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Local Dems pledge unity after tough primary as leaders look ahead to change

 Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald embraces Sara Innamorato, the Democratic nominee to replace him next year, at a Democratic "unity picnic" on Saturday, June 10.
Caiolinn Ertel
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald embraces Sara Innamorato, the Democratic nominee to replace him next year, at a Democratic "unity picnic" on Saturday, June 10.

After a high-stakes primary that pitted factions of the party against each other, Allegheny County Democrats joined on Saturday for a “unity picnic” in which former rivals literally and metaphorically embraced and pledged to join efforts this fall.

And the party’s county chairman, Sam Hens-Greco, said the party will have more time to hash out — and hopefully resolve — differences in the months ahead.

“We are the people who stand up for the underdogs, the people on the margins, the families who are living paycheck to paycheck and just can’t quite make it work,” Sara Innamorato, the party’s nominee for county executive this fall, told a crowd of about 200 gathered on the North Side’s Allegheny Commons.

“That’s why we’re Democrats," she said. "And not only do we see those people and hear their stories, [but] we have the policy solutions to lift them up.”

Two of Innamorato’s top rivals from the grueling six-way county executive race in the primary, attorney Dave Fawcett and Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb, were on hand for the event. County Treasurer John Weinstein, who finished second, did not attend and did not respond to a WESA query Sunday afternoon. Perhaps most notably, outgoing County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was on hand, introducing Innamorato as “our next county executive” and pledging to “help her every way I can.”

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Fitzgerald, known for a hard-driving political style, backed City Controller Michael Lamb in the primary, calling him the “only candidate with the qualifications, track record, honesty and integrity to lead this county for the next four years.”

But on Saturday, Fitzgerald offered up an anecdote — new to many of those in attendance — that he had offered Innamorato a job as his administrative assistant when Austin Davis decided to leave that post to run for the state House.

“There was this young woman from Lawrenceville who my daughter kept telling me about who was really a dynamic person, a woman by the name of Sara Innamorato,” he said. But when he offered her the post, Innamorato turned it down “to tell me she’s going to run for the state House, and like an old wise person, I say, ‘It probably won’t work out for you. And when it doesn’t, come on back, and come and work in my office.’”

Innamorato won that race, toppling Dom Costa in 2018, and Fitzgerald later appointed her to the county Housing Authority board. He said he and other top figures in his administration have begun meeting with her to talk about the intricacies of county government, but he said his job Saturday was “to introduce a pretty special person that decided not to take a job in the Fitzgerald administration five or six years ago, but I know is going to do a great job.”

Fitzgerald and Innamorato exchanged a hug before Innamorato began her speech, as other Democrats called for support up and down the Democratic ticket, including in statewide judicial races.

Innamorato is not guaranteed the county executive seat. Retired bank executive Joe Rockey is the Republican nominee, and late last week he received an endorsement from the Laborers union, one of the region’s freer-spending unions and among the most likely to cross party lines. Democrats say they won’t be surprised if another union or two — particularly one whose members work in the fossil-fuel sector — follow suit, though they are not expecting widespread defections.

At the picnic, Democrats stressed that more than this fall is at stake. The county’s three-member Board of Elections consists of a county council member from each party and the county executive, meaning that the winner of this fall’s election will have a decisive vote on the conduct of elections during next year’s presidential race.

“If we do not win the county executive race this fall, you can forget about the 2024 election,” Hens-Greco said. “The board of elections will be in the hands of the Republicans, and we do not want that.”

The event Saturday was the first such gathering of its kind in recent memory, although Hens-Greco said he got the idea from records of earlier picnics that he discovered while clearing out a party storage unit that he discovered only recently.

“There are some traditions I have thought needed to be changed, but this one seemed like a good idea,” he said. “Primaries are necessary, but they can be brutal. All politics is local, and municipal elections — you can’t get more local than that. And with the county executive race, the way it unfolded, this year seemed to be the year to do it.”

Fitzgerald’s speech was warmly received even by politicos who have been wary of him, and Hens-Greco said the embrace with Innamorato “really set the tone for the day.”

Hens-Greco said he hopes to move the Allegheny County Democratic Committee forward in other ways this year. The county party is laying the groundwork for a bylaws convention — the first since 2009 — for this fall, with plans to address long-simmering disputes about how it does business.

“There are a lot of bylaw issues that we need to examine,” he said.

Late last month. party leaders sent survey forms to committee members asking for their opinions on a range of issues. Among the most contentious: the rules for endorsing candidates in the primary.

Committee members, two of whom are elected from each voting district in the county, give their stamp of approval to candidates running in the primary. While voters can and often do ignore those recommendations — party leaders endorsed Weinstein for county executive, for example — the choices and the selection process have been contentious.

Among the questions being asked of county members, is whether the endorsement should continue at all, and whether the threshold should be changed. Currently, a candidate can get the county endorsement with less than a majority of votes cast, as Weinstein did. The state party, however, requires a two-thirds threshold to endorse statewide candidates.

Hens-Greco said the party is also sounding out members on how they feel about ranked-choice voting for such decisions: The party used the process to good effect during a series of special elections to the state House this past winter.

The surveys are due back at the end of this week. The party hopes to hold listening sessions in July and August, propose changes in September and hold a convention in the fall.

Hens-Greco said the party must move quickly with any changes. Efforts are underway to move up the date of Pennsylvania’s primaries to play a larger role in selecting the president next year — a change that would accelerate the calendar for the local party’s activities in down-ballot contests.

“We’re going to have to dive right into the 2024 election,” Hens-Greco said.

And he’d rather have any controversies resolved well before then.

“We’re trying to build a party," he said. "And taking that energy that [committeepeople] want to invest in helping Democrats — that’s really the goal.”

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.