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As 2023 primary heats up, Allegheny County progressives and moderates lean on allies

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A very heavy political friendship bracelet.

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.

Running for office is a great way to find out who your friends really are. Which is one of many, many reasons why I’ll never do it.

But for those who do decide to run, it’s impossible to put a price on the value of a staunch ally. Indeed, some kinds of support can’t even be reflected on a campaign-finance report. With the Democratic primary still nearly three months away, we’re already seeing those ties have an impact.

For example, a handful of progressives seeking county office are already benefiting from canvassing efforts by like-minded advocates. Food and Water Action, the political arm of a national environmental advocacy group, says it’s already knocked on 4,000 doors on behalf of Allegheny County executive candidate Sara Innamorato, county controller candidate Darwin Leuba, and county Councilor Bethany Hallam. The group will formally endorse all three candidates soon.

“This is potentially the most important local primary election in the country,” said Food and Water Action spokesperson Sam Bernhardt. Outgoing county Executive Rich Fitzgerald was viewed by many environmental advocates as too friendly to polluting industries and natural gas. Choosing his replacement, Bernhardt says, marks “a real fork in the road in Allegheny County. Sara, as county executive, would play a real decisive role in the region’s air and water and its future economy.”

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And then there’s the mailing that another progressive advocacy group, Pennsylvania United, sent out to county homeowners in recent days. The mailer touts a new state law that makes money available for repairs, insulation and other home upgrades for lower-income households, and it provides contact information to help you register. It also announces in boldface type that the money was made possible “thanks to the leadership of Rep. Sara Innamorato,” whose photo graces the mailer as well.

Innamorato introduced the House version of a Senate bill that established the fund.

“We’ve been working on housing for a decade, and she’s been a champion of these issues,” said Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, the group’s executive director.

The group hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the county executive race, and the mailer doesn’t mention the contest at all. Campaign-finance experts I’ve spoken with confirm that it need not be reported as a donation on Innamorato’s behalf. Still, when I observed to Kennedy that it probably wouldn’t hurt the group’s feelings if the mailer made people feel better about Sara Innamorato, she responded with a silence that no doubt reflected her deep appreciation for my pithy analysis.

Meanwhile, rival John Weinstein’s campaign has not been idle. Two weeks ago, he announced raising more than $1 million in contributions — money his campaign said includes “small dollar donors, business representatives, and labor organizations, and reflects the broad coalition [Weinstein] has built.”

Weinstein’s first batch of donations, garnered last year, was decidedly not made up of small-dollar contributions, but a full accounting of his newer support won’t be available until May. In the meantime, FCC filings show that Weinstein has already placed nearly $100,000 worth of 30- and 60-second spots at WTAE-TV, with more all but certainly on the way.

Weinstein has also been assembling a team of his own, including political consultant Moses Nelson, who said he was consulting with the campaign and sharing his “operational experience” with it. Nelson’s previous connections include Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, who is backing Innamorato.

If Nelson’s name is familiar, it may be because of his ties to a political action committee, African Americans for Good Government, that garnered headlines last year for failing to properly document its financial activities. The campaign’s treasurer was charged with a misdemeanor: Nelson was never charged, and in fact told me, “I was never even questioned — except by a reporter.”

Outside the county exec race, meanwhile, other candidates may be learning that some personal bonds aren’t as strong as they might have thought. There’s been some surprise in Democratic circles, for example, about the outcome of an endorsement vote Saturday by the Chartiers Valley Democrats, a regional consortium of Democratic Party leaders from 34 communities.

The Char Valley is Weinstein’s political backyard, and he easily cleared a 60-percent supermajority requirement. But it was a different story for District Attorney Steve Zappala, a longtime incumbent and Weinstein ally. He was barely able to stave off challenger Matt Dugan, who I’m told came within one vote of clearing the 60% threshold.

The committee also endorsed progressive Erica Rocchi Brusselars to replace Weinstein as treasurer, picking her over well-known defense attorney Phil DiLucente, who jumped into the field late.

Sean McCurdy, who heads the Char Valley group, said those results likely surprised outside observers. The Char Valley is not known as a hotbed of progressive activism (and indeed the group did buck progressive incumbent Bethany Hallam’s bid for re-election, endorsing challenger Joanna Doven instead — albeit after three rounds of voting.)

"I think the assumption was that the Char Valley was a rubber stamp, and that didn’t play out,” said McCurdy.

DiLucente, meanwhile, has sought to withdraw from the Allegheny County Democratic Committee nominating process, the party confirms. And executive director Emily Marburger said the party will let him do so — but he will forfeit his $7,500 filing fee.

Party officials confirmed Thursday evening that DiLucente had not responded by an end-of-day Thursday deadline to their notice about his forfeiture of the filing fee, and struck him from the list of candidates seeking the party endorsement.

His withdrawal leaves Brusselars as the only Democrat running for treasurer. Don Walko, a former county judge and state representative, sought the party endorsement but withdrew the next morning.

“It was one of the most thrilling two-hour campaigns I’ve ever been part of,” Walko jokes. “The first hour was full of optimism.”

Walko withdrew before the party could cash his check, and he leaves the field with all of his friendships intact. He may be the biggest winner of the cycle.

Updated: February 24, 2023 at 9:29 AM EST
Updated to note that DiLucente was struck from the party's list of candidates seeking the party endorsement.
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.