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Why Innamorato winning labor endorsements in Allegheny County executive race wasn't a total cakewalk

Sara Innamorato, a leader in the region's progressive movement, is running for Allegheny County Executive in 2023
Courtesy campaign
Sara Innamorato, a leader in the region's progressive movement, is running for Allegheny County Executive in 2023.

This is WESA Politics, a weekly newsletter by Chris Potter providing analysis about Pittsburgh and state politics. If you want it earlier — we'll deliver it to your inbox on Thursday afternoon — sign up here.

Ordinarily, “local unions endorse Democrat” is the “dog-bites-man” story of political news. But to hear some labor leaders tell it, there may be a bit more to the story when it comes to labor endorsements garnered last week by Democrat Sara Innamorato’s bid for Allegheny County executive.

What may be at stake, beyond her race this fall against Republican Joe Rockey, is a chance for the county to thrive amid a generational shift in local leadership and a once-in-a-generation investment of federal funds.

Last week, Innamorato picked up the backing of the Allegheny/Fayette Central Labor Council, an umbrella group for area unions, as well as that of labor groups representing workers in the more conservative building trades: carpenters, operating engineers, and electrical workers.

Labor Council President Darrin Kelly said backing Innamorato “was an easy decision” for labor leaders: “You hear in her agenda and in her passion that she has organized labor in her blood.”

At a press event Wednesday, Innamorato laid out an economic plan in which workers would get “a county government that will protect them, invest in them, and ensure that worker power continues to grow.” That included, for example, a new workers rights office to enforce wage requirements and police pay discrimination.

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But easy decision or no, you can’t blame some Democrats for breathing a sigh of relief at the endorsements. Republican Joe Rockey garnered the support of powerful Laborers union locals in June. Innamorato has deep support among more progressive and service-sector unions, but the building trades have been a tougher lift for a candidate who opposes fracking and who last year was among a handful of legislators to oppose tax incentives to create a “hydrogen hub” in the region. (Rockey takes the opposite side on both of those issues.)

The labor council endorsement isn’t exactly a gimme either: The group endorsed John Weinstein for county executive in the Democratic primary, and securing its support requires a vote by two-thirds of its members. Not every Democrat was able to clear that bar this fall: The council didn’t endorse Bethany Hallam, for example, even though she has no opponent running for her seat on Allegheny County Council.

Republicans, not surprisingly, downplayed labor’s backing, noting that rank-and-file union members don’t always follow the endorsement.

“I’ve been told some current elected officials were asking union leaders to hold their nose and support her,” county GOP chair Sam DeMarco told me.

That would, of course, be how business often gets done in politics. In June, Innamorato was publicly backed by two of the state’s most powerful Democrats: outgoing County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Gov. Josh Shapiro. Those endorsements aren’t the sort of thing you stop the presses for, either. Still, they can send a message: How many union leaders would risk antagonizing the governor to back a Republican in Allegheny County?

But to hear Kelly tell it, there is something more at work here than day-to-day dealmaking.

Innamorato’s rise has been part of a generational shift in local politics, and those changes can be painful. She and allies such as Summer Lee had to best old-guard Democrats who had long-standing relationships with building trades and other unions. They also championed environmental justice and economic equity — causes that might well seem threatening to some union members.

Kelly acknowledges that Innamorato’s hydrogen hub vote in particular was controversial. Still, he said, “We spent hours talking, and that was her strongest point — that she wanted to hear what everybody had to say. Her door is never closed.”

And the dialogue, Kelly said, is getting easier.

“When everybody is so dead set on butting heads, you can’t think logically,” he said. “[But] I think we’re all starting to look through the smoke a little bit and say, ‘We know clearly what we disagree on, but let’s talk more about what we agree on.’”

That shared agenda, obviously, includes long-standing union concerns such as organizing rights and prevailing-wage requirements on public projects. And lately it also includes a belief that those rights must be expanded to people and places who haven’t benefited from them. As Innamorato put it Wednesday, “We will end the dynamic of public projects being either diverse or union, and pitting them against one another.”

That message plays best when there is a shortage of workers rather than work, when you get a job because your neighbor gets trained to work beside you. Democrats hope federal COVID-relief and infrastructure bills made available by President Joe Biden have created such a moment, and they’ve been saying so in Pittsburgh all summer long.

In July, First Lady Jill Biden hailed federal investments as a chance to shore up not just infrastructure but the wellbeing of the people who use it. Shapiro himself reinforced that messageless than two weeks later, arguing — alongside Lee and others — that the best way to move the region forward was to ensure that no communities are left behind.

It looks good on paper, though things don’t always work out as you expect. The candidates for county executive already face a potential crisis: news that U.S. Steel may be acquired by an out-of-town buyer, which could determine the future of the region’s last fully integrated steel mill. Asked on Wednesday how she'd protect those union jobs, Innamorato said her goal is to help turn the Mon Valley Works into “the greenest steel-manufacturing plant” possible. But the plant’s fate may depend on forces beyond any local official’s control.

Still, Democrats can see a moment of possibility in what Kelly calls ““a perfect storm of great opportunity.” While they dominate local politics, they’re haunted by divisions within their base: between environmentalists and blue-collar workers in the fossil fuel industry, between people of color and long-established unions. If federal money kickstarts green manufacturing and includes communities of color, it might close some of those gaps.

Local union leaders, at least, appear willing to give it a shot.

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.