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Pittsburgh political predictions for 2024: The headaches for local leaders have only begun

Left to right: U.S. Rep. Summer Lee; Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato; Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.
Matt Rourke / Jakob Lazzaro
AP / 90.5 WESA
Left to right: U.S. Rep. Summer Lee; Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato; Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey.

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.

The great thing about New Year’s predictions is that hardly anyone ever goes back to see whether they came true. Even if they don’t, there are almost never any consequences when it turns out that you had no idea what you were talking about. It’s the closest most of us will ever get to being on a Sunday-morning political talk show.

So in that spirit, and because I didn’t get enough calls back after New Year’s Day to focus on any one story, I offer my predictions for the days ahead, including a couple I don’t actually mean so I can pretend those are the ones I got horribly wrong.

As projected here previously, despite all the attention to crime in last year’s local races, homicide rates finished the year well below pandemic peaks in Pittsburgh and nationwide. Yet I predict that drop will get far less attention. (We likely won’t, for example, see Marty Griffin posting close-up camera shots of the absence of blood on the sidewalks.) More generally, I don’t expect life to get simpler for Mayor Ed Gainey or newly installed Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato.

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Sure, the progressive movement they are part of has been riding high in recent years. But Innamorato’s narrow victory was accompanied by the emergence of a counterinsurgency of long-suffering Republicans, disaffected business interests and a handful of well-heeled building trades unions. That opposition has been amplified by talk radio, shouty guys on barstools and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette opinion page.

The opposition is unlikely to dissipate. My colleague Kiley Koscinski, for example, reports that District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. — whose re-election was backed by those factions last year — plans to continue his election-season digging into Gainey’s administration. Too, divisions often emerge within a movement once it succeeds, as rivals begin to question what that success has been worth. I’m guessing Innamorato and Gainey will have to contend with legislative bodies that include members who either want to pull them left or feel they’ve already gone too far.

Speaking of such divisions … for all the hand-wringing about how Joe Biden suffers from a lack of enthusiasm in his own party, I predict that for local Democrats, races at the top of the ballot will be a welcome relief from conflicts closer to home. If you’re a Democrat, are you looking forward to a primary fight between 12th District Congresswoman Summer Lee and challenger Bhavini Patel? A race that — whatever the merits of the two candidates — seems likely to surface contentious discussions of race, U.S. policy toward Israel, and the sound of chortling Republicans? Being berated as a traitor by Donald Trump may almost be fun by comparison.

Incidentally, I predict that Donald Trump, that champion of western Pennsylvania steelworkers, will weigh in on U.S. Steel’s proposed acquisition by Japan-based Nippon Steel at some point in 2024. Hasn’t happened yet, true. But presumably that’s only because he’s compiling a thoughtful policy response that takes into account the nuanced conditions in the industry.

Still, workers can take heart: I forecast that there will finally be some movement on a minimum wage increase in Pennsylvania, thanks to Senate Republicans whose party has opposed such moves — even as deep-red states such as West Virginia and Montana have boosted their wage.

I base this less on statements made by a top Senate Republican, Westmoreland County’s Kim Ward, than on the fact that a hike is a key issue for Erie Republican Dan Laughlin, who is up for re-election this year. Laughlin has proposed more than doubling the wage in two years and indexing it to inflation thereafter. I’m dubious about actually seeing a hike that size because I’m pretty sure Article II of the state Constitution bars us from having nice things. But one can envision us being competitive with Guam. Some day.

With or without a minimum wage hike, Democrats face an uphill climb in their effort to capture the state Senate. Allegheny County’s 37th District has long been considered a key pickup opportunity, but Dems have had a hard time finding a challenger for first-term GOP incumbent Devlin Robinson. Former County Councilor Tom Duerr withdrew, and Coraopolis Mayor Michael Dixon decided against a run. A former Jefferson Hills borough councilor, Nicole Stoicovy-Ruscitto, tells me she is pondering a run. But with time and money short, I predict Democrats will recruit … Dr. Mehmet Oz, who will turn out to have been living in a Moon Township ranch home all along, but couldn’t bring himself to admit it during his Senate campaign against John Fetterman.

Speaking of Fetterman, he started the New Year by having Salena Zito write kindly about his recent tendency to pick fights with progressives about immigration and Israel. She even quotes one observer’s contention that Fetterman “has emerged as a center-left senator [like] West Virginia’s Joe Manchin” — which is ironic because Fetterman himself routinely denounced Manchin in 2022.

To be fair, Fetterman is far less of a hindrance to President Biden’s agenda than Manchin has been. But hey! It’s a step up from 2022, when Zito suggested that journalists and activists had actively concealed his incompetence and the damage from a stroke in “a confederacy of activism and omission.”

And if Fetterman keeps doing maverick-y stuff like trolling his party’s base, visiting Iowa, and noisily challenging the ethics of a Democratic Senator from the state next door, I predict someone will be writing one of those “hear me out” click-bait columns about how Dems should think about putting him on a presidential ticket.

As for this year’s marquee presidential election, and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey’s bid for re-election against likely GOP opponent Dave McCormick? While I’m confident of the outcomes and have invested my retirement fund in a series of online wagers, I don’t want to be accused of swaying the result. So the only prediction I’ll share is that when the votes are all counted, the American people will move forward with mutual respect and unity of purpose.

Hey, I said these predictions weren’t all going to be winners.

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.