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Innamorato, Rockey air differences in Allegheny County executive debate

Democrat Sara Innamorato, left, faces Republican Joe Rockey in the 2023 Allegheny County executive race.
Innamorato campaign/Rockey campaign
Democrat Sara Innamorato, left, faces Republican Joe Rockey in the 2023 Allegheny County executive race.

The first of two televised debates in the race for Allegheny County executive featured few fireworks, as Republican Joe Rockey accused Democrat Sara Innamorato of trying to distance herself from previous positions, while Innamorato suggested voters couldn’t trust a candidate who hadn’t distanced himself from the GOP.

Both candidates touted their resumes — Innamorato as a thrice-elected state legislator with government experience, Rockey as a former PNC Bank executive and community volunteer — during the hour-long debate aired on Thursday night by KDKA-TV. Topics included a number of issues familiar to those who have been tracking the campaign: crime concerns Downtown, the state of the county's jail and long-defunct juvenile detention center, property tax policy, and economic development priorities.

Rockey described an economic vision that would focus on attracting manufacturing and grow the population because “people follow jobs.” He said he would visit 100 out-of-town companies “to sell the advantages of doing business in Allegheny County,” which include “an abundance of reliable energy and abundance of water. … It is imperative that Allegheny County participate in that manufacturing boom.”

Innamorato observed that the county already had more open jobs than workers to fill them. “And what that means is that we have to focus on quality-of-life issues that will keep young people here.” She said she'd pursue vocational training opportunities for high schoolers and make the region "a welcoming place for people of all backgrounds and ethnicities,” while finding ways to shore up working families' access to child care.

The candidates also sketched out their differences on property tax assessments, an issue that has bedeviled county leaders for a quarter century. It was also a subject on which Innamorato seemingly modulated her position Thursday night.

Innamorato has long called for a countywide reassessment of property value. Not doing so, she argued, would “exacerbate inequality” by perpetuating valuations that saddle lower-income households with unfair tax burdens. On Thursday, though, she indicated that such a move would happen "if it is determined that we need to reassess" during a process of devising a “modern, transparent and fair system” of property taxation.

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Rockey contended that “a reassessment is stealth for 'I'm going to raise your taxes'” and said the county should work through a backlog of existing appeals before establishing a new system. Innamorato noted that state law puts a cap on the revenue windfall a municipality can garner from a reassessment, though that may not neutralize the impact on a given property owner.

On public safety matters, both candidates agreed on the need for better staffing at the Allegheny County Jail, and they restated their mutual support for mental health and social support services for the homeless. Rockey, however, added that “compassion does not mean allowing a continuous drug trade in the city of Pittsburgh,” prompting Innamorato to respond that linking those issues was “irresponsible.”

But in a move that may have come as a surprise to some supporters, Innamorato said she would support adding officers to the county’s police department — a proposal that Rockey had made previously: “If that is what the Allegheny County Police would like … I would be in favor of that,” she said.

She also flatly declared a need for a juvenile detention facility to replace the shuttered Shuman Center — a topic she has approached gingerly in the past.

“In our conversations throughout the county and throughout this campaign, it has become very clear that we do need a juvenile detention center,” she said Thursday. She noted that there were currently few good options for detained juveniles, who could be housed in the county jail or in other states “away from their support networks.”

Rockey suggested that Innamorato had shifted her position on whether it should be open at all. “In the primaries, she was saying she did not want to reopen it," he said.

“Mr. Rockey is mistaken,” Innamorato countered. “I have talked about opening a small, highly specialized detention facility for young people who have committed crimes that involve a victim.”

When discussions of juvenile justice arose during the primary, Innamorato often focused on the need to provide care for juveniles outside a carceral environment, and expressed fears that a new detention center would end up housing Black juveniiles disproportionately. And although she did allude to the need for such a facility — saying there were “rare cases where juvenile detention is necessary to address acts of community violence” or that "we can have a space separate from the jail" to house juveniles accused of violent crime — she generally spoke more guardedly about it than she did Thursday.

During Thursday's debate, both she and Rockey tempered their earlier criticism of the county for announcing that it had hired a nonprofit agency, Adelphoi, to reopen the facility this winter. Both candidates had previously expressed concern about placing the facility under private management, but each agreed doing so was acceptable as a temporary stopgap.

Rockey himself struck an equivocal note later in the evening, when asked about his political philosophy as a Republican.

He said that he opposed Donald Trump, calling his party’s once and potential future presidential nominee “the definition of the divisiveness, which is what is wrong with politics.” But when asked by KDKA’s Jon Delano whether he would support Joe Biden’s reelection if Trump was the nominee next year, as polls suggest is likely, Rockey hedged: “I will support the right person … when we know who the people are who are running,” he said. “It’s too early for me to comment.”

Innamorato was questioned about her own prior association with the Democratic Socialists of America but denied being a socialist. She called herself a “pragmatic progressive” capable of working across the aisle in Harrisburg. But she invoked the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol and the overturning of Roe v. Wade to blast Rockey for “still commit[ing] to a party that is trying to disrupt our election cycles and trying to take away reproductive healthcare.”

“This election is not about national politics, such as reproductive health care," Rockey countered. “This election is about the middle against the far left.”

Another debate is scheduled to air on WTAE-TV next 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.