Ideologies clash as progressive defends Allegheny County Council seat
Four years ago, Democratic Allegheny County Councilor Anita Prizio became one of the first local office-holders to be elected as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. The O’Hara resident is seeking a second term in the Nov. 2 election, but this time, she faces a challenger who’s deeply committed to the Republican cause.
Fox Chapel resident Meredith Dolan is running to unseat Prizio in County Council District 3, which covers Aspinwall, Etna, Fox Chapel, Hampton, Indiana, Millvale, O'Hara, Reserve, Shaler, Sharpsburg, and West Deer.
Prizio has been reliably progressive as a councilor. An original co-sponsor of a countywide paid sick leave mandate that became law last month with the unanimous support of council, the Democrat has also made the environment a top priority.
She joined other progressives this spring in proposing legislation to ban natural gas drilling in most county parks. (Fracking is permitted in Deer Lakes Park, most of which is located in Prizio’s district.) Last year, she won unanimous approval for the Clean Construction Act, which enacted regulations to reduce diesel emissions from construction projects that cost $2.5 million or more.
And this year, she asked County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to consider creating a sustainability commission that would develop a climate action plan for the county.
“I really hope to continue this important bipartisan work to create a cleaner and more equitable county,” Prizio said. “I really believe that climate change is the top issue that the county faces.”
But Dolan said Prizio has helped to move council too far to the left.
“Just really focusing on climate change and only green infrastructure, I think, is a big tenant of a lot of the socialist platform, and [if re-elected, Prizio] would continue to push a lot of those agendas,” Dolan said.
Dolan works for Illinois-based media startup Freedom Fries. She confirmed that the company’s name draws on the jocular renaming of french fries in 2003, when France refused to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Freedom Fries runs a news aggregation site, called Freespoke Search. The platform describes itself as “the search alternative [to Google, Amazon, and Facebook] for the folks who believe the heart of America deserves a voice." In addition to posting “censored stories … the media doesn’t want you to see,” the site links to news stories that it labels as being biased to “right” or “left,” or as falling in the “middle.”
Dolan said she helps to manage Freespoke’s operations and content curation.
The firm has the support of national-level Republicans. Kristin Jackson, who has worked as a GOP policy advisor, is a co-founder of the Freespoke website.
In addition to serving as chair of the Pennsylvania and Allegheny County Young Republicans, Dolan spent much of her career as a congressional staffer in Washington. Before moving to Fox Chapel in 2017, the Cleveland native served as chief of staff for conservative Ohio congressman Robert Gibbs.
Prizio, meanwhile, was elected to serve as a delegate for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described Democratic Socialist, at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Sanders had unsuccessfully sought the party’s nomination to be president.
The Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America endorsed Prizio in her 2017 bid for county council.
Prizio is employed as an outreach specialist for Steel Valley Authority, based in Swissvale. The state government-funded agency provides layoff-aversion services to small and medium-sized manufacturers throughout Pennsylvania. Prizio also owned her family’s engine parts business, Pittsburgh Crankshaft Service, until this year, when she sold the company’s machine shop to her former employees. Before joining county council, she served two terms on O’Hara’s township council.
In one of her earliest actions on county council, Prizio introduced a motion to urge lawmakers throughout the country to support the establishment of a national single-payer healthcare system. The symbolic resolution easily passed, but Dolan criticized the move as “fluff” that “socialists will just introduce [as] a talking piece.”
“I don't think … the county council is the place to do that,” Dolan said. “You were elected to pass the budget and to make sure that our taxpayer dollars are appropriately used. And I think that [Prizio’s motion] is quite frankly, kind of a waste of the taxpayers' time and money.”
Prizio said it takes little time to prepare non-binding motions on issues of national significance. And she dismissed Dolan’s criticism of her policy positions.
“I just think this whole idea about socialism is … more of a scare tactic than anything else,” Prizio said.
But Dolan warned that, if Prizio wins a second term, she will push for more environmental regulations that, Dolan said, will cost the county jobs.
Prizio countered that she would not advocate for an immediate moratorium on fossil fuels. Rather, she said, she backs Pennsylvania Gov. Wolf’s effort to join a multi-state cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Republicans in Harrisburg strongly oppose RGGI.
Dolan noted that, as a councilor, Prizio has consistently voted for legislation advanced by other progressives. Last year, for instance, the Democrat was one of few council members to support legislation that would prohibit the Allegheny County Police Department from using “less lethal” weapons such as pepper spray and bean-bag rounds to disperse protests. She also supported a failed bid to require universal COVID-19 testing of people incarcerated at the county jail.
‘We’re both socialists’
The jail has come under intense scrutiny in recent years and faces multiple lawsuits over its treatment of incarcerated people. It drew further condemnation this summer when it contracted with a controversial training firm and purchased "less lethal" weapons.
Prizio considers the jail to be “a liability” and thinks its leaders should have notified council of the training and munitions deals, which totaled more than $440,000. But like Dolan, she said the county’s Jail Oversight Board, not council, should lead any investigation into alleged abuses.
The candidates also agree that the government should provide more support for paid family leave. Dolan has made the issue a focus of her campaign, and she said county council should explore how it can help to expand family leave benefits.
“I think that’s a great idea,” Prizio said. “In some ways, I think Meredith and I are both socialists.”
Dolan said after publication of this story that her support for paid family leave would not extend to a mandate that requires area employers to provide the benefit.
Dolan said, if elected, she’d want a seat on council’s budget and finance committee, which reviews the county executive’s proposed budget each year before the full council approves it.
“The strongest tenet of what the council needs to be focused on is budgetary concerns,” Dolan said.
She said she would oppose any tax hikes. The county hasn’t raised property taxes for 19 of the past 20 years. But, Dolan said, she would also strive to keep spending in check, in part by considering whether any programs should be cut.
Still, she said she would work to ensure that the police are well-funded. She praised legislation that council approved overwhelmingly this spring to fund and deploy body cameras at municipal forces.
In addition, she said she would prioritize spending on roads, bridges, parks, and mental health services.
To guarantee such needs are met, Dolan said she would cooperate with Fitzgerald, the county’s Democratic executive. Dolan noted that, on Capitol Hill, she gained experience working across the aisle on measures to fund transportation, wastewater treatment, and other infrastructure.
“[Physical infrastructure] is probably one of the most non-partisan issues that I can think of,” Dolan said. “I think we all have a common goal, and I would be really open to all communication. And I'm sure that the county’s executive office would feel the same.”
*This story was updated at 11:52 a.m. on Oct. 11, 2021, to describe further Meredith Dolan's position on paid family leave.