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Matt Dugan wins Democratic primary in Allegheny County District Attorney race over Stephen Zappala

Matt Dugan, candidate for Allegheny County district attorney, speaks to reporters.
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
Matt Dugan speaks to reporters on Tuesday, May 16, following his win in the Democratic primary election for Allegheny County District Attorney.

Matt Dugan, Allegheny County’s chief public defender, has never squared off with District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. in court, but he bested the county’s top law enforcement officer by nearly 20,000 votes in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, according to unofficial results.

Dugan claimed victory shortly after 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, telling supporters he was "just really, really happy" about the results of a campaign that took him "everywhere in the county" to spread his call for reforming the criminal justice system.

"We've been out campaigning since late August, early September ... we've spoken to every community, every borough, every town," he said. "Our message has been consistent the entire time. We’ve called for safe reforms to the criminal justice system, and I think voters overwhelmingly connected with that.”

Dugan’s win means that, if elected in the November general election, he will have a chance to pursue an approach that will seek alternatives to cash bail and incarceration for non-violent, low-level offenders — policies that critics say lead to racial and economic inequities that are rife within the justice system.

The outcome of that race could mark the end of a quarter-century in which Zappala’s name has become practically synonymous with law enforcement in western Pennsylvania — although there is at least a chance of a rematch in the race. The GOP had no candidate of its own on the primary ballot, and Republican party leaders called on voters to write in Zappala’s name.

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While it typically takes a few weeks for county election officials to compile write-in ballot results, it appears likely that Zappala received the 500 votes he’d need to run in the general election because Republicans cast thousands of write-in ballots for him Tuesday. Those write-ins mean it's likely he has earned another shot at the office in the November general election.

In remarks to his supporters Tuesday evening, the incumbent veered between reflections on his years in office, apparent surprise at his primary loss, and rallying the group to continue the fight.

"I'm learning as the Democratic Party evolves. I'm learning about it. And I apologize to my friends and supporters that we didn't have a stronger showing this evening," he said. "But I'll tell you what I think — if we stick around until November, we can kick some ass and take some names. "

Although Zappala seemed to indicate he likely would run as a Republican in the November election, he did not say so definitively. Asked if he would do so, he replied: "I believe I've been nominated by the Republican Party. We'll see. I mean, we're only at halftime of this campaign."

When asked to clarify when he would say if he would accept the nomination, his wife joked: "Yeah, let me know."

'"Right now, we're planning on November," Zappala said.

If re-elected then, Zappala would continue to be the only district attorney Allegheny County has had in the 21st century. It also would mean that, combined with his successful re-election bid in 2019, he would have twice bested challengers from his left who pressed for alternatives to incarceration for non-violent, low-level offenders.

Zappala benefited four years ago from a similar write-in effort, which allowed him to occupy both party’s slots in the November ballot that year.

Still, in heavily Democratic Allegheny County, Dugan would be the obvious frontrunner. And the primary race was transformed by an infusion of outside cash on Dugan’s behalf, thanks to an investment of TV ads and mailers amounting to more than three-quarters of a million dollars from the Pennsylvania Justice & Public Safety PAC. That political committee is funded by billionaire George Soros, a key funder of reform-minded DA candidates nationwide.

Dugan himself raised roughly a tenth of that, and less than Zappala’s $226,800 in fundraising through early May. Zappala’s campaign also made a last-ditch effort to shore up its financing with $115,000 in loans from family members in the last days of the campaign.

The ads accused Zappala of perpetuating and exacerbating racial inequities in the justice system; Zappala’s campaign responded by insisting that Dugan would be “taking orders” from Soros.

Keith Srakocic
Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

Dugan has spent a decade and a half rising through the ranks of the public defender’s office. He dismissed the accusation that outside money would distort his views while speaking with reporters earlier on Tuesday outside his Moon Township polling place.

“I’ve been in this justice system for 16 years. I’ve been talking about these very issues that entire time,” he said. “I will answer to the people of Allegheny County.”

Later on Tuesday morning, though, Zappala decried the role that outside money had played.

“It wasn’t really a campaign because there really wasn’t an exchange of ideas,” he said. “I don’t know what these people stand for from New York. What do they want? But we’re certainly not going to give it to them.”

But Zappala himself repeatedly declined to take part in forums or other political gatherings, running a campaign that was laconic almost to the point of being comatose. Asked why he pursued that approach if he wanted an exchange of ideas, Zappala said, “That was my choice.”

He noted that he faced “a similar type of campaign against me four years ago,” when he was challenged by Turahn Jenkins in the Democratic primary and independent Lisa Middleman in the fall. “ A lot of money came in from outside the state, and we really didn’t publicize it.”

Zappala did lay out a sprawling agenda for another term — the kind of mission statement voters heard little of during the campaign itself — before a clutch of reporters outside his polling place. It included expanding the number of beds for people struggling with mental health and substance use problems, and pressing for a less fractured approach to law enforcement by local departments in places like the Mon Valley: “These petty little political squabbles over who's the chief of police, they're going to stop.”

His stewardship of the office was hailed by supporters at an election-night gathering in the South Side.

Dugan supporters, both in Allegheny County and nationwide, said the win demonstrated that voters are ready for far more sweeping change.

In a statement, Color of Change PAC — a national group that earlier weighed in on Dugan’s behalf with text messages and mailers — called his victory "a moment of power" and said it "sends an important message to prosecutors everywhere, [that] progressive prosecutorial reform is a viable path to victory. "

"Dugan’s campaign was grounded in his vision of a system that seeks to address racial disparities and build a meaningful model of public safety that reflects the values and diversity of the voters living in Allegheny County, Dugan’s experience as a public defender has shaped his values on important issues that have real impact in Black people’s lives," the statement said.

"His commitment to implementing pretrial reform, eradicating bias by declining to prosecute low-level offenses, and his positioning against the use of cash bail will make his time as District Attorney a turning point for Black people in Allegheny [County]."

The ACLU of Pennsylvania also praised Dugan for his "prevention over punishment" approach and said it looks forward to working with Dugan "to help him realize meaningful and powerful reforms to the criminal legal system in Allegheny County," should he be elected in November.

"Like so many of the district attorney contests across the country, the race between Stephen Zappala and Matt Dugan came down to competing visions about how prosecutors choose to navigate and how they might work to reform the criminal legal system," said Danitra Sherman, the organization's deputy advocacy and policy director.

"We improve public safety when we focus on prevention over punishment, and by investing in communities to tackle the root causes of crime — like poverty and lack of opportunity," she said. "Tonight, Allegheny County voters chose reform, rejecting the failed tough-on-crime policies that were a hallmark of Mr. Zappala’s more than two decades in office. "

Kate Giammarise contributed to this report.

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.