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Polls open today, with contests up and down the ballot and change in the air in Allegheny County

A person voting at a poll
Emma Lee

They’re called “off-year elections,” but as voters in Allegheny County head to the polls today, almost everything is on the table.

A combination of factors assures that some of the region’s most familiar political faces are departing the scene, but elections today will determine how far, and how fast, voters want that change to go.

The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. todat, and county officials have said they expect a turnout of about 30 percent. Some 77,000 mail in ballots — nearly three-quarters of those sent to voters who requested them — had been returned by Monday afternoon. (If you haven’t sent in your ballot, officials say you can drop it off at the County Office Building, Downtown, or bring the ballot, along with its declaration envelope, to your polling place. Officials there will exchange it for an in-person ballot you can complete like any other voter.)

At the top of the ballot will be a statewide contest in which both parties choose their champions in a fight for a vacant Supreme Court seat this fall. Democrats control the court after a clean sweep of three seats on the court in 2015, but they have struggled in court elections since, and the court’s key role in issues such as abortion rights and voting rules has only grown in recent years.

The prospects for change are more immediate on the local level, starting with the contest to replace Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who is term-limited after 12 years in office.A six-way fight has broken out among Democrats, with polls and other metrics suggesting a top tier of three competitors — state Rep. Sara Innamorato, Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb and county Treasurer John Weinstein — with local attorney David Fawcett making noise behind them, and candidates Will Parker and Theresa Sciulli Colaizzi also in the hunt.

Republican Joe Rockey almost certainly will face the winner of that contest. But the race is already transforming other parts of local government.

In launching his bid for county executive, Weinstein decided to forgo a re-election bid for county treasurer. Democrats Erica Rocchi Brusselars and Pittsburgh City Councilor Anthony Coghill are vying to replace him: Whichever becomes the nominee will be positioned to be the office’s first new leader in a quarter-century. 

Weinstein isn’t the only county executive candidate to leave an open seat behind as he races for the county’s top post: City Controller Michael Lamb announced late last summer that he would not run for that job again. His top deputy, Rachael Heisler, is hoping to take over for her boss: Whether she or her two challengers – Mark DePasquale or Tracy Royston – win the party’s nomination, it will be the first time in 16 years thatthe office is set for new leadership.

Similar generational change may be in the offing for district attorney, where longtime incumbent Steve Zappala faces his most spirited challenge since taking the office in the late 1990s. The county’s chief public defender, Matt Dugan, has launched a serious challenge fueled by massive outside spending and a message that the criminal justice system wastes resources and lives by treating lower-level, non-violent offenders too harshly.

Down-ballot races, though they have attracted less attention, may also mark a break with the past. In Pittsburgh City Council, there will be new replacements for the city’s longest-serving legislators: Bruce Kraus in District 3 and Ricky Burgess in District 9. Other incumbents are also facing challenges. And candidates backed by a political action committee that didn’t exist a couple of cycles ago, Black Women for Better Education, are poised to gain a majority.

The churn in candidate may reveal a deeper turmoil, not just among the politicians themselves but among the interests that support them.

Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh history professor who has studied recent changes in the local political landscape, said this election presents yet another opportunity for a progressive moment to flex its muscles, after last year’s win by Congresswoman Summer Lee and previous victories by Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and a number of local state legislators.

Putnam says those wins both reflect and enhance the power of a movement backed by the SEIU service-workers union, which has been a top funder and field organizer for Innamorato’s bid this year.

“I think the days when the old school, old-boy network that excluded the organized interests of health care workers or treated them as junior partners -- those days are over,” Putnam said.

The election may also reflect the preferences of a Democratic electorate that, even in famously slow-moving Pittsburgh, is shifting further left on issues ranging from economic matters and criminal justice to civil liberties.

A Campos survey conducted in partnership with WESA found that many Democratic voters espoused values in line with progressive candidates: Voters said affordable housing – an issue that is central to Innamorato’s campaign – should be a top priority for local officials. And while crime concerns were top of mind for many, Democratic voters especially expressed a preference for preventive solutions more in keeping with Dugan’s messaging than Zappala’s.

Still, there are no guarantees. WhileInnamorato was the leader in one recent poll, nearly a fifth of voters were undecided at the time — more than enough to shift the numbers in favor of any of the top-tier candidates. Innamorato has been targeted with negative ads almost from the moment that poll named her as a front runner. And Putnam notes that progressives can’t count on a reprise of 2022 — a national contest in which the issue of? abortion was on the rise, or even 2021, when Ed Gainey was able to defeat then-Mayor Bill Peduto in a race defined by calls for police reform that are more muted now.

As progressivism becomes the new center of gravity in local politics, it is subject to its own tensions, Putnam addedLamb and Innamorato, for example, could divide groups with overlapping but not identical voter interests — one prioritizing technocratic reforms and good government, the other foregrounding broader social and economic change.

“If Weinstein wins," she said, "that will be a learning moment for the coalition, who may need to do some more talking before the election."

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.