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Former mayoral aide Joanna Doven to challenge Hallam in county council race

Joanna Doven
Friends of Joanna Doven
Joanna Doven

In a year that doesn’t lack for big races up and down the ballot locally, Pittsburgh-area Democrats may have a spirited fight for their party’s “at-large” seat on Allegheny County Council.

Incumbent Bethany Hallam has been a progressive champion in her first term on Allegheny County Council, and one who has advocated for a number of reforms and often clashed with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. But she appears set to draw a challenge from Joanna Doven, who once served as the spokesperson for former Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. 

“Especially with the at-large seat — since you represent the entire region — what’s needed is collaboration and problem-solving and progress,” Doven said. “You have a responsibility to listen to people and to use your voice because you have that platform.

Although she is no stranger to the political realm, Doven hasn’t run for office before. But she said that she decided to campaign for the seat after Hallam, who also sits on the county Board of Elections, voted not to certify election results in a dozen voting precincts challenged by pro-Trump conservative Republicans this fall. 

“My opponent chose to side with election deniers,” Doven said.  

At the time — and despite a recommendation to the contrary from a county attorney — Hallam expressed concern that approving the results would be “jumping the gun” prior to a judge’s ruling on the outcome. The votes in question would not have affected any race outcome, and the challenges were quickly dismissed.

But Doven said she worried about the precedent being set for the presidential election in 2024. “We know the election’s going to be challenged,” she said. And given the way election denialism can circulate on social media, “It just takes one person to do the wrong thing sometimes.” 

Doven said the vote reflects her concern that political fights between Hallam and Fitzgerald obscure the interests of the public.

“The County Council role is to work with the county executive,” she said. “The county executive runs the government, and you have to collaborate and come to the table with solutions.”

On some of the issues that have been flashpoints in county government, Doven and Hallam do not seem all that far apart. Doven said she opposed fracking beneath county parks — the subject of a council moratorium passed despite Fitzgerald’s objections — and said that when it came to large industrial polluters, she backed “enforcing the air quality standards every single time and not backing down.”  

But while she credited Hallam for raising concerns about conditions at the Allegheny County Jail, she decried often-contentious meetings of a Jail Oversight Board on which Hallam sits. “There’s more yelling than action,” she said.

On public safety issues especially, she said, progressives were ignoring the concerns of constituencies such as small business owners who were losing customers due to fears about safety Downtown. While public safety there is a city responsibility, she said the county could help by providing more services to homeless people — namely by building a shelter to match a facility on Second Avenue that was filled to capacity almost from the moment it opened late last year.

Doven said her goal is “fighting for the most vulnerable people in a way that actually helps them — in a way that gets things done. You know, re-anchoring the Democratic Party on progressive solutions, not chaos politics.” 

By contrast, she criticized Hallam for a controversial tweet— which Hallam has said was taken out of context — which flippantly referenced burning police cars in a discussion of police accountability. 

Hallam has made clear for months that she will run for re-election, and she plans a formal kickoff for her campaign by the end of the month.  She made no apologies for the vote to delay certifying election results — “That vote was legally sound, and I always do what I think is right” — or for the friction with Fitzgerald. “Part of my job is to be a check on the county executive, whoever that is,” she said.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is pulling back the curtains on county government," Hallam said. "When I first ran, people didn’t know county council existed. [But] we’ve proven we’re anything other than a weak body when you can build a coalition.” 

She cited work to create a police-review board — though its powers are sharply limited — and to build momentum for a countywide sick-leave policy. She said if reelected, she would continue a fight to assure a $20 minimum wage for county workers, and establish funding parity for the district attorney and the public defender’s office. 

Doven herself has been in the public eye since the mayoral administration of the late Bob O’Connor, and after O’Connor’s death in office, she served as the press secretary for much of the Ravenstahl administration. She now provides public- and government-relations expertise for a number of political and private-sector clients. They’ve included a nonprofit group that supported merging Wilkinsburg with the city of Pittsburgh and the development firm Walnut Capital.

Walnut has been criticized for accelerating the gentrification of some city neighborhoods, but Doven says its efforts have done much to enhanceaffordable-housing and the community in places like Larimer. She notes that Mayor Ed Gainey himself has praised the developer’s work in the area. And more broadly, she said, “The narrative around developers needs to be challenged. We need development to grow our tax base and to fund things like safe, affordable housing.”

She said local government needed to remember such factors when it crafted policy. Residents need a “pragmatic progressive,” she said. “I know what it takes to get things done. I can help.”

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.