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The fight over the local Democratic party pits progressives against the establishment

Summer Lee for PA/Sarah Innamorato for PA
Clockwise, from top left: U.S. Rep. Summer Lee; state Rep. Sara Innamorato; O'Hara Township Auditor Darwin Leuba; and Allegheny County Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan

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.

Candidates who want to run in the May primary don’t begin circulating their nominating petitions until next month. And if I didn’t know better, the last couple days might lead me to suspect UPMC’s name might be on the ballot, at least metaphorically. But what we’re seeing in the early days of the 2023 campaign is a political trend even bigger than UPMC – if such a thing can be imagined.

Earlier today, Pittsburgh’s newly minted Congressional representative, Summer Lee, joined with state Rep. Sara Innamorato to call for new constraints on the health care giant. Their press conference built on the work of a task force convened last year to assess the plight of state health care workers, and they proposed policy changes like a bill giving the state attorney general more power to police health care mergers and anticompetitive behavior.

Innamorato happens to be running for county executive, though the call was meticulous about not touching on electoral politics. (Indeed, when one reporter — OK, it was me — submitted a question that asked about the role local elected officials might play, it wasn’t addressed.) And their grievance with UPMC long predates the current election cycle.

Lee for one is a native of Braddock, where UPMC shuttered a hospital in 2010. On Thursday she called the move “a sad example of the dangers of monopoly powers and greedy corporate barons who … leave us behind when they see profit in other places.”

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Still, it was striking to hear such criticism from the congresswoman who has UPMC’s headquarters in her district. And Innamorato — who hopes to lead the county — called UPMC the “poster child” for the perils of market dominance. Finally, just a day earlier, veteran progressive campaigner Darwin Leuba launched a bid of his own for county controller. His campaign also seems poised to talk at length about the health care giant.

That’s of course smart politics, and not just because, as Leuba says, “Everyone has a story about UPMC.” After all, a key ally of the progressive movement which has helped back candidates like Lee is SEIUHealthcare. The union has been in a trench-warfare fight with the provider — and weighed in decisively for Ed Gainey, a progressive who has championed both Lee and Innamorato, in his successful run for mayor of Pittsburgh.

It’s not the only case where years of grassroots advocacy is now at the center of an election-season debate.

Thursday also marked the launch of county chief public defender Matt Dugan’s bid for district attorney — a job held by Stephen Zappala Jr. since 1998. Dugan is running on a criminal-justice reform message that harmonizes well with values espoused by Lee, Gainey, and others. And while similar messages failed to topple Zappala in 2019, Dugan notes that Lee and Gainey’s wins suggest that since then, “there’s been a lot of investment in seeing change in government. And a lot of these grassroots movements are working together.”

Naturally, none of this is happening without a fight from Democrats who aren’t on board with the progressive agenda.

When Zappala launched his re-election bid last month, he took a preemptive shot at Gainey’s bona fides on crime. And County Councilor Bethany Hallam, a leading progressive in county government, has drawn a challenge from a one-time aide to former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Joanna Doven. (Another label you may hear in the days ahead is “pragmatic progressive”: both Doven and Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald — who has often been at odds with Hallam and Co. — have used it to describe themselves. It suggests an affinity with the party’s leftward drift, but promises not to go too far down the path.)

Meanwhile, as this space predicted earlier this month, the county executive race has a new entrant: county treasurer John Weinstein. Weinstein is a strong fundraiser who is already promising a big TV ad buy, and he’s a savvy political tactician. Among other things, he’s largely credited with brokering a County Council majority that united progressives like Hallam with more conservative Democrats — even if they mostly had in common an antipathy for Fitzgerald.

Still, Democrats I’ve talked to on both sides of the divide say progressives have reason to be optimistic about their chances this May. For one thing, as even some attendees at Weinstein’s campaign kickoff privately acknowledged, the crowd was whiter and older than the emerging Democratic primary electorate. And progressives have built a get-out-the-vote infrastructure envied by rivals.

Leuba himself has been deeply involved in that transformation. Long before he became a candidate, he worked to elect progressives to other offices. Early on, he said, those wins were “more individual,” based on unique circumstances. Nowadays, though, “We have a much more coordinated campaign of folks who know how to talk to their neighbors.”

Leuba himself will have a tough race against Corey O’Connor, who was appointed last summer to fill out the term of Chelsa Wagner after she became a county judge. But win or lose, his campaign seems all but certain to amplify messages already resonating in the movement.

“The electoral side is something people talk about a lot,” he said. “But it’s only one piece. I’m hopeful that no matter what happens in the primary, we’ve engaged enough people that our government won’t be able to ignore them.”

If he’s right, they may already be winning. They may already have won.

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.