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Sara Innamorato Declares Primary Victory Over Five-Term Incumbent Dom Costa

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
Sara Innamorato poses with supporter Jann Chirdon of Glenshaw at her victory party, at Hitchhiker Brewing in Sharpsburg.

First-time candidate Sara Innamorato declared victory over a five-term incumbent in the Democratic primary for House District 21.

"We accomplished the impossible,” Innamorato told supporters at her victory party at Hitchhiker Brewing in Sharpsburg.

“It’s not just about winning tonight,” she said. “It’s about who is now engaged in the civic process that felt excluded before. And we can start to rebuild our party and bring more people to the table.”

Dom Costa later conceded the race in a statement. 

The District 21 includes city neighborhoods like Stanton Heights and Lawrenceville, as well as suburbs like Millvale and Ross Township.

Costa has been one of the most conservative Allegheny County Democrats in the state legislature. He’s previously voted against abortion rights and in favor of more restrictive immigration policies.

A native of Ross Township with a background in consulting and nonprofit work, Innamorato challenged Costa on those positions, and pledged to fight for progressive policies like a Medicare-for-all health coverage system, as well as a more progressive tax structure and protection for renters and others from gentrifying housing costs.

She was one of three state House candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America -- a trend that Muhlenberg University pollster Chris Borick said is widespread this year.

"You have more moderate Dems, or more mainstream Democratic candidates, in a position where they're having to fend off challenges from the left,” he said.

DSA candidate Summer Lee also won her primary in House District 34 against Paul Costa, a distant cousin to Dom.

Innamorato’s campaign borrowed from the energy of the DSA, whose Pittsburgh chapter numbers over 500 and whose door-knocking efforts helped a pair of local candidates beat incumbents last fall. She was also backed by environmental and other progressive groups.

For his part, Costa had solid backing from the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, which entitled him to have his name appear on “slate cards” handed out at the polls. He also enjoyed the support of the Allegheny County Labor Council, which represents area unions, and numerous other elected officials, who hailed his ability to address district needs.

In terms of fundraising, the contest seemed robust right up until Election Day. Innamorato raised more than $72,500 in the first four months of 2018; Costa raised more than $48,600 during the same time period. Costa drew headlines, meanwhile, for circulating a mailers to Republican voters, asking them to write in his name on their ballot.

Such an effort would require obtainng at least 300 write-in votes By late Tuesday evening, it appeared that Costa had fallen short: The county's election office reported only 280 write-ins on the Republican ticket.

University of Pittsburgh political science professor Kristin Kanthak says Tuesday's outcome will have lasting effects: "You should expect to see big changes in terms of what the Democratic Party in Allegheny looks like."

She cites not just a more progressive political approach but the fact that both the Costas' challengers were women. 

"We know historically that Pennsylvania is 49th out of 50 in terms of women's representation in the state legislature," she says. But Tuesday's results, she predicts will "wake up both parties to the fact that we can't just keep running the same candidates. Voters are going to be wanting to see something a little different."

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.
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.