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Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala announces affiliation with centrist Forward Party

A man stands at a podium.
Keith Srakocic
District Attorney Stephen Zappala

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. announced his “affiliation” with the centrist Forward Party on Thursday. He also accepted the third-party organization’s endorsement as he seeks re-election to a seventh term in office without, for the first time in his long tenure, the support of local Democrats.

While Zappala has appeared on the ballot as a Democrat in every election during more than two decades in office, he lost to Democratic nominee Matt Dugan in last May’s party primary by nearly 20,000 votes. Still, Zappala received 9,714 write-in votes from Republican voters, garnering enough support to appear as a Republican on the general election ballot. Zappala formally accepted the Republican nomination in June.

The Forward Party was founded in 2022 by businessman and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who serves as a co-chair of the organization along with Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey. Its founders say they created the party with an eye toward bridging political divides in an era of increasing partisan polarization and getting centrist candidates on the ballot.

Zappala signed the party’s affiliation pledge at a press conference Thursday. He said his association with the party is a sign that he shares their beliefs, such as nonpartisanship.

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“When I first became familiar with the forward concept, I looked at it as a conversation that was taking place across the country,” Zappala said. “These guys are serious about making sure that government operates properly. I'm all for that. So, I don't know what you call it. It's not a party, but I think it's a conversation.”

“I am the district attorney, so I'm a prosecutor. I'm not a politician. I don't really care about party affiliation. I never have,” he continued, adding that he believes his past victories in both Republican and Democratic primaries show support for his work as district attorney.

Whitman said that kind of cross-aisle support is why the party reached out to offer support to Zappala.

“That's the kind of person you want who doesn't pay attention to partisan politics when doing their job,” she said.

Craig Snyder, the Pennsylvania Forward Party's chief political strategist, called the district attorney’s race a “case study” for what the nascent political party represents.

“We have a Democratic incumbent, a long-term incumbent who is defeated in a primary by what we would consider to be sort of an extremist candidate. Defeated in large measure because of enormous amounts of outside money that is ideologically tinged,” Snyder said. “It comes with a certain agenda, and we’ve seen that again and again across the country.”

Dugan has received significant financial support from a criminal justice-reform committee funded by financier George Soros. The Pennsylvania Justice and Public Safety PAC reported spending more than $736,000 in "in-kind" spending in favor of Dugan's campaign during the primary season.

In response to a request for comment regarding the Forward Party endorsement, a spokesperson for Dugan’s campaign said, “Matt Dugan is proud to have beaten Steve Zappala in the Democratic primary based on his platform of building a justice system that works for us all. Steve is now associating with his third political party in four months — a party whose most prominent supporters in Pennsylvania are outside the mainstream by supporting abortion bans and school vouchers.”

The Forward Party isn’t technically an official political party in Pennsylvania, as it hasn’t yet met the requirements outlined in state law. But Snyder said Zappala’s affiliation with the group is an affirmation that he shares the group’s principles, including building a “cross-partisan” system of people who support voting reforms, nonpartisan primaries and “better alternatives” in the political system and reject what Snyder described as the “increasingly extremist ideological approaches that are dominating both of the major parties.”

Zappala, who has held the county's top law-enforcement post since the late 1990s, is a longtime Democrat with deep roots in the party. (His father, Stephen Zappala Sr., was also a Democrat as well as a former chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.) But the younger Zappala has appeared on the ballot with a different party affiliation before. During his 2019 campaign for re-election, he won the Democratic primary and received enough write-in votes to appear on the ballot as the Republican nominee.

Even though Zappala will be listed as the Republican candidate for district attorney on the November ballot, he remains a registered Democrat, and Snyder said there’s no current expectation for politicians who sign affiliation pledges with the Forward Party to officially join if it ever attains party status.

Although the Allegheny County Republican Party has endorsed and is supporting the incumbent DA, he isn’t a Republican, county party chair Sam DeMarco said. He noted that the Forward Party has endorsed candidates from both major parties as well as independents.

“To me it means that reasonable people … recognize that Steve is the best candidate in this race to continue in his role as the chief prosecutor here as district attorney in Allegheny County,” he said.

Zappala is the latest Pennsylvania politician to affiliate with the Forward Party. State Sens. Lisa Boscola and Anthony Williams, both Democrats, announced their affiliation with the Forward Party in June, though they remain members of their caucus.

Snyder acknowledged that the odds look stacked against Zappala: Democrats hold a two-to-one registration advantage in Allegheny County. He said he’s hopeful that the Forward Party’s support — and an extensive independent expenditure campaign — will convince enough Democrats and independents to reelect Zappala.

“We think that by explaining to those voters what the Forward Party represents and his affiliation with Forward will help them cross over and vote for him, even though he's running as a Republican,” Snyder said.

“Our intention is to be a material factor in the race,” he said. “We intend to solicit donations to a [political action committee] and to … really help get the district attorney over the finish line.”

Updated: August 17, 2023 at 1:44 PM EDT
Updated to include comments from Stephen Zappala, Christine Todd Whitman and Matt Dugan.
Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at