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Progressive Insurgents See Hopeful Signs In Primary Results

Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Bethany Hallam at her primary victory party.

In 2017, when Magistrate District Judge Mikhail Pappas and Allegheny County Councilor Anita Prizio beat well-established incumbents in the fall, many observers figured the candidates – who’d each been backed by the Democratic Socialists of America – had merely caught incumbents sleeping in low-interest races. 

In 2018, when Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee ran on a similarly progressive message and toppled two members of the Costa family in state House races, the conventional wisdom was that those wins would be difficult to repeat outside their increasingly progressive districts.

After Tuesday night, however, it just got harder to write off – or wall off – some of the changes underway in Allegheny County.

“The old days when a bunch of white guys would come out of the room and say, ‘This is the way it is because we say so,’ are over,” said Jim Burn, himself a white guy who once chaired the Allegheny County Democratic Committee and the state party apparatus.

Burn was attending the victory party for County Council candidate Bethany Hallam, the latest figure in a generational shift toward more diverse political leadership.

Hallam had beaten longtime at-large Democrat John DeFazio by a healthy 53-to-46 percent margin. And she’d done so despite – or maybe because of – a resume that included time in jail that stemmed from an opioid addiction.

“This was really all about getting people a place at the table who haven’t had one,” Hallam said after her win.

That table hasn’t necessarily been upended. When insurgents have succeeded locally, they’ve often benefited from facing longtime incumbents who either didn’t or couldn’t adjust to a spirited challenger. That may have allowed their highly motivated grassroots base to punch above its weight.

But Hallam’s victory party, in a Sharpsburg brewpub, became a kind of rallying point for like-minded progressives. Arrivals included Olivia Bennett, who beat first-term incumbent Denise Ranalli Russell in a county council district that overlays much of the city, and Pittsburgh school board candidate Devon Taliaferro. Attendees were also buzzing about the victory of school board candidate Pam Harbin, a longtime education activist whose rival, Anna Batista, was backed by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Less visible than the candidates, but also notable, was the coalition behind them. Hallam, Bennett, and Harbin were all backed by UNITE!, a progressive political action committee established by Lee last year, and Women for the Future of Pittsburgh, which seeks to elect progressive female candidates.

UNITE touted its success in a Wednesday statement announcing that its slate of candidates “unified by a bold platform of criminal justice [reform] won a resounding victory.”

(By comparison, the endorsement of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee was a less reliable predictor of success. The committee did back Harbin, but it also backed some notable toppled incumbents: DeFazio, Russell, and City Councilor Darlene Harris.)

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I know maybe 10 of the people in that room,” said Burn of Hallam’s party. “And I love that. … These are leaders who aren’t waiting to be tapped.”

Hallam’s campaign, which was waged countywide, was notable for its reach. She performed strongly in the city, where she racked up margins as large as five-to-one, but also outperformed DeFazio in many areas outside the city limits, especially in the northwest reaches of the county and in places like Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair.

“We were invested everywhere from Aleppo to Wilmerding,” said Darwin Leuba, who worked on the Hallam bid. “It was about being everywhere we could. She wasn’t just saying she would be present in these communities. She was present in these communities.”

To hear Leuba tell it, Hallam’s real political strategy was to dispense with a lot of political strategy, to concentrate on Hallam’s authenticity – from her first media interview, with WESA, she foregrounded her struggles with addiction. And to make sure she walked the talk.

Older guard Democrats, he said, “won’t win by hiring better consultants if the problem is they aren’t doing their jobs.”

Hallam’s efforts won praise even from some old-guard Democrats who cited her work ethic – she was a constant presence at political events – and a high-road approach that didn’t attack DeFazio personally. But they said that Hallam’s win was just one sign that the electorate itself was shifting: Some noted that while Turahn Jenkins lost to District Attorney Steve Zappala by nearly 20 points, the margin was smaller than might have been expected, given that Jenkins’ campaign didn’t air TV ads and appeared moribund for months at a stretch.

“When you have established Democrats like John DeFazio falling – and DeFazio is an established Democrat – you know things are changing,” said one veteran Democratic officeholder.

In Pittsburgh itself, the only real upset was in City Council District 1, where the third time proved the charm for repeat candidate Bobby Wilson in his effort to remove Darlene Harris.

Wilson was helped by a number of factors, including support from Peduto and allied unions, and the fact that he had an easier time consolidating the anti-Harris vote than in 2015. In that year Randy Zotter played the part of spoiler, taking over 800 votes in a race where Wilson lost to Harris by roughly 600. Zotter threw his support to Wilson this year. Third wheel Mark Brentley took only slightly more than half the number of votes Zotter had earned.

But Wilson improved substantially on his own 2015 performance even in precincts where Brentley matched Zotter’s total or bettered it, suggesting that his gains had little to do with anyone else in the race. Harris, meanwhile, badly lagged her own 2015 numbers across the district.

Political consultant Matt Merriman-Preston, who worked on the Wilson campaign, said Harris seemed to campaign less actively than before, and that her district was not as conservative as she believed.

“We heard a lot about Harris opposing the city’s [gun-control] legislation at the door,” he said. “Democratic voters are moving in a more progressive direction all across the country” – and voters of all stripes have been disgruntled with the status quo.

Wilson also benefited from efforts by SEIU, a Peduto-allied union that sat out the 2015 race but was actively supporting Wilson this time around.  

It was a different story in another closely watched City Council race with a divided field. Ricky Burgess, who was backed by Peduto, managed to hold on to his seat despite receiving less than 40 percent of the vote.

Burgess received slightly over 2,000 votes Tuesday night – almost the same as he got four years before – while the anti-incumbent vote total grew. But the opposition was divided among four candidates rather than three who faced Burgess in 2015. His closest rival this time was Kierran Young, with 1,500 votes.

Young might well have won even a three-way race that included Judith Ginyard, who took bronze in the race. But the fourth- and fifth-place finishers, Stephen Braxton and Cherylie Fuller, took just under 1,000 votes between them. Had Young been able to split those votes evenly with Ginyard, he would have been within a few votes of Burgess last night.

Young was visibly frustrated by those numbers Tuesday.

“I’m very disappointed with how this turned out,” he said. Burgess, he said, “always seems to weasel out of facing a single opponent.” In part, he faulted activist Leon Ford, who was the first to enter the race and was considered a serious challenger until he withdrew before the primary. Ford did not throw his support to any other candidate. “If Leon Ford had endorsed me, I would have won,” Young said flatly.

Randall Taylor, who plans an independent progressive run against Burgess this November, said Tuesday’s results bode well. “I couldn’t ask for more as an independent challenger,” he said.

One test for this progressive insurgency will be not just whether candidates like Hallam can draw upon grassroots energy, but on how the movement is able to channel it – especially in races that draw more interest than a school board or county council race.

The ultimate show of the movement’s strength, Merriman-Preston said, could have been the District Attorney’s race, but Jenkins stepped on a land-mine almost immediately after he started running last summer: Remarks he made about his church’s position on LGBT people alienated many progressives, and he never recovered.

But Merriman-Preston says that neither Zappala nor other incumbents should count on such luck going forward.

“Elected officials,” he said, “can’t afford any longer to lose touch with their constituency.”