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Zappala is running a quiet campaign for Allegheny County DA. Is it enough against Dugan?

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

One thing you can’t accuse District Attorney Steven A. Zappala Jr. of is political grandstanding in an election year. Outside of an upbeat TV ad about his record, in fact, it can be hard to tell he’s campaigning at all.

That’s despite a spirited challenge from Allegheny County’s chief public defender Matt Dugan, who has largely had the floor to himself at candidate forums — and who isn’t shy about pointing out the fact.

“Right now we have really an absentee district attorney,” he said during a Wednesday-night appearance on an online forum hosted by 1Hood Power. “You’ve seen it on the — well, you’ve not seen it — on the campaign trail.”

“He doesn’t have the respect for voters to show up and answer questions,” Dugan said at another point. “I’ve sat next to an empty chair a dozen times” — including an event in the North Hills a week before that was attended by three media outlets but not Zappala himself.

In a way, this isn’t surprising. First elected in 1999, Steve Zappala has a quarter-century of name recognition. Incumbents with that kind of advantage often minimize their appearances alongside rivals — to avoid giving oxygen to their opponents and avoid committing a bonehead mistake themselves.

And Zappala’s campaign style has always been a bit, well, laconic.

“Steve does not like politics, and he doesn’t believe it belongs in the DA’s office,” said his campaign spokesman, Mike Mikus. (That may surprise voters who read a Tribune-Review story in which prosecutors said political considerations were driving plea decisions. But “that story was wrong,” Mikus said.)

Mikus said Zappala was engaging with voters at community events rather than political gatherings.

“He thinks it’s more valuable to talk to voters than to political activists over and over,” Mikus said. “And he’s very focused on doing his job.”

The thing is, it’s a job you have to reapply for every four years. And Zappala didn’t have that easy a time of it in 2019, when he beat independent candidate Lisa Middleman by 57 to 43 percent in a general election match-up in which he was listed as both the Democratic and the Republican candidate.

Like Middleman, Dugan’s campaign is steeped in his work as a public defender and a reform-minded approach to criminal justice. But the environment might seem less friendly to such an approach this year. Since Middleman’s run, Pittsburgh has recorded its highest homicide total in a decade. Polling this spring suggests crime is at the top of the list of concerns for Allegheny County voters.

The conventional wisdom would be that reformers don’t do well in such times, and backlash against criminal justice reformers has reached even some liberal bastions. Just this week Chicago’s top prosecutor, Kim Foxx, announced she would not run for reelection amid spiking crime rates and friction with police. Closer to home, Republicans in Harrisburg have been waging a bitter, and so far unsuccessful, effort to yank Larry Krasner from his post as District Attorney in Philadelphia.

And since this space broke the news that Dugan was receiving support from a political committee tied to George Soros — who has supported criminal justice reform candidates and causes nationwide — skeptics have sought to link Dugan to such controversies.

Dugan’s response to that has been to stress that a less-punitive approach to low-level, non-violent offenders can free up police and prosecutors to tackle more serious crimes. And he’s pointed out that, after all, this spike in crime rates happened on Zappala’s watch.

“As violent crime started to rise in the second half of 2020 … and then in ’21 and ’22 [there was] no presence from the district attorney's office,” is how he put it this week.

But from the outset of his campaign, Dugan has taken pains to put some distance between himself and Krasner: During the 1Hood interview, for example, he ascribed the “trauma” surrounding Krasner to the fact that “he was sort of by himself” and “operating within a silo,” rather than alongside like-minded local officials with whom broader reforms could be carried out.

That analysis, you’ll note, parallels Dugan’s characterization of Zappala as a loner here in Pittsburgh. And of course, it tees Dugan up to discuss his own connections to a broader movement that includes Mayor Ed Gainey and Congresswoman Summer Lee.

We want to work and collaborate and partner,” he said.

A recent survey by the conservative-skewing Susquehanna Polling and Research suggests that even amid such an environment, a slim majority of voters “believe the criminal justice system … is broken and in need of major overhaul,” and that slightly more voters support treatment and employment options to tougher penalties for non-violent offenders.

And that’s in a sample of voters across geographic and partisan boundaries: No doubt support for reform skews higher among the electorate Zappala and Dugan face this spring.

Even if Zappala does lose the primary, it may not be the last word. He was the beneficiary of a successful effort to write him in as a Republican in 2019, and district attorney is the only county-wide race for which the local Republican Party is not supporting a specific candidate. That leaves Republican voters free to write in Zappala, as they have in the past — though Mikus said the campaign is “focused on winning the Democratic primary” and was not organizing a write-in effort anywhere else.

Beating Zappala won’t be easy: As I reported three weeks ago, Dugan’s own polling showed him 30 points behind Zappala early in the campaign. But I’ve been covering victories by progressive Democrats for several cycles now. Every one of those victories had one thing in common: They came against long-entrenched incumbents who didn’t think they had to run any differently than they had before. Or to run at all.

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.