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Sara Innamorato claims victory in Allegheny County executive race, defeating Joe Rockey

Sara Innamorato during her acceptance speech on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Sara Innamorato will become the first woman to hold the Allegheny County executive office.

Democrat Sara Innamorato will be the next Allegheny County executive, drawing on a two-to-one voter-registration advantage and appeals to Democratic unity on social issues to overcome Republican Joe Rockey.

The former state representative, who spoke often about the childhood hardship of losing her father to drug addiction, is now poised to become the most powerful local elected official in western Pennsylvania, as well as the first woman to hold the county office. Her tenure promises to take county government in a decidedly more progressive direction.

"We're bringing together people who have been left out and shut out and pushed out of government for far too long," she told supporters gathered at her election night party at Mr. Smalls in Millvale.

She sketched out a vision for the county in which "everyone has access to safe and affordable housing. Everyone is safe and secure in their community and has a place to call home. It's how we build a green economy that includes workers and creates a healthier environment. ... It's a vision where our county reflects the will of our communities and addresses our needs head on."

The evening started inauspiciously for Democrats when the county dropped a sizable batch of more than 100,000 mail-in ballots shortly after polls closed. Innamorato posted a two-to-one margin — just above a 65% threshold Dems said she could ill afford to drop below.

Rockey chipped away at that lead as in-person results trickled in. But he didn't make up ground quickly enough, and the Associated Press called the race shortly before 10 p.m.

"I stand here tonight in awe of the trust that you've placed in me, and I am confident that together we can build an Allegheny County for us all," Innamorato told supporters.

"My story is my own, and in sharing it I know that others feel seen," she said, alluding to her difficult childhood. "Government is its best when it's connected to the struggle of everyday people."

Applauding as she spoke were Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, state Rep. La'Tasha D. Mayes, and other civic and labor leaders from around the region.

"Tonight is a special night because of you . . . we thank you, the first woman county exec of Allegheny County," said Gainey, who warmed up the crowd before Innamorato's speech, calling her a "student of policy" and pointing to her past experience as a state legislator and the relationships she'd forged in Harrisburg.

"She will help to take this region to the next level. ... Let's go get it," Gainey said.

Davis noted the history-making nature of Innamorato's win, saying "We elected our first woman county executive. And more than that... we elected someone who is going to work like hell for working-class people. And today, you sent the governor and I a partner [to] make sure that every person ... had equal access to the ballot box, and to make sure the people who are closest to the pain are closest to the power."

Elsewhere in the crowd was David Fawcett, who'd run against Innamorato in the Democratic primary.

"If I wasn't going to win, I wanted her to," he said. "I think it's great [that] the county has a smart young woman leading it."

Fawcett acknowledged concerns that Innamorato, who served in the state legislature for five years but lacked executive-branch experience, was untested.

"But they said that about Barack Obama too," he noted, "and he turned out to be a pretty good president."

Also celebrating Innamorato's win were members of the SEIU service-workers union, which supported her through her primary and general election races.

“The election of Sara Innamorato for Allegheny County executive is a historic victory for working people," said Matt Yarnell, president of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, in a statement. "The right to organize and build worker power among the region’s largest employers was on the ballot this year, and voters made it clear that it is a top priority in Allegheny County.”  

Rockey did not immediately concede after the AP called the race, and Allegheny County Republican Chair Sam DeMarco initially told Rockey supporters who gathered at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown hotel: "We always believed it was going to be a nail-biter."

But within the hour, Rockey stood before his supporters and told them that, despite his loss, his campaign had sent a message. He projected that he would earn about 49 percent of the votes when all were counted, and he called that "a pretty impressive outcome for a county that is 67 percent Democrat."

"We sent the message that the middle truly matters, and the middle can make a difference in Allegheny County," he said, wiping away tears.

Earlier in the evening, the initial results favoring Rockey had buoyed the hopes of Rockey supporter Carl Dozzi, a diehard Republican from Ross Township who said he has gotten more involved with politics since he retired. Waiting with other Rockey supporters at the Wyndham, Dozzi said he met Rockey at an event and liked him. That prompted Dozzi to reach out to the presumed Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2024, Dave McCormick, to ask for McCormick's opinion.

"I called Dave and said, 'What do you think of this guy Rockey?'" Dozzi said. "And he said, 'Carl, he's the guy we got to get in.'"

