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Dugan/Zappala rematch gets underway as Zappala goes negative with season's first TV ads

Matt Dugan and Stephen Zappala.
Dugan campaign; Keith Srakocic
Matt Dugan (left) is challenging incumbent District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.

Coming to your TV set soon: ads heralding the sequel to the race between incumbent Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. and his challenger, former chief public defender Matt Dugan.

Zappala launched the first ads of the general election campaign season this week, and they pick up where the testy race in the Democratic primary left off — with Zappala accusing Dugan of pursuing an approach to criminal justice that will “devastate communities” and lead to “complete lawlessness.”

The 30-second spot features a dystopian montage of street violence, with gun-wielding criminals, smash-and-grab robberies, and car collisions. At the outset of the ad, labels identify the scenes as taking place in Philadelphia and San Francisco, as the narrator asks, “What does Pittsburgh have in common with these cities? The same extremists who created this now want Pittsburgh to be their next social justice experiment.”

After intoning that “Matt Dugan fights for criminals that you elected me to convict,” Zappala himself appears and says, “I’ve dedicated my career to protecting you and your family. I will never permit your safety to become an experiment.”

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Filings with the FCC show that the spot is slated to run on local airwaves through the first week of October, and to air during morning and evening news programs as well as programming that includes football broadcasts and game shows. The Zappala campaign said it intends to spend roughly $200,000 on the ad, which will also appear on cable and online.

It’s a pugnacious beginning to the fall campaign, and it follows a Democratic primary in which Dugan bested the six-term incumbent to be the party’s nominee — while Zappala secured the Republican nomination as a write-in candidate.

There were few direct confrontations between the men in the spring campaign, which did not feature a debate between them. (The general election will be different, with one debate expected to take place on KDKA-TV next month.) But while Zappala ran a low-key race as the steady-handed incumbent, Dugan campaigned as a reformer, seeking to make the justice system less punitive for non-violent offenders and to weed out racial and economic inequities.

In the past, Zappala has touted his own record as a reformer, and even this spring he billed himself as a supporter of LGBT rights. But there is little sense of that in the new spot. Instead, the ad’s messaging echoes long-standing Republican attacks on Democrats as soft on crime when not hell-bent on fomenting disorder.

“We’re looking at two guys with long records, and those records are going to be explored” throughout the campaign, said Zappala campaign spokesman Ben Wren.

“We wanted people to understand that they have a choice between a guy who has a record of putting bad people in jail, versus a guy who has spent his years fighting for them," he said.

That, of course, was Dugan’s job as a public defender. But while Wren acknowledges that “a public defender is a vital part of the judicial process, it seems like Matt Dugan wants to switch sides of the courtroom without switching sides.”

Zappala and other critics of Dugan have linked Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and other cities before, based at least in part on the fact that Dugan’s bid has drawn the vast majority of its financial support from a committee backed by billionaire and criminal justice advocate George Soros. A Soros-funded political committee also previously backed Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner and former San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin. Boudin was recalled by voters last summer: Krasner has been controversial as well, though rates of violent crime in Philadelphia have been easing this year.

Alex Rose, a spokesman for Dugan’s campaign, called the ads’ approach “not surprising. This is who Steve Zappala is. It shows that he’s running to his Republican friends, and he’s out of touch with the need for reform.”

As was the case in the primary, Dugan seems poised to turn crime fears back on the incumbent, who’s been in office during a COVID-era spike in crime rates. On Tuesday, Dugan said he’d roll out a crime-prevention plan for Downtown Pittsburgh at the end of the week.

“We need a new approach to crime Downtown,” he said in a statement. “Steve Zappala has talked tough, but what we actually need is results.

In the meantime, Rose said the Zappala campaign ad amounted to little more than “scare tactics” and said voters who were concerned by them should pay attention to Dugan’s policy rollout this Friday.

“I think people will be able to see for themselves that his plan addresses the issues that Steve has not addressed for more than two decades," he said.

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.