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Why abortion rights and crime worries became central to the Allegheny County executive race

Sara Innamorato and Joe Rockey met in the WTAE-TV studios for the second televised debate in the race for Allegheny County executive.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Sara Innamorato and Joe Rockey met in the WTAE-TV studios for the second televised debate in the race for Allegheny County executive.

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.

Success in politics often depends on choosing the right things to oppose. Case in point: When Mother Nature dumped nearly a half-foot of snow during a storm in early 2008, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl responded to the act of aggression by declaring a “war on snow.”

The idea was to devise a better battle plan for deploying resources on city streets. But no matter how you wage a war on snow, you can be assured of winning — at least for a few months, and almost always before the next spring primary.

And a lot of times, we judge political candidates by how well they fight wars on snow — by what they’ll do about issues that are urgent to voters, but over which officials may only have limited control.

If you watched the first two televised debates in the race for county executive, for example, you’d think that Democrat Sara Innamorato and Republican Joe Rockey were running for the post of crime czar. Early questioning in both forums focused on public safety concerns, which occupied at least a quarter of each night’s discussion.

Some aspects of the criminal justice system, like the county jail, are within the purview of the county executive. (Though a debate over the county’s juvenile detention center has been mooted to some extent by the recent decision to reopen it at the behest of the courts.)

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But Pittsburgh, which is ground zero for many local crime fears, is on pace for between 50 and 60 homicides this year — about as many as it had in the mid-2010s, and well below last year’s 71 murders. (That decline is part of a nationwide trend, though, so again it’s hard to know: Is the city doing a better job of clearing the streets, or did the snow just melt?) Countywide homicide rates don’t look wildly out of line with recent history, either.

Homicides aren’t the whole story of course. It doesn’t take much TV news footage of summertime chaos on the South Side to instill a sense of societal collapse, and there’s been a lot of TV news footage. Politicians in cities bluer than Pittsburgh, meanwhile, are taking a more punitive approach to problems like publicly visible substance abuse.

In any case, a Pittsburgh Works poll released last month asked voters what issue should be the top priority for the next county executive; more than one in five said “crime and public safety” — the top pick.

Then again, the second choice of voters was “inflation and rising prices.” Yet no one is asking the candidates’ positions on the Federal Reserve. And public safety, too, is most immediately the responsibility of other officials, including the district attorney and local officials like Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.

One idea discussed in these debates has been Rockey’s proposal to bolster staffing of the county police by 10 percent, to supplement municipalities struggling to field adequate police forces of their own. But that increase would amount to just 20 new officers in a county of 1.2 million people who are divided into 130 municipalities. To his credit, Rockey didn’t try to oversell the idea: When I asked him after the WTAE debate how much impact that number of officers would have, he said only that it would be a “start.”

Innamorato's approach — which her campaign noted I sort of forgot to discuss in the email version of this newsletter! — takes what she calls a "public-health approach to public safety." It's one that relies more heavily on providing social supports, including "co-response" from mental-health experts and social workers. The campaign notes that health and human services fall squarely under the county executive's auspices.

Even so, the conventional wisdom is that crime fears play to Republican messages, and Rockey has been endorsed by local police unions. Innamorato, at least to my eye, has seemed less comfortable debating crime than she has, say, property reassessments — and the attention given to the issue has meant less discussion of topics such as housing, which are at the heart of her campaign.

But Rockey has his own headaches on another issue where voter concern arguably goes beyond a county executive’s job description: abortion.

The topic first surfaced in KDKA’s debate last week, and the Innamorato campaign featured it in an ad days later, noting that Rockey shares a party with, and has contributed to, GOP officeholders who oppose abortion.

Rockey has declined to state his own position on reproductive rights, saying that it isn’t relevant for the job. “Abortion is a national issue,” he said during the WTAE-TV debate. “I will enforce the law, whatever that law is.”

It’s fair to note that Rockey’s support of GOP politicians has been paltry, amounting to a handful of donations over the years. He also wouldn’t be the first county executive opposed to abortion rights: Two-term Democrat Dan Onorato was actively endorsed by anti-abortion groups, and I’m at a loss to point to anything they gained by it.

Folks with experience in county government tell me a county executive could have a marginal impact on abortion policy. It’s possible the county could direct some grant money to a human-services provider that steers women away from abortion, for example. Or the county might be called on to provide security to an abortion provider someday, though that too is primarily a municipal responsibility. But when it comes to preserving broad access to abortion services, the stakes are much higher in another contest this fall: the race for state Supreme Court.

So it’s no surprise that Rockey’s team is arguing that Innamorato is unfairly trying to “nationalize” a local race by bringing abortion into it.

The thing is, she’s had help — courtesy of the conservative-dominated U.S. Supreme Court, which last year overturned the constitutional right to an abortion. Taking away the nationwide protection for that right, and giving down-ballot officials greater leeway to restrict it, means it’s by definition no longer just a “national issue.”

Because when people vote based on their fears — whether about personal safety or personal autonomy — it’s hard to tell them they’re wrong.

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.