Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The surprising alliances among Allegheny County Democrats

Clockwise from top left: Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald; County Councilor Bethany Hallam; County Treasurer John Weinstein; state Rep. Emily Kinkead.
Sarah Kovash/WESA; Jakob Lazzaro/WESA; Weinstein campaign; Kinkead campaign
Clockwise from top left: Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald; County Councilor Bethany Hallam; County Treasurer John Weinstein; state Rep. Emily Kinkead.

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.

True story: On the night in 2019 when Bethany Hallam won her seat on Allegheny County Council, I found myself after deadline at an all-night Eat’n Park. Sitting a few tables away was County Treasurer John Weinstein, quietly celebrating his own (fifth!) re-election win with a couple friends. I started eavesdropping — you hear a lot of stories this way, though not necessarily about politics — and Weinstein was praising Hallam’s campaign: She worked hard, he said, but she never attacked rival John DeFazio personally.

I let Weinstein know I was there, and we exchanged pleasantries. He left shortly after, and when I got ready to go 20 minutes later, I discovered he’d paid the server for my order of pretzel sticks.

A couple lessons could be drawn here. First, Weinstein was impressed by Hallam from the outset. And second, he’s always willing to do you a favor.

I’ve been thinking of that encounter since Weinstein jumped into this year’s county executive race — especially since last week, when state Rep. Emily Kinkead accused Hallam oftrying to strike a political deal in 2022. According to Kinkead, Hallam said that if she stepped down from the county sewer authority board, Weinstein would cut off support for a candidate challenging her re-election. All in hopes that he could be appointed to fill Kinkead’s board spot instead.

Hallam and Weinstein deny that account. And along with the mystery of who is telling the truth is another question: How did two young Democrats — who would probably vote the same way on any issue that matters — end up at odds?

One answer: Politics isn’t just about the votes our leaders cast. It’s about the friends, and enemies, they make along the way.

The writing was on the wall moments after Hallam was sworn in three years ago. She and other progressives joined a coalition behind now-President Pat Catena — a faction of Democrats aligned with Weinstein — rather than unite with those more friendly to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

The Fitzgerald group tends to be more socially liberal, and on paper Hallam might seem to have more in common with them. But the coalition she joined was united by something that may be even more powerful than shared convictions: opposition to almost everything Fitzgerald does.

Weinstein and Fitzgerald have long been at odds, while Hallam saw Fitzgerald as an obstacle to advancing a progressive agenda. “It wasn’t about ideology as much as pushing back on administrative interference,” she told me. But whether that majority is motivated by political rivalry or philosophical conviction, Hallam said, “It has been successful as hell.”

She points to her first term, when council advanced a number of causes — such asa 2021 sick leave bill — that had made no progress before. Catena assigned Hallam to the Jail Oversight Board, a position that enables her to seek changes at a facility where she herself was once detained on drug charges.

Hallam said that given the chance, “I would do it all over again,” though she acknowledged that some allies “started turning on us the day we backed Catena.”

Some still question the decision. Fitzgerald ally Tom Duerr, who was sworn in alongside Hallam, said joining Team Weinstein may have seemed like “the most expedient path.” But he said the resulting political tensions delayed progress on such issues as sick leave, which took more than a year to get done.

“There could have been fewer hurdles to get where she wanted,” he said.

Still, if you’re going to oppose Rich Fitzgerald, there are only so many allies you can turn to. And while politics abhors a vacuum, Weinstein is adept at filling it. Critics deride him as the embodiment of old-school politics, but he and his circle have sought to connect with a new generation of leaders outside county council, too.

Consider that Catena and another Weinstein friend, County Councilor Bob Palmosina, joined Hallam in endorsing progressive champion Summer Lee’s congressional bid a year ago. (Fitzgeraldbacked her chief rival, Steve Irwin.) Or that Weinstein and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey both have ties to the powerful Laborers union and — as noted herepreviously — local political consultant Moses Nelson.

WESA Politics Newsletter

Stay on top of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania political news from WESA's reporters — delivered fresh to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

Kinkead took a different path. While Hallam backed Gainey in the 2021 Pittsburgh mayoral race, Kinkead backed the re-election of Bill Peduto, and the two shared a campaign manager. And as a state official, Kinkead has had less cause to clash with Fitzgerald even if she wanted to.

None of that would make Hallam’s alleged proposal more appealing, and it’s not clear such a deal would have helped Weinstein anyway. Gainey would have had to appoint Weinstein to fill her seat. His office says he wouldn’t have, and City Council — which still has Pedutoites in its ranks — would have had to approve it.

But the political landscape could be different next year, with Weinstein controlling the executive branch and a friendly majority in the county legislature.

Hallam says not to worry.

“It’s about being a check on the executive branch,” she said of her mission, and pledged to follow it no matter who holds the office. For that matter, she said, “I don’t want to say [Weinstein] doesn’t care about council, but he doesn’t take an interest in it” to the point of trying to call shots.

As significant as the county executive race, though, there’s a bigger picture.

One dynamic driving this election cycle is a generational struggle, as a rising tide of millennials seeks to supplant its elders. (Gen Xers are left to write political newsletters.) But you can see tensions within that younger generation too, because political conflicts, like political power, are part of the inheritance.

We may look back at 2023 as the coming of age for this new crop of leaders. Like any coming of age, that can be awkward and painful … and one of the hardest parts is trying to escape the shadow of your elders.

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.