Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Allegheny County Democrats made history this year — why don’t they seem happier?

Sara Innamorato during her acceptance speech on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
Sara Innamorato during her acceptance speech on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 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.

Judging just by final results, Allegheny County Democrats have had a very good year.

On Tuesday, they won the race for county executive despite being hugely outspent, making Sara Innamorato the first woman to hold the job and the most powerful local official in western Pennsylvania. They also delivered more than 224,000 votes for victorious Democratic Supreme Court candidate Dan McCaffery — just 1,300 votes shy of the number Philadelphians delivered for their native son.

And lest we forget: Local Democrats won multiple special elections to the state House this year, securing the party’s one-seat majority in the chamber four times over.

But these are Democrats, a tribe notoriously prone to self-doubt. And I’m a political reporter, a tribe notoriously prone to writing “Dems in disarray” stories. So I’m professionally obliged to point out the red flags in Tuesday’s largely blue results, starting with the narrowness of Innamorato’s 2-percentage-point squeaker over Republican Joe Rockey, in a county where Democrats have a two-to-one voter advantage.

WESA Politics Newsletter

Stay on top of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania political news from WESA's reporters — delivered fresh to your inbox every Thursday afternoon.

According to unofficial vote totals, Tuesday’s turnout was just over 41 percent. That’s a level of interest we haven’t seen in an off-year election since the first county executive race in 2001, a contest won by Republican Jim Roddey. The GOP clearly hoped lightning could strike again with Rockey, a polished first-time candidate.

As noted here before, Republicans drew on the support of well-heeled donors not just to underwrite attack ads, but to back the party apparatus itself. They also arguably benefited from years-long efforts to unite corporate interests with building trades unions — which took concrete form in the pro-business Pittsburgh Works Together consortium, several of whose members backed Rockey, as did the powerful Laborers union.

As for Democrats? Welllllll, as party chair Sam Hens-Greco put it, “A win is a win.”

But I’ve talked to several insiders anonymously so they could speak candidly, as we journalists like to say (or “so they could dump all over each other,” as regular humans would put it). I’ll spare you the second-guessing of campaign tactics and say that Democrats complained of complacency and fatigue. Some Democrats were slow to see the GOP challenge coming, and some of those who did wished they had more resources to meet it.

Throughout the summer, there were concerns that Democratic donors were tapped out financially after the primary. The big exception was a political committee supporting District Attorney Matt Dugan and financed by George Soros, who provided almost all of the ammunition for Dugan’s campaign. But Dugan’s fundraising otherwise was anemic, reflecting a lack of local engagement that might have helped topple six-term incumbent and household name Steve Zappala, who ran as a Republican after losing the Democratic primary.

And as Rockey coasted through a non-competitive primary, Democrats fought a six-way battle whose scars never fully healed. (County Treasurer John Weinstein, for one, still had $284,000 in campaign funds after losing to Innamorato in the primary. But financial reports show he didn’t spend any of it supporting her or the party. He did show up at the victory party of Zappala, a longtime ally, on Election Night.)

That left Rockey with the airwaves to himself for weeks, running TV spots that defined him as a North Side kid and problem-solving moderate. Democrats later began linking him to his party’s unpopular stances on such issues as abortion and election integrity, but Rockey had that messaging battle half-won before it started.

Dems rallied around Innamorato, with help from a closing argument amplified by Gov. Josh Shapiro. But it almost wasn’t enough.

Take the suburbs in the North Allegheny School District — an area where Democrats have made in-roads among college-educated voters. The party flipped control of NA’s school board Tuesday, and in the state Supreme Court race, McCaffery won 51.5 percent of votes with a campaign that put abortion front and center. But while Dems did well at the top and bottom of the ballot, Innamorato struggled in the middle, earning just a bit over 40 percent of the vote district-wide. She got 2,000 fewer votes in the district than McCaffery despite their overlap on issues, while Rockey got 2,000 more votes than the Republican at the top of his party’s ticket, Supreme Court hopeful Carolyn Carluccio.

I’ve heard various explanations for the gap: Rockey’s huge spending advantage, suburban fears that Innamorato would push a countywide property tax reassessment, a need for more voter outreach. But the drop-off in enthusiasm as Democrats moved down from the top of the ballot was persistent. And in some places where you don’t find it, there were just fewer voters casting ballots.

Take Pittsburgh’s mostly Black 12th and 13th wards. Innamorato won 93 percent of the vote there Tuesday, almost identical to the share McCaffery won in his race. But there were only slightly more than 2,500 votes cast in those two wards … compared to roughly 3,000 votes in 2019, when the local ballot was largely a foregone conclusion.

That problem is far larger than a county executive race: Waning Black participation already has Democrats nationwide sweating about 2024. And it’s not the only global concern Allegheny County Democrats faced.

Innamorato was once a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, a connection that was bound to surface in GOP attacks. But the fact that it cropped up amidst an outbreak of murderous violence in Israel made it especially fraught. And Innamorato’s denunciation of the DSA's statement on that violence deepened disenchantment among progressives, some of whom shifted their energies to electing a pair of Democratic Socialists to county council. (It didn’t work.)

Innamorato has already begun walking the tightrope between an often-impatient progressive base and a political establishment that is wary of the ways it has already transformed politics. Her newly unveiled “Transition Team,” for example, features several progressives and union leaders that include SEIU (of course). But there are also a sizable number of representatives from the county’s foundation and business establishment, with Grant Gittlen, a staffer for former Mayor Bill Peduto and a likely top member of her administration, directing the effort.

Those picks may aggravate progressives who envision a wholesale remaking of local politics, but living up to expectations without confirming fears is never easy. And even neurotic Dems can take heart knowing that Innamorato absorbed the best shot local Republicans had to give, and a sucker-punch from some of the best-financed unions in the region, and still came out on top.

So if you know someone who worked on her behalf this year, buy them a drink. They’ve earned it. And they’re probably going to need it.

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.