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Innamorato’s transition team strikes a balance between Allegheny County progressives and moderates

A woman with glasses and a gray blazer smiles
Courtesy campaign
Allegheny County Executive-elect Sara Innamorato

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.

Let’s stipulate from the outset: When politicians name the members of their transition teams prior to taking office, very few carbon-based lifeforms care — unless they are among the appointees.

In theory, transition teams are supposed to facilitate a talent search for new government hires, to provide guidance and direction to incoming administrations, and to provide the community a chance to have input at the outset. In practice? They often provide recommendations that sit on a shelf until a very earnest journalist needs a story for a very slow news week. (“Mayor Peduto is behind schedule on instituting outcome-based budgeting? Here come the clicks!”)

In the meantime, though, somewhat less earnest journalists can still find a narrative in who gets selected for those teams. And County Executive-elect Sara Innamorato’s picks tell a different story than the one her rivals spun during the election.

Innamorato’s transition team numbers nearly 200 people in nine policy areas as well as a talent committee. That’s a lot of people — nearly as many as serve in the state House Innamorato has left behind. And not surprisingly, Innamorato’s roster includes a number of progressive activists — some of whom also servedon the transition effort for incoming Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey two years ago.

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Two Gainey transition alumnae — PA United leader Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy and Casa San Jose executive director Monica Ruiz — co-chair Innamorato’s talent committee and issue-focused engagement efforts. Darrin Kelly, the region’s top union official, is also taking part in both efforts, as are such local leaders as rapper/activist Jasiri X, public-transit advocate Laura Chu Wiens, and housing attorney Bob Damewood, among others.

Where the lists diverge, however, is that Innamorato’s roster has a larger share of personages you'd find inside the boardroom, along with those chanting in the lobby outside of it.

Developers including Lucas Piatt and Bill Gatti join Damewood and a number of affordable-housing advocates on the “Housing for All,” task force, for example. No fewer than four members of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development — the Renaissance I public-private partnership that defined power relations in the city for much of the 20th century — are on the list. Among them are Willie McKain, outgoing County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s former longtime county manager, and a top Peduto aide, Majestic Lane. Other emissaries from the corporate world include representatives of PPG, PNC, and Eat’n Park.

Taken together, the spectrum mostly ranges from mainstream Democrat to progressive. It’s the kind of roster you might assemble if you were hoping to arrange a smooth transfer of power from one generation to the next. And while it doesn’t include prominent Innamorato foes like, say, the Laborers Union, I’m gonna bet that some of these folks didn’t even vote for her.

Asked by reporters this week about the panel, Innmorato said it represented “a good cross-section of people through this county from all different experiences and professions and regions and faiths and identities.”

“The main goal of this is to make sure that people have a voice in county government,” she said.

Of course, getting people in a room together is often (though not always!) the easy part, the task most familiar to a legislator. Things tend to sour as an executive is forced to make choices between those groups and the interests they represent.

Those choices are fast approaching, and they will start with staffing. Innamorato’s pick to administer the county jail will be a matter of intense scrutiny. And considering Pennsylvania’s likely crucial role in the 2024 Presidential election, it’s really no exaggeration to say that the fate of the planet could depend on choices she makes concerning the county’s elections department. And let’s not forget that whole assessment thing.

But in some ways, it’s not just Innamorato who will be tested in the months to come. It will be her supporters, and the county as a whole.

Innamorato’s narrow victory may well reflect the fact that she has less room to maneuver than other local progressives who have won other offices: Unlike her longtime ally U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, Innamorato now has to implement legislation, not just propose it. And while Allegheny County is solidly blue, Innamorato arguably has a less forgiving electorate than Gainey’s urban base.

Perhaps the person who spoke best to the challenge was a member of her transition team — and a rival who’d challenged her for the office last year: outgoing Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb.

Lamb is a co-chair for the transition team focused on government transparency — a fitting role for a guy who a quarter-century ago campaigned to create the government Innamorato will lead. County Council bestowed upon him a proclamation honoring that work this week, and in return Lamb bestowed the kind of withering one-liner that is part of his legacy of public service.

After acknowledging the role he’d played in creating the county legislature, Lamb added, “I look at this County Council now and I think, that might have been a mistake.”

He was kidding, but like any good joke it had a kernel of truth to it. Those who established county government expected that council would serve mainly to oversee the budget-drafting process, and Lamb is among those who are wary of its increasingly aggressive efforts to pursue a staunchly progressive policy agenda. Before he accepted his proclamation, he urged council to “make room to listen to people who differ from you. … Make some room for nuance.”

This is not a political moment that rewards nuance. And Innamorato will have to negotiate between a progressive movement whose expectations are high, and voters who fear some sort of socialist coup.

It may be hard to craft good policy with 200 people taking part. But when you’re ushering in a new government in fractured times, it may be wise to take all the help you can get.

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.