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Next week’s Allegheny County and Pittsburgh elections mark a coming of age for progressives

The Allegheny County Courthouse and Pittsburgh skyline
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

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.

This is the point in every election cycle where people tend to ask political reporters how they think the election will play out. The key to answering is to sound insightful without getting pinned to a prediction you can be mocked for next week. So what I’m telling anyone who asks is: “This election will mark a coming of age for this generation of Pittsburgh progressives.”

You’ll note that doesn’t necessarily predict a happy occasion for them on Tuesday, necessarily. As we probably all remember, comings of age can be awkward. Sometimes you get your license but your parents still won’t let you drive. Sometimes you show up at the big dance but then get ditched by your homecoming date. (But I’m fine now! It was years ago!)

Those frustrations can be exacerbated by a generation gap that looms larger in Pittsburgh politics than in some other places. The American electorate in general is sort of barbell shaped, with aging boomers on one hand and up-and-coming millennial/Gen Z types on the other. Folks in their 40s and 50s, who might otherwise bridge the gap, are swallowed up in it. And the effect arguably is magnified in Pittsburgh, where we are still living downstream from a hollowing-out of the population during the 1980s collapse of Big Steel.

You can sometimes see the dynamic playing out as various factions fight for the mantle of “progressive” itself.

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Earlier this week, for example, City Controller Michael Lamb held a press conference with supporters to denounce negative ads by state Rep. Sara Innamorato and her allies. Innamorato is in the vanguard of a generation of leaders that includes U.S. Rep. Summer Lee and a handful of other young female representatives. But Lamb said he was the only choice “for those who are looking for a progressive candidate with a record of delivering results and the experience to lead this county.”

While no one would accuse Lamb of being a firebrand, he boasts a quarter-century record of supporting governmental reforms which were often opposed by the Democratic power structure of his day. And as city controller, he joined a successful effort to oppose privatizing the city’s Parking Authority assets.

Those who stood behind Lamb earlier this week included political activists who’ve played critical roles in grassroots organizing for years, and some have supported Innamorato in her campaigns for the state House. They skewed older than many of the activists who’ve worked on behalf of candidates like Lee. But Lamb supporter Stacey Vernallis, who has long been active organizing in the suburbs, agreed that the party was being transformed by “progressives unwilling to wait any more, who have mobilized and know how to get people elected.” She just worried that such fervor, and a lack of executive-branch experience, would make it difficult to govern.

Vernallis said she’d backed Innamorato’s run for state office, and she still has at least one thing in common with Innamorato’s supporters: Neither want to see the race won by County Treasurer John Weinstein, a Democrat from the old school whose ethics have been questioned throughout the campaign.

Polling both public and private suggests that Innamorato may be in the best position to thwart him. And the track record of candidates like her is impressive. In a series of races between 2017 and 2021, progressives showed the ability to amass an impressive ground game. More recently, both Innamorato and district attorney hopeful Matt Dugan have demonstrated an almost awe-inspiring ability to tap national support to provide air-cover even in local elections.

But those same polls also show close to one-fifth of voters remain undecided. And Vernallis said seeing big sums spent by outsider groups was both “wonderful but heartbreaking. It's amazing that the progressive movement has gained an audience with pocketbooks and wallets from across the nation. But when it's so out of balance with local contributions, it raises questions.”

For years now, local politics has been dominated by an elder generation led by County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has been vocal about not wanting to hand over the keys to the car just yet. He’s spent six-figure sums on TV ads and donations to back Lamb. The county’s non-existent campaign finance limits have long permitted him, or anyone else, to do that — a fact that arguably makes raising big sums of outside money easier to tolerate. And Innamorato already discloses her contributors more regularly than the law requires.

But with every election cycle, the political structure built by progressives has gotten harder to ignore — no matter how hard their rivals sometimes try. However Tuesday goes, voters won’t be able to look past it for much longer either.

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.