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Middleman Says She’ll Unseat DA Zappala With Stepped-Up Ground Game

Courtesy of the Friends of Lisa Middleman
Lisa Middleman has been a public defender in Allegheny County since 1987.

Public defender Lisa Middleman, of Franklin Park, will formally launch her campaign for Allegheny County District Attorney Thursday. Her official campaign kickoff will be marked with a gathering at Mr. Small’s Theater in Millvale.

Middleman, who plans to run as an independent, seeks to unseat Stephen Zappala, of Fox Chapel, who has been district attorney for more than 20 years. While Zappala has said he's long supported reforms to the justice system, Middleman says voters want more change.

Stephen Zappala has been Allegheny County District Attorney since 1998.

“I find that as soon as I say something to the effect of, ‘My platform involves treating people with mental health issues or drug addiction, rather than incarcerating them,’” the challenger said, “they’re grabbing the clipboard out of my hand to sign my petition.”

Petitions for independent candidates seeking to appear on the November ballot are due today.

Middleman’s campaign said about 200 volunteers helped to gather around 10,000 signatures, about three times more than the 3,500 required to qualify.

Since announcing a bid in June, Middleman herself has gone to about 100 events to meet voters.

Middleman said an aggressive ground game distinguishes her from the district attorney’s unsuccessful primary challenger, Democrat Turahn Jenkins.

“I believe that we have more people and more manpower, more footpower, and we’re working on more financial power,” Middleman said.

Jenkins lost the spring contest by about 20 percentage points. He stumbled with progressives early in his campaign when he said that homosexuality is a sin. His campaign maintained a low profile for several months after that, and raised significantly less money than Zappala throughout the campaign. Not including money Zappala had at the beginning of last year, the district attorney outraised Jenkins 3-to-1 in 2018 and 2019, but ended the primary with less than $21,000 on hand.

Democrat Olivia Bennett, who is running to represent Allegheny County Council District 13, supported Jenkins and also volunteers for the Middleman campaign. She says Jenkins never recovered from his remarks about LGBTQ issues, but outperformed expectations by garnering 40 percent of the vote in May.

“That’s huge for a first-time candidate, especially a first-time candidate that faced the challenges that he faced,” Bennett said.

Middleman seems likely to avoid at least some of those obstacles. Asked whether she thought homosexuality was a sin, Middleman said no. “It’s never been my position to judge anyone, and I don’t think it’s the district attorney’s position to judge anyone. We need to look at sexual inequality, racial inequality, financial inequality, and address each and every one of the places where people are being abused or discriminated against for those reasons.”

Given that “there’s not really many differences between [Middleman’s] platform and [Jenkins’],” Bennett said she’s confident Middleman could defeat Zappala.

If the public defender were to prevail, she would join other Pittsburgh-area progressives who have toppled longtime Democratic incumbents in recent years.

Democrat Bethany Hallam, for example, won another county-wide race this spring, when she defeated 20-year incumbent John DeFazio for their party’s “at-large” seat on the Allegheny County Council.

In the 2018 primary, state Reps. Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee upset well-established Democrats after receiving the endorsement of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. That organization also propelled independent district magistrate judge Mik Pappas to victory over Democrat Ron Costa, who held the seat for 24 years.

Middleman’s campaign manager, Darwin Leuba, said he has no doubts about Middleman’s viability, despite the long odds independent candidates typically face.

“We’re not settling for a ‘moral victory,’” said Leuba, who oversaw Hallam’s successful primary bid. “We’re planning to replace a disengaged politician by electing a highly respected and experienced trial attorney who knows how to win cases and work with the community.”

Middleman’s campaign kickoff takes place at Mr. Small’s Theater in Millvale at 6:30 p.m.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.