Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

In win for progressives, Innamorato takes Democratic primary in Allegheny County executive race

State Rep. Sara Innamorato celebrates winning the Democratic primary race for Allegheny County Executive.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
State Rep. Sara Innamorato celebrates winning the Democratic primary race for Allegheny County Executive with supporters, including Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, left, and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, right.

Pennsylvania Rep. Sara Innamorato has won the Democratic nomination in the race to become Allegheny County's first female county executive — the latest in a series of progressive victories that have transformed local politics in recent years.

"When I launched this campaign, I said I was running because I wanted to build a county for us all, and a county executive will chart the direction for the next generation," she told an enthusiastic crowd of supporters at Trace Brewery in Bloomfield. "Let's create a region where we can all thrive, and we have shared and sustained prosperity for all."

Buoyed by a potent combination of on-the-ground local activism, support from service workers' unions and backing from outside advocacy groups, Innamorato was leading a six-way Democratic field with roughly 37 percent of the vote when The Associated Press called the race shortly after 10 p.m., according to unofficial results.

Innamorato's win follows in the footsteps of fellow progressives such as her longtime ally, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey. Like them, Innamorato has focused on the need to redress social and racial disparities and step up the county's enforcement of environmental regulations. She also pledged to address a shortage of affordable housing and shore up mass transit.

But her overarching goal, she said, was to focus on those "who have been shut out of the political process. And we brought them into the conversation, centering the voices of communities who have been devastated by decades of disinvestment [and] environmental racism" even as the movement "empowered community leaders who are doing the same hard-working of building a better world every day."

Her strong position was evident shortly after polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, when the tally from a batch of more than 71,000 mail-in votes showed her trailing County Treasurer John Weinstein by just 1 percentage point. Previous progressive campaigns have excelled at turning out voters on election day but have lagged in mail-in ballot efforts.

Unofficial vote totals showed that Weinstein dominated in the county's more far-flung suburbs, especially in the west, but Innamorato racked up victories across a broad swath of Pittsburgh, as well as in Democratic-rich suburbs such as Mt. Lebanon and her own hometown of Ross Township.

At his own event in Acrisure Stadium, Weinstein told reporters that voters were ready for a change and that there were "too many guys in this race... Her being a female, I think it helped her immensely in this race. You know, the older white men certainly chopped up the vote, and I was pleased with the vote that we got. It just certainly wasn't enough at this point."

WESA Politics Newsletter

Stay on top of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania political news from WESA's reporters — delivered fresh to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

Innamorato's election-night event attracted a decidedly youthful crowd of volunteers, supporters, and members of the advocacy groups who bolstered her campaign.

Diamonte Ortiz, a spokesperson for activist group OnePA, said Innamorato's win marked an "opportunity to see bold, historic leadership," and that it provides a "stepping stone" for further organizing efforts.

"There is a sense that this happened quickly," Ortiz said of the string of progressive wins, which arguably dates back to 2017, shortly before Innamorato and Lee first ran for the state legislature. "But there is a lot of intentional work going on even after elections" to build the coalition that appeared to have triumphed yet again Tuesday, she said.

Innamorato almost certainly will face Republican contender Joe Rockey, the only candidate on the GOP ticket, in November. But in a county where Democrats have a two-to-one registration advantage, the Democratic nominee starts with a strong advantage.

The next county executive will preside over $3 billion a year in overall spending, and as the head of the state’s second-largest county arguably will rank as western Pennsylvania’s most powerful local official. The position also will come with headaches, including a festering dispute about property tax values.

But new leadership next year is inevitable: Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is term-limited after serving 12 years in the job, and he had no obvious heir — throwing his weight behind City Controller Michael Lamb only a few weeks before the primary. Lamb, however, conceded at 9:45 p.m., saying he'd called Innamorato to congratulate her.

"... Our goal was always to talk to voters, you know, and that's what we did," Lamb said. "We were under-resourced in doing that ... but with the resources we had, I wouldn't have changed a thing."

The outcome Tuesday night caps a moment of tremendous change in Allegheny County politics. Weinstein abandoned his re-election bid for county treasurer, meaning that office will have new leadership for the first time in a quarter-century. Lamb’s controller’s post will also have a new occupant a year from now. Change in the District Attorney’s office and in downballot races is also possible.

The county executive race outcome is “really setting the course for Allegheny County, and not just in my race,” said Lamb — himself a figure in local politics for much of the past quarter-century. “There are other races with critical change afoot. We've had so much change over about to happen because of people either turning out or having moved on. … And I don't know that we've ever had that, at least in my career.”

