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Big money and big surprises as campaign reports, Democratic Party filings flesh out May primary

Mel Evans

This year’s Democratic primary isn’t until May 16, and candidates won’t even file petitions to get themselves on the ballot until March 7. But for a couple of reasons, races up and down the ballot this year began to take shape on Jan. 31 — with some big numbers in the looming Allegheny County executive race and some potential surprises on the undercard.

The last day of January marks a state deadline for filing campaign-finance reports that cover political fundraising through the end of the previous year. And this year’s reports contained some eye-popping sums, especially in the race for county executive.

John Weinstein, the county’s longtime treasurer and now a competitor for the region’s most powerful local office, reported a whopping $416,250 in campaign contributions last year. Factoring in what he had on hand at the outset of 2022 and what he spent during the year, he moved into 2023 with $481,105.94 on hand.

Weinstein’s well-known fundraising prowess and his strong ties to labor were on display. He raised a total of $112,000 from Steamfitter Local 449, almost all of which came in a single donation in the last week of the year. He raised another $60,000 from the Laborers union.

Weinstein also garnered a whopping $100,000 from Pitt-Ohio trucking executive Charles Hammel, and $10,000 sums from longtime western Pennsylvania politicos William Lieberman, Nick Varischetti and John Verbanac. Parking baron Merrill Stabile gave $10,000 as well.

Weinstein received only a single contribution of $250 or less.

It was a different picture for Democrat Sara Innamorato, who is hoping to harness the grassroots fervor that helped propel fellow progressive Summer Lee to Congress last year. Innamorato rolled $65,511.54 in proceeds from her state House campaign into her bid for county executive late last year. Her county executive bid drew an additional $47,591.01 in support in the last month of the year. Of the year's fundraising, fully 39 cents of every dollar was in contributions of $250 or less.

Innamorato’s biggest supporter was SEIU 32BJ, a building-service workers union that has been a staunch supporter of progressive Democrats. The union contributed $15,000 to her campaign.

Walking a middle path between his two rivals, City Controller Michael Lamb amassed $178,289.29 in contributions last year and finished the year with a little less than $168,000 on hand. Roughly 5 cents of every dollar he raised came in increments of $250 or less. His larger donors included some trade unions — Plumbers and Bricklayers locals both gave $5,000 — and a slew of area lawyers who gave four-digit sums.

Lamb’s biggest donor was himself: A state-level campaign fund that bankrolled a 2020 bid for auditor general transferred nearly $30,000 to his county race. Lamb’s campaign also owes him for a personal $30,000 loan.

Other candidates appear poised to receive less: Erin McClelland raised just over $9,000. Her largest contribution, $1,805, came from a committee tied to her son’s run for state House last year. Reports for Dave Fawcett and Liv Bennett were not available Tuesday.

A full roster of reports in other competitive races, including Allegheny County District Attorney, also were not available Tuesday evening, making it harder to gauge the landscape of those races. But it is apparent that the Steamfitters and other unions are set to play a role.

The Steamfitters also donated $41,500 to incumbent District Attorney Steven A. Zappala Jr. — nearly a quarter of the $169,585 he raised last year. The Laborers donated $25,000 of their own, as did a local affiliated with the Operating Engineers. (A report for Zappala’s rival, Matthew Dugan, had not been posted Tuesday, though his campaign said it had been filed.)

The Steamfitters also donated $15,000 to Allegheny County Council incumbent DeWitt Walton, and the Laborers gave Walton $5,000. In all, Walton raised $25,200 for what is likely to be a heated re-election fight. That is a sizable sum of money for a county council race — by way of comparison, at-large councilor Bethany Hallam raised $10,346.25 last year — and between them, the two unions made up almost four-fifths of that.

The county had not posted fundraising totals for Hallam’s rival, Joanna Doven. Other reports were also not available Tuesday evening.

But there were other glimpses of drama to come.

Some Democratic candidates were scrambling to meet another deadline Tuesday: 5 p.m. marked the deadline for seeking the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement — a stamp of approval by party leaders for candidates seeking the approval of voters this spring. Candidates do not need the endorsement to win — many have won while ignoring it or even campaigning against it — but some filings there promise surprises ahead.

For one thing, the race to replace Weinstein in the Treasurer's office — which he has said he will not seek — has expanded from just one candidate, Erica Rocchi Brusselars, to include attorney Phil DiLucente and Don Walko, who has previously served as a state House member and a Common Pleas judge. Both men’s entry into the race came as a surprise to many Democrats.

But one of the most intriguing races is notable for a name that didn't appear on the list of candidates seeking the endorsement. In City Council District 9, incumbent Ricky Burgess is sitting the endorsement out — though he has sought and won it in the past. Burgess has not made his intentions clear about whether he intends to run, and his absence will likely increase speculation about his plans. Khari Mosley, who formally announced his bid last month, will seek the endorsement, as will political consultant Kierran Young, who sought the seat unsuccessfully in 2019.

Also facing competition, at least for the endorsement, is District 5 councilor Barb Warwick, who took office in a special election this past fall and faces a two-way challenge from Lita Brillman and Matt Mahoney. In District 7, Deb Gross has drawn a challenge from Jordan Botta. And in city school board races, Devon Taliferro faces what is expected to be a stiff challenge from Ron Sofo.

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.