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As Allegheny County district attorney primary heats up, attack ads begin

Matt Dugan and Stephen Zappala.
Dugan campaign; Keith Srakocic
Matt Dugan (left) is challenging incumbent District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

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.

You can have your lilacs, your rabbits, your signs of rebirth. The signs of spring I watch for are the attack ads on Jeopardy! featuring jowly politicians in slo-mo … or the grim-hued mailers descending on your home like swallows looking for a place to land.

And spring, my friends, is here. Thanks to our district attorney’s race, we’ve seen the first negative advertising in any local race that I’m aware of — and the early sprinkle of what could be an April shower of money from George Soros, a super-funder of progressive causes.

The ads are a one-two punch directed at longtime incumbent District Attorney Steve Zappala: a TV ad and an accompanying mailer that each accuse him of having “betrayed our values” during his nearly quarter-century in office.

As proof they cite criticism of Zappala from local progressives, and a handful of controversies culled from the years:

  • A widely reported 2021 accusation from a Black attorney, Milton Raiford, who said the DA office’s approach to plea deals was “systematically racist.” The dispute spawned a memo from Zappala instructing his office not to offer plea deals to Raiford’s clients. 

The TV spot also briefly features Dugan himself, noting that he is backed by U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, and the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. But the messaging appears to be the first attack ads of the 2023 local election season. While several candidates for Allegheny County executive have launched spots of their own, those have been warmer, introductory spots so far.

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And as you might imagine, Zappala welcomed the ads much like an allergy sufferer welcomes spring flowers.

“It’s disappointing that the very first negative ad of all the campaigns is a false attack ad supporting Matt Dugan,” said Zappala spokesman Mike Mikus.

Some reporting suggests Raiford’s criticism of the DA’s plea deals was off base, for example, though Zappala’s no-plea-deal memo was widely denounced. A dearth of Black prosecutors, meanwhile, has been a national phenomenon.

Mikus himself touted Zappala’s work to provide court programs to help veterans and people facing substance-use and mental-health challenges. And he pointedly noted that the ads were paid for by an outside group.

“Dugan’s out-of-town allies have decided to take the low road,” he groused.

Advertising disclosures assert that while the ads were authorized by Dugan, they were paid for by the Pennsylvania Justice & Public Safety PAC. Registration documents show the committee and its treasurer, Whitney Tymas, are connected to a similarly named federal political committee, the Justice & Public Safety PAC, that has been funded largely by George Soros. The financier and Democratic super-donor has for years invested heavily in helping to elect progressive district attorneys, using a national constellation of political committees bearing the words “justice” and “public safety” in their names.

Notably, for example, a statewide Pennsylvania Justice & Public Safety PAC actively supported Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. That PAC was shut down after his 2021 re-election; the PAC now helping Dugan uses the same name, but was registered at the county level about a month ago.

The local Justice & Public Safety PAC hasn’t been active long enough to report its financial activities, and Tymas did not respond to my efforts to speak with her in time for this newsletter. So it’s not yet clear how much money it has to spend on Dugan’s behalf.

In any case, Dugan says the ads raise questions that should be part of the campaign.

“We’re definitely going to highlight the positives of our campaign,” he said. “But Zappala has a very long record. He’s been in office for 24 years and he continues to make choices and decisions — as recently as two weeks ago — that the public needs to be reminded of.”

Dugan’s campaign has been telegraphing its punch for a few weeks, circulating a memo to donors that suggests Zappala is susceptible to such attacks.

The memo, based on internal polling data, says that when asked about the race, Democratic voters initially back Zappala over Dugan by 56 to 26 percent, with 17 percent undecided. But it also suggests that Democrats favor a reform-minded approach to criminal justice by more than a three-to-one ratio. And when voters hear “relatively balanced negatives” on the two candidates, the poll continues, Dugan leaps to a 56-to-30 lead.

“Voters are eager to send incumbent Steve Zappala home after more than 20 years in office thanks to significant vulnerabilities in his record and a strong desire for reforming the criminal justice system,” the memo argues.

We’ll see whether that’s true: Messaging polls can present a best-case scenario for their cause. But don’t be surprised if, as spring takes hold, you see these negative ads popping up like weeds.

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.