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McClelland gets early start in Allegheny County Executive race

Democrat Erin McClelland says she'll run for county executive next year
McClelland campaign
Democrat Erin McClelland says she'll run for county executive next year

The race to replace Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald won’t take place until the next calendar year, but it already has its first entrant: Democrat Erin McClelland.

“I am running on my ideas, and the work that I’ve done from the inside,” said McClelland, who has worked as a consultant providing project management in the county’s Department of Human Services.

McClelland cites the late Treasury Secretary (and former Alcoa CEO) Paul O’Neill as an inspiration for more accountable leadership and better designed processes — something she said the county desperately needs.

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“I blame no one, I absolve no one,” said McClelland. But “I see government systems failing all over the place.” She ticked off a list of troubled county agencies, noting a spike in deaths at the Allegheny County Jail and the closure of the Shuman Detention Center as prominent examples.

Fitzgerald himself is term-limited and cannot run again next year. And though McClelland is the first candidate to publicly announce her interest in his seat, she won’t be the last. City Controller Michael Lamb is considered a likely candidate, and state Rep. Sara Innamorato is also mentioned as a potential contender.

McClelland argued that her own work, which she described as being akin to a troubleshooter within county government, gives her the background to turn the county around.

“I am running on something you've never seen before: I'm running on operational integrity and just doing the people's work and being a little bit better tomorrow than we are today,” she said.

McClelland previously worked in substance-abuse counseling, but she may be most widely known for two campaigns, both unsuccessful, to topple Republican Congressman Keith Rothfus. (Her son Tristan ran in a Democratic state legislative primary earlier this year.) Over the years she has frequently criticized her party for losing touch with voters outside of Democratic bastions — especially on trade deals and other economic concerns.

She appears willing to criticize Democrats in the county executive race as well, suggesting she will likely face a field that includes members of an “old-boys network” on one hand and candidates who “dive into performative propaganda on a social media post” on the other.

But McClelland said she also envisions a larger role for County Council, some members of which have sought more equal footing with the county executive on budgeting and staffing matters.

“I genuinely believe in the idea of the people having their voice in their County Council,” McClelland said. “I want to have bigger conversations with them, especially about budgeting [and] giving that organization more power to influence budgets.”

McClelland also said she was sympathetic to a council move to ban fracking underneath county parks, but added that the industry’s local significance seemed to be “on its way down.” A more immediate concern, she said, involves “injection sites” used to store wastewater from drilling operations. One such facility in Plum has drawn concerns that the groundwater could be tainted by chemicals in the waste liquid: McClelland said that while the county had limited ability to regulate such sites, “I can certainly make a lot of noise and really bring attention to that issue. That’s something I am concerned about.”

Still, McClelland said that progressives should temper their expectations for expansive initiatives until the county gets its own house in order.

“You'll have people talking about very ethereal ideas [but] I am telling you for a fact, we do not have the infrastructure,” she said. “We're lucky if we can hold up day-to-day operations.”

The next county executive will join the county’s Board of Elections just in time for the 2024 presidential election. McClelland decries attacks on election workers, whose work in Allegheny County she praised, especially in terms of its expeditious handling of mail-in ballots. But she seemed wary of calls by current Board of Elections member Bethany Hallam to provide drop boxes for ballot collection. “How do you keep somebody from throwing a Molotov cocktail at an election box?” or otherwise corrupting it, McClelland wondered. “If we really want to talk about election integrity, then we have to be able to talk about protecting those ballots.”

McClelland also took a cautious approach to a long-running controversy over how the county assesses property values and the taxes on them. Fitzgerald has generally resisted calls to change the county’s haphazard system of assessing values, unless forced to do so by a court. Asked how she would handle taxation, McClelland said the question was difficult to answer given a current court challenge over how the county values real estate.

I’m still waiting to see how all of this court stuff plays out,” McClelland said. “This is an unbelievably complicated issue … and it's absolutely something that I will have a stance on once I figure out exactly what the court says about where we are.”

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.