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Countywide candidates draw big contributions, but outside money draws the most attention

Michael Lamb stands at a podium with supporters.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb, backed by supporters of his county executive bid, denounced negative ads targeting him aired by rival Sara Innamorato and her allies at a press conference on Monday, May 8.

Candidates for county-wide office reported raising eye-popping sums in campaign-finance reports that were filed late last week. But with just eight days to go before the May 16 primary, what’s drawing controversy isn’t the money candidates have raised for themselves: It’s the money being spent on their behalf by outside groups.

In the Allegheny County executive race, for one, City Controller Michael Lamb is pushing back on attacks made by state Rep. Sara Innamorato and her allies.

During a Monday morning press conference — the tone of which was much sharper than earlier appearances — Lamb called out Innamorato for what he called “misleading and disqualifying attacks.” In particular, Lamb singled out a spot aired on Innamorato’s behalf by the Working Families Party, which alleges that “Lamb’s campaign is run by a banker and funded by lobbyists and corporate polluters.”

The unnamed banker appears to be Doug Anderson, a close Lamb friend and former longtime top aide whose career over the past two decades has been mostly in government, not finance. Anderson, who the Lamb campaign calls a senior advisor, became the city treasurer in the administration of Mayor Bill Peduto. But Anderson left city government in late 2021 — the final days of the Peduto era — to take a vice president position at PNC Bank.

Lamb hailed Anderson as “really the best of our region [who] has been with me for a long, long time.” But he said the campaign was being run by manager Jindalae Suh.

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The ads noting Anderson’s role were “independent expenditures” that Working Family made purportedly without coordinating with Innamorato’s campaign. But as WESA noted last week, the spots borrow their messaging and film footage from an “on this race” page on Innamorato’s web site. Such pages are used as part of a political tactic called “redboxing," in which campaigns float talking points that allies can use without technically coordinating the message.

“We know that the messaging of that ad came from Sara’s own website, and she should be accountable for that. And she should own it,” Lamb said.

Working Families last week reported spending a total of $300,000 on the ads so far — a sum that almost certainly drove up Innamorato’s name recognition and may have made her the frontrunner.

Those commercials add to Innamorato’s already notable fundraising advantage. Lamb reported raising just under $628,000 this year, including money of his own that he directed to the effort and $75,000 from outgoing county executive Rich Fitzgerald (who also supported Lamb with nearly $105,000 worth of “in-kind support” in the form of TV ads on his behalf). Innamorato raised $842,705, a total swelled by nearly $200,000 in support from various branches of the SEIU service-workers union.

(Attorney Dave Fawcett, meanwhile, reported raising $630,000 for the race, most of which he loaned to the bid himself. Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein did not file a report Friday. The campaign cited a “technological failure” and said it would be available “first thing Monday morning.” It was not, and a campaign spokesperson did not provide details by mid-afternoon about when it would be.)

The Innamorato campaign itself does not appear to have referred to Anderson, even indirectly, in its own mailers and TV spots. Mailings now reaching voters at home focus on campaign donations “funded by lobbyists for … big banks and fracking companies.” By way of example, the company points to $30,000 donated to Lamb this year by Stephen Frobouck, who has been active in the natural-gas industry. (Lamb’s campaign notes that Innamorato has reported contributions from fossil-fuel interests like Duquesne Light and a lobbyist whose clients include Exxon, though the sums appeared modest.)

Innamorato’s campaign did not respond directly to a WESA query about whether it was responsible for messaging drawn from its webpage by outside groups, or to whether she would support local efforts to control such outside spending if elected. But in a statement, the campaign called Innamorato “the only candidate for County Executive that is building a movement for all of us” — one that relied on contributions from people of all walks of life including teachers, nurses, janitors, and others who share her vision.”

Working Families national campaign director Joe Dinkin said the campaign wasn’t seeking to attack Anderson personally: ”The point of our message is to demonstrate how some candidates ... have surrounded themselves with corporate and financial elites, from their donors to their campaign organizations, in contrast to Sara Innamorato, who is running a campaign powered by the grassroots.”

‘Taking orders?’

The district attorney’s race, meanwhile, has been dominated by a massive investment of more than $734,000 in “in-kind” spending by the Pennsylvania Justice and Safety PAC. That money has been invested in a series of ads and mailers blasting incumbent Steve Zappala’s record. And the spending has totally upended the race: Last week, Zappala reported raising $226,800 in 2023, an amount bolstered by $25,000 contributions from three unions. He also separately reported $105,000 in loans from family members. His rival in the race, Matt Dugan, himself raised $76,764.17 for his own campaign.

On Monday, Zappala’s campaign decried such influence, noting that the Justice and Safety PAC, a national organization backed by progressive businessman George Soros, was spending nearly 10 times as much money to elect Dugan as Dugan had raised on his own.

“No rational person believes that any politician who gets nearly all their funding from one source won’t be taking orders from them once taking office,” Zappala spokesman Mike Mikus said in the statement.

The Zappala ad, which his campaign says will appear on broadcast and cable, makes a similar argument, though one that’s hard to confirm or refute: “[Dugan] tells voters one thing, but [he's] making big promises to these groups behind closed doors.”

Mikus noted that Justice and Safety had chosen an unusual channel for its support: Instead of making a straight-cash donation to Dugan’s bid, or of running a PR campaign on its own, the group treated the commercials and mailers as “in-kind donations,” which are specifically labeled as having Dugan’s authorization.

That allows Dugan’s campaign to consult with the PAC and withhold his authorization, but Mikus said the arrangement allows the PAC more control over the message than if it handed the money over to Dugan to use himself … and more input on the campaign than it would be able to have making independent ad buys without coordination.

“By funding Dugan’s campaign this way, the group ensures that Dugan has no say in his own campaign,” the Zappala press release said. And Mikus says that means “they’ll have complete control of his office if he’s elected.”

Dugan’s team broadly ignored the charges, issuing a statement that said, “With eight days to go before election day, it's not surprising that Steve Zappala wants to talk about anything other than his two decades of failure at the helm of the DA's office.”

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.