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Allegheny County district attorney race draws stark contrast — and national attention

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

At times, it's almost seemed that outside advocacy groups have taken more interest in the Allegheny County district attorney’s race than the candidates themselves.

One of the country’s best-known Democratic superdonors, for example, is spending more to topple longtime incumbent Steve Zappala than Zappala and his rival, chief public defender Matt Dugan, combined. That money is augmented by a text-message and direct-mail campaign organized by criminal-justice reform advocacy group Color of Change PAC. Even the ACLU has gotten in on the act, sending out mailers and text messages to inform voters about the candidates.

“DAs have a whole lot of power when it comes to sentencing, pretrial detention, bail,” said Danitra Sherman, the Pennsylvania ACLU’s deputy advocacy and policy director. “A lot of people aren't even aware of all the power the DAs hold,” The race between Dugan and Zappala, she said, “was a great opportunity for us to raise awareness.”

By almost any reckoning, in fact, this is Zappala’s most challenging reelection bid yet. While practically a household name in politics, he is being badly outspent by ideological foes — and he has not always been on hand to speak in his own defense.

The ACLU mailers, for example, espouse reforms like “expand[ing] the use of treatment and diversion programs to address mental health and substance use, rather than punish people for low-level crimes.” But while Zappala has helped establish such efforts, only Dugan’s support of expanding is mentioned: Zappala did not return an ACLU questionnaire about where he stood on such matters.

Zappala’s campaign said it simply didn’t receive the survey, though in his last election bid in 2019, he said he was “done with socialists and ACLU forums." He has eschewed candidate forums in a race that has featured no shortage of drama, but in which he and Dugan have rarely shared the same stage.

‘We work with people’

One time the two men did appear together was a May 2 League of Women Voters forum — though each candidate was limited to a three-minute stump speech. Zappala said his ability to create partnerships was keeping the county safe.

“In the city of Pittsburgh crime is up, yes. Violence is up, yes,” he acknowledged. “On the other hand, the countywide [landscape] is a very stable environment, and the reason for that is we work with people.“

First elected in 1999 after being temporarily appointed to fill a vacancy, Zappala has been an electoral juggernaut throughout the early 21st century. But in 2023 he is facing both a spike in concerns about crime and criticism from those who believe the criminal justice system treats defendants, especially non-white defendants, too harshly.

Earlier in his career, Zappala was credited with a number of innovations, like efforts to establish “diversionary courts,” that provided an off-ramp for defendants who had been veterans, or who were charged with drug offenses but not violent acts. At the League of Women Voters forum, Zappala said that law enforcement at every level “ask[s] us for our input on just about everything. We’re usually ahead of the rest of the country.”

But those landmark reforms are a decade or more in the past, and Zappala’s bare-bones website offers little sense of his vision for the future. Asked about his plans for another term and his accomplishments in the last one, his campaign said he’s focused on steadily improving the diversionary court programs. “The biggest quality improvement has been the inclusion of professionals and the providers in the process” rather than just law enforcement, the campaign said in a statement. “We’ve worked with and empowered this community of human service providers.”

But there has been criticism that such reforms don’t go far enough. Drug court, for example, still requires a defendant to plead guilty in order to receive treatment for drug use, and those charges can complicate efforts to find a job or otherwise reestablish a recovering addict in society.

“Yes, we have treatment courts in Allegheny County, and yes, they do a very, very good job of getting resources and getting treatment to folks,” Dugan said during his own remarks at the League forum. “The problem is we wait too long. We don't allow entry into these programs until people have gone too far down the road.”

‘’A criminal legal system’

Dugan, a graduate of Duquesne University’s law school like Zappala, has worked his way up through the public defender’s office since 2007. In this, his first run for office, he’s proposed a number of changes, including efforts to funnel more defendants into alternative programs like drug treatment. Many of his proposals have to do with the everyday choices prosecutors make about bail requests and charging decisions: He has, for example, pledged to end “charge stacking” — the piling-on of criminal offenses to encourage defendants to take a plea deal.

Dugan also says he’d work to rebuild trust with communities who have been on the wrong end of racial disparities, starting with establishing an integrity unit in the DA’s office to review past convictions. That work would begin, he said, with reviewing cases handled by former prosecutor Mark Tranquilli, who resigned as a county judgeafter making racist statements. (Zappala’s campaign argues such a move is unnecessary: While Tranquilli’s statements were “outrageous and wrong,” it said, “there is no evidence that any of his cases have been tainted.”)

Dugan says he’d pursue more crime-prevention strategies which would focus more on social and economic concerns like poverty, which drives crime. Doing so, he has said, requires a DA to “get outside of the silo that is the district attorney's office” and work alongside public officials like the mayor of Pittsburgh and the next Allegheny County executive.

Zappala’s relationships with the current and previous mayor were prickly. But while Dugan portrays him as isolated, Zappala has blasted Dugan for the company he keeps.

Dugan’s campaign has been buoyed by more than $700,000 in free advertising paid for by Pennsylvania Justice and Public Safety PAC. The committee is funded by George Soros, a Democratic superdonor who has supported criminal justice reform candidates nationwide. That money has transformed the race with ads and mailers blasting Zappala, whose campaign says “out-of-state groups bankrolling Dugan have called for defunding the police while also calling all law enforcement dangerous and violent.”

(National advocacy group Color of Change PAC, one of the groups whose rhetoric the Zappala campaign is calling out, has used text messages and mailings to support Dugan. It said Dugan’s pledge to “eradicat[e] bias by declining to prosecute low-level offenses, and his positioning against the use of cash bail make him a candidate that represents our values.” Zappala, meanwhile, “has continued to prop up a criminal legal system that hurts Black people.”)

Referring to a KDKA radio interview in which Dugan pushed back on being labeled as a “progressive,” Zappala’s camp said he “has been caught saying one thing here on talk radio and promising others when meeting with groups in Washington, D.C. Matt Dugan won’t say how many times someone can rob a small business, drain the bank account of an elderly person, or steal a car before they’re punished. While these crimes are non-violent, they have real victims and he totally ignores that.”

Dugan’s campaign brushed that attack aside, saying that he would “differentiate between someone stealing to feed their family and those committing high level or high-frequency thefts. We’ve committed to charging, prosecuting, and convicting individuals who commit violent crimes.”

And as with any challenger in such a race, Dugan says if voters in Allegheny County are concerned about crime, the blame lies with the incumbent.

“Steve Zappala has presided over the increase of crime in Allegheny County,” his campaign said. “His failed policies and lack of solutions are why Allegheny County is eager to replace him.”

In any case, it remains to be seen how wide is the gap between criminal-justice reform advocates and Democratic primary voters.

Some of Zappala’s own messaging has tacked to the left. One recent campaign mailing, for example, only made a glancing mention of public safety, stressing instead his support for abortion and LGBT rights as well as his efforts to improve police accountability through the purchase of police body cameras. (A campaign spokesman said the mailer stressed those social concerns because Zappala’s stance on them is less well known than his record on criminal justice.)

And the ACLU touts internal polling that shows likely Democratic primary voters in Allegheny County preferred — by roughly three-to-one majorities — a candidate “who believes the DA’s office should [invest] more resources to prevention over a candidate who believes the DA’s office should be tough on crime and have zero tolerance for criminals.”

Internal polls sometimes serve to justify choices the sponsor has already made. But Sherman, the deputy director of the ACLU's statewide advocacy efforts, says a focus on outside money may miss the point. “I think what people see from a candidate — who they are, what they stand for — matters more than anything.”

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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.