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Amid controversy, Innamorato denounces local Democratic Socialists of America on Israel

State Rep. Sara Innamorato stands at a podium.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Democratic county executive candidate Sara Innamorato, speaking in the spring of 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.

All politics is local, an old political maxim has it. But in this fall’s race for Allegheny County executive, at least, sometimes not even local politics is local. Just ask Democratic nominee Sara Innamorato, who found her campaign caught up in the painful aftermath of this week’s horrific violence in the Middle East.

It may seem bizarre that a candidate for county office is contending with conflict on the other side of the globe. Just last week, local Republicans complained that Innamorato was seeking to “nationalize” her race against her GOP rival, Joe Rockey, by bringing up abortion rights.

But Pittsburgh’s East End is home to one of the country’s largest and most storied Jewish communities — a community that in a few weeks will mourn the fifth annual observance of the 2018 synagogue shooting that marks the worst act of antisemitic violence in U.S. history.

And so it’s of arguably little surprise that this week, the GOP is blasting Innamorato after the Pittsburgh chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America — a group to which she belonged when she won her state House seat in 2018 — voiced support for Palestinians after brutal attacks by Hamas killed more than 1,200 Israelis and took another 100 hostage.

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Within days of those attacks, DSA chapters across the country held rallies and issued statements in support of the Palestinians in the wake of the attacks. On Tuesday evening, Pittsburgh’s chapter expressed its “continued full and unequivocal support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom.”

Without explicitly mentioning the Hamas attacks, the statement blamed Israel for them, asserting that “[v]iolent opposition is the inevitable response to the conditions imposed by Israeli occupation. The conflict can only end if the apartheid regime is lifted from the river to the sea” — a phrase often used by Palestinian militants themselves.

Similar gestures of support by the DSA have prompted backlash from Democrats nationwide, including allies such as New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “The blowback has been felt across Congress, statehouses and city halls,” reported Politico.

The Rockey campaign seized on the issue, charging Wednesday afternoon that Innamorato “still won’t renounce the Democratic Socialists of America for their anti-Israel stand in the wake of last week’s horrific terrorist attacks. …. It’s time for Sara to stand up and reject DSA.”

Innamorato obliged a few hours later with a statement on social media asserting, “I strongly denounce the recent anti-Israel actions and statements of national and local DSA chapters, which coldly ignores the gruesome attacks on innocent Israelis.”

Israel “has a right to defend itself,” she added, while urging it to take steps to minimize civilian casualties.

“I haven’t been affiliated with the DSA since 2019,” she said, and then accused Rockey of “trying to score cheap political points off of people’s pain.”

Asked about the origins of its statement and about its response to criticism of it, the local chapter of the DSA told WESA “We stand by our statement,” but said it would have no other comment.

But Innamorato was a member of the DSA back in 2018, when she won her seat in the state House alongside fellow DSA member Summer Lee. Those were heady days for the movement, and not just due to its electoral successes: Local DSA members engaged in movement-building activities such as replacing broken tail lights for motorists in East Liberty, a safety measure that made it less likely that motorists would be pulled over by police.

The group later suffered internal disputes (though it is supporting two county council candidates this fall). Innamorato’s campaign said she left the organization over policy differences.

Rockey’s campaign had brought up her DSA ties even before the local chapter’s statement on Israel: At his campaign’s launch of “Democrats for Rockey” Tuesday morning, speakers accused Innamorato of dodging the issue.

“Sara hasn’t decided if she’s a Democrat or a Democrat socialist,” said Theresa Sciulli Colaizzi, who challenged Innamorato in the Democratic primary. Colaizzi, who finished a distant fifth in that race with support from slightly more than 2 percent of the Democrats, said she decided to support Rockey because “I am a Democrat, and Sara is not.”

Innamorato “won’t give a straight answer” on her DSA ties, agreed Michael Sarsfield, a longtime Democratic party leader from Carnegie. “I watched both debates. When asked, she [hedges] on it. She won’t tell the truth.”

In fact, while Innamorato did not volunteer that she left the group during those debates, she wasn’t directly asked about it, either. The subject did not arise at all at an Oct. 3 debate on WTAE. During a Sept. 28 KDKA debate, moderator Jon Delano noted her ties to the group in 2018, but he did not ask whether she was currently a member. Instead, when he asked if she was a socialist, she answered “no,” and described herself instead as a “pragmatic progressive” who’d worked with both parties in Harrisburg.

But criticism of the DSA doesn’t just touch on ties to Israel. Colaizzi, for one, said she loved the Democratic Party “enough to want it back from the values of today’s world,” and she told the decidedly older-skewing audience at the Rockey event that a new generation of Democrats should “learn from the wisdom and experience of us older people.”

And by the time Innamorato’s statement came out, national political columnist Salena Zito had already likened her to 2022 Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, whose ties to Gab, a social-media platform that routinely featured antisemitic comments, became a campaign issue last year. Mastriano, she noted, had been criticized by Jewish Democrats including state Rep. Dan Frankel of Squirrel Hill, and observed “it would be interesting to know if he shares that sentiment” about Innamorato.

Spoiler alert: He doesn’t.

"I thought it was a very strong statement," Frankel told WESA. "It supports the Jewish community and supports Israel. It was unequivocal and not at all wishy-washy. I commend her for it."

Innamorato, he added, “has extraordinary empathy. You can see that in her statement, and I saw it in Harrisburg.”

It took Mastriano weeks to disavow Gab and its owner after his support of it was first reported: Innamorato decried the DSA statement within 24 hours. But as Innmoarato’s longtime ally Summer Lee knows, there is a broader political fight taking place, in which debates about Israel get tied into disputes about progressive policies domestically. And this likely won’t be the last time the issue hits close to home.

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.