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Fitzgerald backs Lamb in county executive race, Weinstein boosted by former rivals

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald endorsing Micheal Lamb to be his successor outside the City County Building
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald endorsing Micheal Lamb to be his successor outside the City County Building

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced his choice to succeed him in the office next year: City Controller Michael Lamb. But one of Lamb's top rivals, John Weinstein, got a boost from two former contenders for that office.

“There's only one candidate with the qualifications, track record, honesty and integrity to lead this county for the next four years. And that's Michael Lamb,” said Fitzgerald during a mid-morning news conference Monday at the City-County Building, Downtown.

Fitzgerald characterized Lamb as the candidate best positioned to continue his own work as county executive — a pitch that explicitly referred to polling that suggests most Democrats are content with Fitzgerald’s tenure.

If you are happy with the direction Allegheny County has been going in — and apparently 73% of you are, according to the recent polls — Michael Lamb is the person who will work each and every day to build on the progress that we have made," he said.

Lamb, who was on hand for the event, praised Fitzgerald’s work ethic as well as his ethics in general.

“You can't question his commitment to making this region better,” he said. "And you can't question the commitment he's had in bringing a higher standard of ethics and integrity to Allegheny County. [That’s] something that I want to continue.”

Ethics has been a key issue in the race so far, largely due to a handful of stories by WESA and other media that have been vetting Weinstein's quarter-century career.

Fitzgerald did not mention Weinstein by name, though at one point while praising Lamb’s commitment to county government reform, he said, "We don’t want to go back to those days of pay-to-play patronage politics.”

A few hours later, Weinstein himself rolled out a pair of endorsements of his own. Erin McClelland, who had been the first candidate to join the race but withdrew earlier this year, and County Councilwoman Liv Bennett backed him at Freedom Corner in the Hill District.

"We have worked together to really get things accomplished for this county," Bennett said. "I actually talked to a number of candidates, and what I really found was that John understood the things that needed to happen in this county. ... He gets it. He knows what we need to do in this county, and he's willing to do it."

Bennett cited Black infant mortality rates in the county that are much higher than average, and rates of home ownership for people of color that are much lower than that of whites.

McClelland, who works as a contractor for the county's human services department, noted that she, Weinstein and Bennett were the three candidates who understood county government from the inside out.

"He knows this county infrastructure like the back of his hand," she said. "He has seen it from the inside for 24 years."

McClelland called it "absolutely ridiculous" that Weinstein's ethics had been called into question.

"I will attest to his character. I will attest to his work ethic," she said.

The endorsement of Bennett came as a shock to at least some political progressives, many of whom have supported Bennett on county council. Bennett withdrew from the race last month amid questions about whether she had met the criteria for filing her election petitions correctly. And she made no secret of her disenchantmentwith white progressives who failed to rally behind her campaign.

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"I did expect this local progressive movement ... to show up," after she withdrew last month. Instead, she said, "These same folks are the ones who have cut a Black woman running for county executive off at the knees."

In ablog post earlier this month titled 'Is This a Political Twilight Zone', Bennett wrote that while she had spoken to other candidates, she had not heard from Innamorato — the candidate who many progressives are supporting in the county executive race. She said she found that "interesting [e]specially when you consider white liberals and their connection to Black leaders."

Bennett repeated that criticism on Monday when asked why she was backing Weinstein instead of Innamorato, who seemed to share her priorities.

Without using Innamorato's name, Bennett said if she and Innamorato were running on similar concerns, "There wouldn't have been such a gap in the issues that were being raised. You cannot play oppression Olympics with a Black woman."

Bennett again asserted that Innamorato's campaign hadn't reached out and cited the work of anti-racist author Robin DiAngelo's book, "White Fragility."

"White progressive women are the most dangerous because they feel like they've already arrived and they have nothing to learn," she said.

Weinstein welcomed the women's support.

"This is what this election's about," he said. "Passion to change our region and bring people to the table that have a vision. .. Everyone will have a seat. Everyone's voice will be heard."

Innamorato declined to comment about Bennett's remarks Monday afternoon.

The impact of any endorsement can be hard to measure, assuming it exists at all. But even if voters pay little attention to such things, Fitzgerald’s support could move the needle in other ways. Fitzgerald himself has $2.2 million in his own campaign war chest and no one to spend it on, and his support may open up some wallets for people to contribute to Lamb directly.

Such support could be crucial for Lamb. Early campaign-finance reports suggest he can’t count on massive contributions paid to Weinstein from a handful of donors, nor the ability to self-finance the way attorney Dave Fawcett can, or the intense support from service-sector unions that seems headed Innamorato’s way. (On Monday, in fact, Innamorato reported receiving $95,000 from SEIU Healthcare, and another $40,000 from a sister union of custodial employees.)

On Monday, Fitzgerald said he will be cutting “some ads in the coming days in which I’ll be stating a lot of the things that you’re hearing me say right now.”

Fitzgerald is term-limited after serving three terms as county executive, and although he is arguably the most powerful local official in western Pennsylvania, he had no obvious successor. He and Lamb, though not political foes, have never been particularly allied, either.

Yet Fitzgerald’s choice of Lamb was no surprise.

The two men share a long history in government, and both allied themselves with a series of reforms two decades ago that created the post that Fitzgerald now holds: Lamb was a leader of the Allegheny 2000 Citizens Committee, which supported a 1998 ballot question that established the government. Later, Lamb would espouse a reform of county administrative “row offices” that pared his own elected position, as prothonotary, out of existence.

“Michael was one of the people that broke with the old Democratic Party back in the late '90s to form this new form of government,” Fitzgerald said. By contrast, he said, Weinstein "did everything he could to save his own office" when voters decided to scrap other county offices, including the post held by Lamb.

At his own event, Weinstein noted that county council itself had drafted the ballot question, and had left the treasurer's job off it

"The treasurer, he said, handles billions of dollars in tax revenue, and state government too elects a treasurer. Morever, he said, "I've been elected six times. And if we were going to eliminate the Treasurer's office, they could have done it at any time."

In any case, Fitzgerald also had few other options if he wanted to weigh in on the race at all. His animosity towards Weinstein is well known, and Innamorato is part of a progressive movement that Fitzgerald has opposed in the past.

Bennett's move was more surprising, and while she can't bring the name recognition or financial resources that Fitzgerald has, some longtime allies privately expressed dismay about the move on Monday.

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.