The winner of the county executive race will have some sway over county elections in 2024 through the elections board, but Dozzi said that's not why he wanted Rockey to win so badly: Dozzi didn't like the fact that Innamorato had once been a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Diehard Republican Carl Dozzi said he threw his support behind Joe Rockey, the GOP candidate for Allegheny County executive, after meeting Rockey at an event and liking Rockey's message.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Diehard Republican Carl Dozzi threw his support behind Joe Rockey, the GOP candidate for Allegheny County executive, after meeting Rockey at an event and liking Rockey's message.

Rockey focused heavily on three issues throughout his bid: job creation, public safety, and a pledge to avoid a countywide tax reassessment. He offered a traditional approach to each, pledging to lure manufacturing concerns to the region by marketing its access to natural gas deposits and providing additional county police to municipalities in need.

DeMarco said he saw polls that showed that crime and public safety were the biggest issues in the campaign, resonating with voters even more than last year when several Pennsylvania Republicans lost races while focusing on crime.

And while economists say that reassessments are key to an equitable and predictable tax burden, recent history shows they can be politically perilous: Rockey’s campaign chair, former county executive Jim Roddey, lost a 2003 reelection effort amid anger over an assessment.

During the campaign, Innamorato said she favored a reassessment accompanied by protections for longtime and elderly residents against a spike in tax burdens. Her approach to public safety, an area in which county executives play a tertiary role, relied on addressing “root causes” through spending on human services.

But while the county is decidedly blue, Innamorato faced challenges with which few other local Democrats in off-year elections have had to contend.

While Rockey ran unopposed in the spring Republican primary, Innamorato fought through a contentious six-way Democratic primary in which the other top contenders, City Controller Michael Lamb and County Treasurer John Weinstein, feuded heavily with each other. But she emerged with less than 40% of the vote among Democrats, and building trades unions — who often skew more conservative than other labor groups — peeled off from the Democrats’ cause.

The Rockey campaign sought to exploit those divisions right up to the end: Rockey held a rally the day before the election with the Laborers union, one of his earliest backers in the general election and among the most generous in terms of financial contributions.

“We have a unique opportunity to elect a centrist who will lead us in a positive direction, or a far-left liberal who will actually implement things which have failed throughout the country,” he said then.

“To keep working, to enjoy a good thorough economy that is thriving, we are for Rockey,” agreed Phil Ameris, the president of the Western Pennsylvania Laborers District Council.

A man holds up his hands behind a podium.
Oliver Morrison
90.5 WESA
Republican Joe Rockey speaks to his supporters on election night, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.

Innamorato had much broader support among labor unions, including the backing of the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, an umbrella group. Even so, Democrats found themselves playing defense throughout the fall.

They were badly outspent in terms of advertising: Rockey reported raising more than $1.6 million and climbing in the final days of the campaign — more than $1 million more than Innamorato. He was boosted further by an independent political group, Save Allegheny, that bought time on local airwaves as well.

Innamorato got a late boost from the Working Families Party, but that support took the form of campaign mailers — a concession to the fact that broadcast ads cost more for non-candidate political groups.

Some public polls showed the race within the margin of error, though Democratic polling generally showed Innamorato leading in the mid-to-high single digits once the fall campaign began in earnest.

Innamorato’s campaign arguably hit a nadir in the second week of October, when Hamas attacks killed hundreds of Israelis, including civilians, and the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America issued a statement criticizing long-standing Israeli policy towards Palestinians without mentioning the attack. Innamorato, a former member of the group, repudiated the statement and said she’d withdrawn from the group four years ago — a move that aggravated some in her progressive base.

That was followed days later by the announcement that a sought-after federal hydrogen hub program would largely bypass the region — a decision that some blamed, with little evidence, on progressive criticism of the fuel.

Innamorato sought to recapture the momentum by doubling down on efforts to unify Democrats by appealing to them on national issues, including abortion and election integrity. And she brought in Gov. Josh Shapiro, the standard-bearer for Pennsylvania Democrats, to cut an ad urging Democrats to back one of their own for the sake of elections next year. Shapiro struck a similar note during appearances with Innamorato on Saturday.

“Don’t let them fool you on the other side,” Shapiro told a group of labor activists that morning. "Don’t let that nice, easy-going demeanor that the other side is putting forward fool you. This is a race about who is going to stand up for you.”

Speaking with reporters after the win, Innamorato ascribed the narrowness of her victory to the fact that "We were outspent four- or five-to-one in this race, with a lot of outside money being spent, a lot of lies coming in." And she said she would reach out to the voters who heard those messages.

"Whoever you voted for, whatever letter is next to your voter ID," she said, "you are going to be part of this administration and have a voice."

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.
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.