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Rematch coming in DA's race, as Zappala accepts GOP write-in nomination

An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. will appear on the November ballot as a Republican

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and the Democratic nominee to replace him, Matt Dugan, appear poised for a rematch this fall. Zappala has formally accepted a write-in nomination to run as the Republican candidate, according to the county elections office.

The county received an acceptance letter from Zappala on Monday.

The Zappala campaign did not immediately respond to a call for comment Monday evening. But Sam DeMarco, who chairs the county's Republican Party, said he was "very excited to see that DA Zappala is going to give the voters of Allegheny County a real choice in November. In light of the rising crime, I don't believe that the voters are going to opt for a weak-on-crime district attorney like Matt Dugan would be."

Zappala received 9,714 write-in votes from Republican voters while losing to Dugan in the Democratic primary by 94,974 to 75,575 in May.

Pennsylvania has a “sore loser” law that generally prohibits a candidate who loses in a primary from running again in the general election. But it has an exception for candidates who win a spot on a ballot thanks to the write-in choices of voters themselves.

Zappala is a longtime Democrat who has held the county's top law-enforcement post for nearly a quarter-century. But he has appeared on the ballot as a Republican before: In his 2019 re-election bid, he won the Democratic primary while also receiving sufficient write-in votes to become the Republican nominee. He was challenged by Lisa Middleman, who ran as an independent that year.

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That history is one reason his acceptance of the nomination comes as little surprise. Local Republican leaders urged voters to support Zappala to head off the challenge from Dugan, who ran on a platform of criminal justice reform. On primary night, Zappala himself said that he was “learning as the Democratic Party evolves. …. But I’ll tell you what I think — if we stick around until November, we can kick some ass and take some names.”

Reached for comment, Dugan said, “We’re not at all surprised by this. A lot of their messaging in the primary involved Republican talking points. But nothing really changes for us. We know we are going to outwork him. We were confident in January, and we’re even more confident now."

Dugan himself announced plans to step down from his post as the county's chief public defender earlier this month. His last day in the position will be July 7. Dugan said a mix of family and ethical considerations guided the move.

"As the probability increases that I'm going to be the next district attorney, it does create a potential for conflict moving forward. I’m very limited in terms of the cases I have intimate knowledge of. But I wanted to eliminate the potential for any future conflicts, and the appearance of a conflict is also a problem."

In a county where Democrats hold a two-to-one registration advantage, Zappala faces an uphill climb. Campaign finance reports show that he will go into the race with fewer than $28,000 in his campaign bank account and $110,000 in debt. Dugan has only $130, but he was backed heavily by a criminal-justice reform committee funded by financier George Soros. That group, the Pennsylvania Justice and Public Safety PAC, reported spending more than $736,000 in "in-kind" spending for Dugan's benefit this spring.

DeMarco predicted that Zappala would fare well with Republicans, despite his long tenure as a prominent local Democrat. "I think any Republican, when faced with a choice involving District Attorney Zappala — with whom we've had some differences — and a guy backed by George Soros? It won't even be a question. The party will help in any way [Zappala] desires, because at the end of the day, public safety is not a partisan issue."

Dugan says that going into the fall, "I expect our national partners to be present. We’re not pulling back at all."

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.