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Independent socialist Redwood seeks to oust Walton in District 10 County Council race

Carl Redwood.
Redwood Campaign
Longtime Pittsburgh activist Carl Redwood is mounting an independent socialist challenge against Democratic two-term County Council District 10 incumbent Dewitt Walton.

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Allegheny County voters usually don’t have much to look forward to in off-year elections. In a jurisdiction where Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one, many local races are decided in the primary. But this year is different, as voters have an opportunity to break away from years of Democratic rule by supporting a true political outsider.

I’m speaking, of course, of the County Council District 10 race, in which longtime activist Carl Redwood is running as an independent to challenge two-term incumbent Dewitt Walton.

OK, sure, there’s a county executive race in which Republicans are fielding Joe Rockey against progressive Democratic nominee Sara Innamorato, if that’s more your bag. But should you get tired of the major parties bandying about the meaning of socialism, the District 10 race offers an unapologetic socialist.

“I'm running as an independent. I'm also running as a socialist. People haven't done that in Allegheny County,” said Redwood, who filed papers this week to appear on the November ballot. But he added, “We don't have to just go the traditional routes because there's a new world we're trying to create.”

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District 10 comprises a number of Pittsburgh wards, including some key Black communities, as well as Wilkinsburg and nearby suburbs. Walton, who has spent his career in union activism and pushed to create a county police review board, has represented the area since 2016. But after surviving a three-way primary this spring, he faces Redwood, a fellow Hill District resident who’s battled to ensure the community benefits from development planned around PPG Paints Arena.

Redwood now wants to carry the fight against the owning class to county council. He backs what he calls a “renters’ Bill of Rights,” which would not only grant protection from the caprices of landlords but would provide legal assistance in asserting those rights. The bill, said Redwood, “would include the right of counsel after [a tenant is] evicted from their house, so there would be a lawyer that could be present” when landlord/tenant disputes are heard in court.

Lawyers have discussed for years the possibility of providing free counsel, such as indigent defendants get in criminal cases, for life-altering civil disputes such as evictions. But Redwood also backs solutions — such as imposing rent control regulations to limit a landlord’s power to increase rent — that he knows “the state will try to block.”

That doesn’t bother him.

“Part of what we need to do in government is speak to the real needs and aspirations of our families,” he said. “Some people have given up on doing what’s right and instead just do what they think is possible. We have to have a more visionary picture of what’s possible … and that's what this campaign is about.”

Such initiatives align Redwood not only with such groups as the Green Party and the Democratic Socialists of America but also with council members like Bethany Hallam, who believe county council should take on issues such as the environment and workplace justice. (Hallam has another reason to smile on Redwood’s campaign: She and Walton are frequent council antagonists.)

Independent candidates don’t have it easy: District 13 county councilperson Liv Bennett, who like Redwood was running with Green Party support after withdrawing from the Democratic primary, gave up that bid earlier this week. Around here, off-year elections usually draw little interest, and Democratic incumbents can almost take victory for granted.

On the other hand … Democratic incumbents often do take victory for granted.

It’s easy to forget, now that progressives have essentially remade the Democratic Party, that their takeover in many ways began with a candidate running as an independent in a down-ballot contest: Mik Pappas’ 2017 toppling of Ron Costa for a magisterial district judge seat in Pittsburgh.

Pappas, too, emphasized the needs of renters and called for new approaches to justice. (While he decided not to run for re-election this year, his likely replacement, lawyer Kate Lovelace, seems likely to continue that emphasis.)

And he faced challenges Redwood won’t: Since 2017, state law no longer allows straight-ticket voting by party, which means citizens must vote each down-ballot race separately. Such conditions can benefit candidates with impassioned bases. And the fact that Redwood’s election papers included more than 1,000 signatures — several times the number needed — suggests a ground game at work.

Walton says he’s taking nothing for granted and that he’s “very concerned” about Redwood’s challenge. Redwood, for his part, says the race won’t be personal: “I’m running for the future. I’m not really running against him.”

That’s consistent with a progressive habit in which candidates focus more on articulating an alternate political vision than attacking incumbents. But it wasn’t for lack of trying on my part. The closest I came to drawing Redwood into the kind of tit-for-tat that political journalists thrive on was when I asked what he thought of Walton’s decision to vote against a minimum wage increase for county workers.

“You know, people have to ask the question: Why?” he said.

But he’s also hoping they ask, “Why not?” Why don’t renters have more control of their destinies? Why can’t workers get a hike in the minimum wage? And if county council can’t do something about it, who can?

If nothing else, he said, his campaign will acquaint people with socialist beliefs and make them harder to demonize.

“We really need to work on that,” he said. “And it’s easier to do now. Young people are more open to ideas that present a real vision of a new world. [And] you can be old and idealistic, too. That idealism usually leads you toward a kind of socialist vision that’s more equal.”

Redwood, a veteran activist, knows that the first victory you win is the struggle itself — the ability to build a movement that has to be taken seriously. In that sense, he may already have won this week.

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.