Allegheny County's political leadership grows younger and more diverse
This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. Sign up here to get it every Thursday afternoon.
There’s been a lot of talk about what the election last week means for the likes of Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and how it will change the balance of power among the factions in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C. But closer to home in Allegheny County, 2022 was the biggest expression yet of an ongoing generational change in local politics — with more likely to come next year.
Start with the obvious: Next year, the county will be represented by new Congressional representatives, as Democrat Summer Lee replaces retiring Mike Doyle and Chris Deluzio will fill in for Conor Lamb. Braddock’s own John Fetterman will be a freshman U.S. Senator, while Austin Davis, a native son of McKeesport, will replace Fetterman in the lieutenant governor’s office.
Those changes are a big deal in themselves, of course. Doyle was the dean of Pennsylvania's House delegation, and when Lee replaces him, she will be the first Black woman elected to Congress from Pennsylvania. Davis will be the first Black lieutenant governor. But even before they take office, their wins have created the opportunity for more change.
Davis and Lee also ran for and won their state House posts this fall. Those seats will have to be filled by special election next year, along with that of the late state Rep. Anthony DeLuca. When the winners of those races join the four new county representatives elected this month — Republican Andrew Kuzma and Democrats LaTasha Mayes, Arvind Venkat and Mandy Steele — Allegheny County will be represented by seven new representatives.
Seven! That’s one-third of the county’s total House delegation!
And since Democrats will take control of the state House, things could change even for some of the old hands.
Take Rep. Dan Frankel, of Squirrel Hill. For years, he’s served on the House Health committee, which in Republican hands has spawned a number of bills to restrict abortion while bottling up measures backed by Democrats. As the committee’s ranking Democrat, Frankel will be poised to take the chair — and to move bills that his predecessors ignored.
“It’s a huge opportunity because [chairs] control the legislation” that comes up for a vote, Frankel told me this week.
Of course, Republicans still control the Senate, which will constrain a Democratic agenda. But some of the bills that have languished in committee already have bipartisan support. Frankel, for one, says he would like to put forward a long-idle bill that would prevent health care systems from imposing non-compete agreements on staff.
“We’ve had bipartisan interest in that for years,” Frankel said.
Frankel does allow that things “may be messy at the outset” in Harrisburg because Democrats may not end up with an effective majority until the special elections to replace Davis, DeLuca and Lee a few months from now.
More changes ahead
Regardless of what happens in Harrisburg, sweeping changes are all but certain to continue in Allegheny County itself.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is term-limited and cannot run again, opening up an opportunity for new county leadership for the first time in more than a decade. And as WESA noted this summer, state Rep. Sara Innamorato — a young progressive who has already helped redefine the county’s delegation in Harrisburg — is widely expected to run to replace him.
She’d join Erin McClelland, who has previously run for Congress and says she’ll run for Fitzgerald’s seat, and will likely join Dave Fawcett (a former county councilor and celebrated attorney) and City Controller Michael Lamb. Lamb already announced that he will not be running for reelection to his current post, which means a changing of the guard in an office he has held for 15 years.
We’ve already seen some change in county government, as Corey O’Connor was appointed to hold the controller seat through the end of next year. O’Connor will be running for a full term. He’s almost certain to face a challenger, though it’s not clear who that will be. County Councilor Bethany Hallam was considering a run earlier this year, but she says she will seek reelection to her at-large council seat instead.
District Attorney Stephen Zappala can also expect a spirited progressive challenge in his reelection bid, and there will be action in county council and local government and school board races as well.
All this change comes at a price, of course. In the kind of seniority-driven culture that prevails in Congress and Harrisburg, new faces can mean less clout — and fewer government grants of the kind that helped the region emerge from the collapse of Big Steel. Among state Democrats, meanwhile, the political center of gravity has shifted toward Philadelphia.
But it was Pittsburgh, not Philadelphia, that elected the state’s first Black congresswoman — not to mention its first Indian-American state House member (Venkat) and its first openly lesbian Black legislator (Mayes).
It’s a big shift from when Frankel first arrived in Harrisburg nearly a quarter-century ago, when the county was represented entirely by men, including more than a few who would have supported the kind of abortion ban that he hopes will never see, let alone win, a vote.
“It’s an extraordinary turnover,” Frankel said. And it’s not over yet.