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Local Democrats Poised For Reckoning After Rash Of Down-Ballot Losses

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Local Democratic candidates gathered for a canvass kick-off hosted by the Allegheny County Labor Council Saturday, Oct. 17.

Local Democrats have plunged headlong into the national debate over their party’s poor showing down the ballot in last week’s election. The resulting conflict has arguably rekindled long-standing tensions within the party, with some moderates blaming progressives for alienating voters with calls to defund the police and end fracking. On the other side of the debate, meanwhile, are those who say Democrats who take progressive support for granted do so at their peril.

Both sides agree that the Nov. 3 ballot brought grim tidings. Democrat Pam Iovino failed to defend her state Senate seat in the South Hills and airport-area suburbs, losing to Devlin Robinson. Frank Dermody, a leader of House Democrats who faced opposition from business groups and a handful of unions, acknowledged defeat at the hands of Carrie DelRosso a week after the election. Another Democratic incumbent, state Sen. Jim Brewster, is trailing in his race.

Republicans, meanwhile, did a much better job of defending their territory. First-term state House incumbents, including Valerie Gaydos, Natalie Mihalek, Lori Mizgorski and Mike Puskaric, all brushed aside Democratic challengers. And a North Hills seat previously held by former House speaker Mike Turzai has been captured by his chosen successor, Republican Rob Mercuri.

Mercuri's Democratic rival, Emily Skopov, charged that poor messaging on issues like police funding had harmed her bid and thus, helped to extinguish her party’s hopes of flipping the state House from GOP control.

“I’m not criticizing the progressive goals but the messaging,” the Marshall Township Democrat wrote on Twitter. While concepts such as defunding the police might rally support in more solidly Democratic districts, she said, they “hold negative connotations & were used effectively against Democrats in districts like mine.”

Democratic Congressman Conor Lamb, of Mt. Lebanon, shared similar sentiments, fresh off a narrow win over Republican Sean Parnell. Lamb won his race despite heavy involvement by President Trump and Parnell's status as a national celebrity on Fox. But progressive Democrats pushed back on the idea that they were to blame for the struggles of moderate candidates.

Democratic state Rep. Summer Lee, of Swissvale, called Skopov's Twitter remarks "disappointing." A champion for progressive values, Lee noted that amid a summer of protests over systemic racism and police brutality, Black activists have led calls to defund the police – a policy that would reduce police department budgets and shift funds to social services such as education, mental health treatment, and housing.

Black voters were key to Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, Lee added. “So to simultaneously blame us and also reap the fruits of our labor and the overall victory is so disrespectful that I think we really need a moment of introspection,” she said of the Democratic Party. “If the messaging that was out there was not to your liking, then it was your responsibility to counter it … and also to just create your own positive messaging.”

Skopov soon apologized for the wording of her tweets. But she later said in an interview, “Once ‘defund the police' became a slogan, I heard almost nothing else from almost every Republican and a fair number of independents,” whose support she needed to win her race. The defunding issue “would not go away," she continued. "So just to talk about the impact it had on this campaign – it's impossible to overstate how impactful that was.”

There are deeply embedded differences between Skopov and Lee's communities. Unlike Lee’s district, which has sizable Black and working class populations, Skopov’s district consists largely of white, wealthy suburbs.

Skopov said that voters never complained to her about the well-funded police departments in her district – and in fact said they help to maintain the quality of life in their low-crime neighborhoods. Still, she said that as someone who participated in a Black Lives Matter protest in her district, sought to promote anti-racism within the North Allegheny School District, and punched back against anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from her opponent, her election would have challenged the status quo in Harrisburg.

“And so the question is, do you want to have a majority?” Skopov said. “Until you have the legislative majority, how many of Summer Lee’s policies now are going to happen?”

Lee acknowledged that, "I gain nothing by being in the minority another session. I want it as badly as anyone else to be in the majority.” But she rejected the suggestion that progressives should soften their message.

"Instead of blaming the victim,” she said, moderates like Skopov “should actually blame … the Republican narratives about Black Lives Matter, about progressive values.”

“What people who are in power, what largely white moderates want, they want the ability to be comfortable, to not have to confront racial issues that they've been able to avoid in their suburbs,” Lee said. “The reason why we're getting this backlash right now is because we're not allowing them to rest in their comfort.”

While State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa said Democrats suffered from mounting frustration over coronavirus restrictions, he said the Republicans also “misled” voters by stoking fears about defunding the police and falsely claiming that Joe Biden would ban fracking for natural gas.

“I just think that there was a lot of misinformation that was disseminated by Republicans about some of the things that Democrats stood for and were fighting for,” said the Forest Hills Democrat, who was elected last week to a seventh term in the state Senate. “And I think that was a message, unfortunately, that was heard by folks, and it was reflected in how they voted in the election.”

There are other theories in Democratic circles about what held the party back. Some privately say that Gov. Tom Wolf's handling of the coronavirus – which was bound to be controversial and which sometimes suffered from poor communication – hurt as well.

Other choose easier targets, like the end of "straight ticket" voting in which voters could simply vote for a party's whole slate up and down the ballot. That option was removed by the same voting legislation that made mail-in ballots widely available. Others fault a political map whose boundaries, they say, give an edge to Republicans – even though the state Supreme Court redrew the Congressional map in ways that helped Democrats, and state districts are drawn through a bipartisan commission.

Costa predicted that in any case, leaders in his party will hold “a comprehensive, broad-based conversation” to determine “where we are and … where we want to go.” That analysis would need to include party members across the ideological spectrum, he said.

Party members do at least seem to agree they are due for a serious reckoning, lest they allow internal strife to weaken their efforts even further.

“I was raised Catholic and … I almost feel like America, the Democratic Party, we’ve got to go to confession and we’ve got to do some self reflection,” said state Rep. Sara Innamorato, a progressive Democrat who won her race for reelection last week.

“We have to say, ‘Hey, here's where we stumbled. Here's where we've messed up. Here’s who we've left behind. Here's how we can better bring people along,” Innamorato, who resides in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, said. “I don't have the answers, but it's … going to take dialogue and not throwing different parts of our party under the bus.”

Innamorato saw an opportunity in rural and post-industrial communities to advance Democratic proposals to invest public funds in creating “new local economies and new jobs.” But when “you don't offer the policy solution,” she said, “the Republican Party [comes in] and says, ‘It's immigrants' … fault,’ and that feeds that division and … potentially bigotry that people hold. And so when you can create a strong economic foundation and you can counter that argument, then that's where we have to be.”