Michael Lamb speaks with supporters after announcing he'd conceded in the Democratic race for Allegheny County executive.
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Michael Lamb speaks with supporters after announcing he'd conceded in the Democratic race for Allegheny County executive.

Twists and turns

The results bring to a close a months-long campaign that began taking shape during the past winter and spring. Candidates appeared at a slew of forums across the county, focused on issues that ranged from the needs of struggling Monongahela Valley to the concerns of the county’s growing Asian American and Pacific Islander population. But there were few fireworks, and on many hot-button issues — such as replacing current leadership at the Allegheny County Jail — the differences in individual policies were small.

But there were sizable differences in style, background, and governing philosophy.

David Fawcett is a former county councilor and a lawyer whose courtroom fights included challenging policies at the Allegheny County Jail and West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship. He stressed a vision centered on a countywide riverfront biking trail. Innamorato was the only candidate of the six Democrats to call for a property reassessment — necessary to ensure fairness in disadvantaged communities.

Lamb touted his experience as the only candidate in the race to go “from press conferences to practice,” with a long history of championing reforms that included the creation of the county executive-led form of government itself. Weinstein, a native of Kennedy Township, similarly stressed his longtime experience in county government and touted his close ties to unions and business leaders — many of whom contributed to his campaign — as proof he could help deliver an economic jolt to the region.

Businessman Will Parker and former Pittsburgh Public School Board member Theresa Colaizzi also vied for the post, though their bids were short on resources.

The most heated controversies in the race swirled around Weinstein, who emerged from the comparatively obscure post of county treasurer to face a quarter-century’s worth of vetting. Concerns ranged from years-old alleged voting improprieties in his own hometown to more recent allegations that he used political influence to reward friends and punish enemies.

But the attacks swung toward Innamorato in the final two weeks of the race. A public poll showed her leaping out to the lead after holding a distant place in the last survey. Weinstein in particular shelled Innamorato, arguing in an ad that “voters should fear Sara Innnamorato.” The ad also called her a “Democratic Socialist” — a reference to her ties to a progressive movement often associated with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Those attacks are familiar to Innamorato, and while they were arguably fresher in 2018, they may well appear again in attacks by Republican nominee Rockey.

On Tuesday night, his campaign issued a statement pledging to reach out to Democrats "alienated by Democratic nominee Sara Innamorato’s embrace of The Democratic Socialists of America." Rockey himself is quoted in the statement saying he was “inviting moderate Democrats, Independents, and Republicans to come together on an agenda that celebrates job creation and believes in economic growth."

In the primary, at least, Innamorato may have given as good as she got, attacking both Weinstein and Lamb as creatures of the establishment — a message amplified by a network of outside allies none of her rivals, all of whom ran homegrown campaigns, could match.

On Tuesday night, she warned supporters that while the attacks on her were "going away for a little bit. ... But don't worry, they'll be back."

‘How campaigns have always been run’

Innamorato’s front-runner status renewed speculation about a progressive movement that already had overhauled the region’s leadership, most notably with wins by Congresswoman Summer Lee last year, and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey the year before that.

Fitzgerald, the outgoing county executive who threw his support behind Lamb, predicted those wins signaled a shift to a "far-left agenda" for the region, noting that "it sure looks like the moderates didn't do well" Tuesday night.

"So it's been seven years in a row of the far-left winning democratic primaries in Allegheny County. It looks like we're going to become similar to places like San Francisco or Seattle or Portland with a far-left agenda of our elected officials," he said. "You see [the] far-left winning things ... people who want to shut down fossil fuels, people who want to defund the police, and people who kind of don't want to deal with the homeless situation.

"Those folks were running, and they won tonight," he added. "You've got to congratulate them, and we'll move forward."

Progressive groups that supported Innamorato — and other progressive candidates — trumpeted the outcome. "It’s a victory for those who want an Allegheny County that works for everyone, not just the powerful and politically connected," said the Working Families Party in a statement.

Duquesne University law professor Joe Mistick, whose political ties to regional leaders date back to the 1970s and include work for former Mayor Sophie Masloff, says he hasn’t seen such a broadly successful local political insurgency in 50 years.

“There’s no magic to what these progressives are doing,” he said. Fervent door-knocking and appeals to populist impulses and change “are how campaigns have always been won. It’s just that the people in power stopped doing it, and these folks picked it up instead.”

One reason it may have worked this year, he said, is that “If you’re in power for a while, you just get tired,” he added. “Power isn’t as exhilarating as people who don’t have it think it is. It takes a lot out of you, and other people do the things you did when you challenged the system.”

The consolation for an outgoing generation of leadership, he said, might be that “There will be insurgents running against this crowd 25 years from now.”

Jillian Forstadt, Kate Giammarise and Julia Zenkevich 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.