil, who is one of three Democrats hoping to challenge Hal English in the North Hills. DSA co-chair Arielle Cohen says success comes from mixing street cred with bold ideals.

“What’s old-school works,” she said. “Hitting the pavement, making sure people know that they’re the real deal, people that grew up in their districts, and have not just an idea of what things should be like, but how the relationships here work, and how to make that change.”

Innamorato's campaign may already be pulling Costa to the left. Costa has previously voted against abortion rights. In 2016, for example, he voted for a bill to bar most abortions past the 20th week of fetal development. But last month he opposed a bill outlawing abortions motivated solely by a diagnosis of Down Syndrome.

“I’m not going to tell people how to run their lives, or women what to do with their body,” Costa said. “I am pro-life. But I also understand that I was a police officer and I follow the law.”

Aspinwall Council member Lara Voytko, who touted Costa's work on behalf of her community's needs, lauded that shift. “In Pennsylvania, you have to be moderate. You’re not going to get things done if you are far right or far left.”

But Jim Burn, the former mayor of Millvale and a past chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he’s backing Innamorato because she represents the future – both of the city and the party. 

“The pages are turning in this district,” he said. “The Democratic Party is in the process of getting back to its core values. “

Whether voters agree will become clear on May 15.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.