Sara Innamorato becomes Allegheny County's first woman leader, top local official in Western Pa.
Sara Innamorato was sworn in Tuesday as Allegheny County's chief executive — a generational shift that makes her not just the county's first woman to lead it but also the most powerful local official in Western Pennsylvania.
"We are capable of so much. I know that this county can work for people of all backgrounds and cultures, all faith and traditions, all customs and communities," she told an audience at the Byham Theater, Downtown, moments after being sworn in by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Chelsa Wagner.
As she did throughout her 2023 campaign, Innamorato stressed that the region's success needed to be shared more equitably.
“We are constantly featured on lists of the best places to live," she said, "but for too many people in too many communities … that designation doesn’t always right true.
“We might as well be living in different states."
Much of her half-hour speech reprised campaign promises to address those concerns, including an emphasis on needs such as affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and what Innamorato called "the emergency of affordable and accessible child care.” She said she would have an announcement about county initiatives in that area within days.
Some of her administration's earliest efforts would focus on county government itself, with initiatives to enhance wages and benefits and attract applicants for some 1,000 vacant county positions, she said. The county will also remove college-degree requirements for some positions — an initiative that Gov. Josh Shapiro undertook at the state level early in his administration.
Innamorato's speech tacitly acknowledged some of the issues raised by Joe Rockey, her Republican rival during last year's campaign. Rockey frequently lamented that the county was lagging in job creation and population growth — issues that Innamorato acknowledged but for which she prescribed more progressive solutions, such as encouraging more international immigrants.
"We are falling behind other regions in welcoming new residents," she said — and she pledged to invest in language programs and other services to encourage immigrants to settle in the area. "This ability to attract new people to Pittsburgh will set the course of the future of the local economy."
While the county would seek to attract new employers, it would also seek to have them commit to "community benefits agreements" that provide direct benefits to residents, she said.
Combined with the swearing-in Tuesday of newcomer Erica Rocchi Brusselars as county treasurer and Corey O'Connor's first full term as the county controller, Innamorato's ascension marks a generational change in leadership. She is also the first woman to hold the county's top post.
"You haven't seen this kind of change in county government for 30 years," said O'Connor, who attended Innamorato's kickoff after his own quiet swearing-in ceremony. "I think you'll see different ideas, and hopefully a different level of cooperation between the offices."
O'Connor said he'd already begun working with Brusselars on putting an end to a longstanding practice of mailing out paystubs to county workers, who already receive them by email. And he said his first audit of 2024 would focus on homelessness — a key priority for Innamorato as well.
Dana Brown, who heads Chatham University's Pennsylvania Center for Women & Politics, said a more collaborative style often follows from electing women to positions of authority.
"We know from the research that when women are in leadership, we see an increase in transparency and bipartisanship. We also anticipate a more inclusive style in terms of drawing from diverse constituencies."
Brown, who attended the swearing-in events for both Brusselars and Innamorato, hailed the transition.
"It's a really important moment for the county and for women to see us normalizing women in leadership," she said.
Innamorato referred to the historic moment early in her speech.
"I’m only the fourth person to hold this office since it was created in 1999, and I think we know that I will be the first woman," she said. "But let me say right here, I will certainly not be the last.
"I also believe that I’m the first county executive to have tattoos," added Innamorato. She also offered a joking caveat about the county's first county executive, a Republican: "No one has been able to confirm or deny whether Jim Roddey had any ink.”
A well-placed Republican source confirmed to WESA that Roddey is not tattooed.
Innamorato's bid may be the high-water mark for Western Pennslyvania's progressive movement, which has broadly shifted the county's political leadership to the left — and greatly diversified its membership — in just half a decade. Innamorato's career is a testament to that change: In 2018 she and Summer Lee, who now represents much of Allegheny County in Congress, scored early victories for the movement by toppling longtime Democrats to take seats in the state House.
The county executive race itself was set in motion more than a year ago when Innamorato kicked off her bid in December 2022. With the backing of a well-resourced progressive base, she won a heated six-way Democratic primary as two other rivals, outgoing City Controller Michael Lamb and former county Treasurer John Weinstein battled each other. But in a county with a two-to-one Democratic registration advantage, she barely staved off a challenge in the general election from Republican Joe Rockey, whose allies badly outspent her in the fall.
She inherits the office from Rich Fitzgerald, who held the seat for three terms and leaves a legacy as a socially liberal hands-on executive focused on efforts to grow the county while avoiding tax increases. But he also has left both challenges and opportunities for his replacement.
Innamorato will have an early chance to make a mark on a key campaign priority — criminal justice reform — by shepherding the search for a new warden at the long-troubled Allegheny County Jail. And she can put her mark on the efforts by county health and other officials to address concerns with homelessness.
She will also sit on the county's Board of Elections, which will preside over the 2024 election — and which could take steps to expand ballot access at a time when the stakes of the Presidential race especially seem almost existential.
Innamorato flagged that role during her speech. "Protecting our democracy is one of our most sacred commitments," she said. "I look forward to sharing some good news with you about keeping our elections protected while expanding accessibility to voters.”
Conversely, she takes office as the fate of a key local employer, U.S. Steel, is up in the air — a transaction about which she has little say but which will bring tensions regarding the county's air quality and the future of its economy into sharp focus. She will also contend with a long-deferred discussion about the county's increasingly outdated property tax assessments. Innamorato campaigned, albeit with increasing wariness, on a bid to institute regular reappraisals of land values. That's a policy backed by many researchers but often opposed by elected officials and residents who fear and sometimes experience spikes in their tax bills.
Negotiating such challenges will involve county council, whose returning majority is heavily Democratic but also showed an increased willingness to buck Fitzgerald on a swath of issues ranging from county health policies to pay for employees. Innamorato's politics align far more closely with those of council than Fitzgerald's did, but council has shown an interest in asserting its prerogatives as an independent branch of government, rather than as a part-time adjunct to the executive branch.
Arguably the narrowness of Innamorato's victory in November suggests the delicate balancing act that awaits her, as some progressive activists channeled their energy into socialist candidates for county council this autumn amid a falling-out on the left concerning the war in the Middle East. And election returns showed that even communities that strongly supported Democrats for other races had doubts about her candidacy.
But there was little sense of division among those attending the event Tuesday. On hand was a broad cross-section of local leadership, including elected officials and Democratic Party insiders and local leadership.
Fitzgerald and his predecessor Dan Onorato were on hand along with Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and several members of his administration. Congressional representatives Chris Deluzio and Summer Lee were also on hand, along with several members of Pittsburgh City Council and county council, and Innamorato's former colleagues in Harrisburg.
Sponsors of the event, identified by the program, included some of Innamorato's union supporters alongside corporate sponsors such as PNC — Rockey's former employer — PPG, and the Piatt companies.
An emphasis on inclusivity was evident throughout the program. A rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" was followed by a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often cited as the anthem for Black Americans. There was also a musical contribution from the LGBT Renaissance City Choir and a spoken-word performance by Treble MLS.
Speakers hailed Innamorato as a leader dedicated to the community rather than her own career. Gainey, who worked alongside Innamorato when they both served in the state House, said that during their time in Harrisburg, “I watched how hard she fought for working-class families. … She never backed down.”
“This woman measures her success by the steps you go forward to get the American Dream,” said Darrin Kelly, the region’s top labor leader. “That is a leader.”