With no rival on Tuesday’s ballot, Sara Innamorato may have expected a quiet finish to her campaign to represent State House District 21. Instead, she’s been targeted by a write-in campaign -- and a death threat.
Innamorato said the campaign received an emailed threat last Saturday – the same day as a mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill. She said she reported it to authorities.
As a result of the threat, she said, “I’m not knocking doors on my own, or staying at my house." The timing of the threat added to anxiety in her campaign she said. "I don't know if any of us are OK."
Allegheny County Police Superintendent Coleman McDonough confirmed an investigation was ongoing.
“It appeared to be based on some political differences with the candidate,” he said of the threat. Such cases were not always easy to pursue where politicians are involved, he said, because “there is a fine line between First Amendment rights and a threat. But we are treating it as a crime at this time.”
McDonough said such cases were not uncommon around the nation. “I don’t recall any here in the last couple years," he said. "But things are getting more divisive every day.”
Innamorato’s troubles began after she recorded a Drinking Partners podcast in late September. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, she beat longtime incumbent Dom Costa in the 21st District, which includes north-of-the-Allegheny-River suburbs as well as city neighborhoods such as Lawrenceville.
During the podcast, she characterized her district as “93 percent white” and as being “white working class, poor folk, who are racist, because it’s so much easier for them to look to their side and say, ‘I’m going to blame that person.’”
A clip of Innamorato’s remarks became the subject of TV news reports, but Innamorato said the quote was taken out of context. “It’s not how I feel. From the beginning of this campaign, I’ve talked about my experience growing up in that district, and about the kindness of neighborhood who helped me through the instability of growing up.”
Her point, she said, was that white working class voters “are being exploited from all sides,” by economic and political elites who play on racial tensions to distract them from issues of economic injustice. “Racism exists everywhere,” she said. “My job is to represent everyone, and to not shy away from tough conversations.”
Innamorato suspects the threat surfaced after the story percolated into right-wing online media. McDonough said he couldn’t confirm that.
The clip reportedly became the basis for a campaign to write in the name of Dom Costa, who Innamorato beat in the May primary, on the Nov. 6 ballot. Costa told KDKA-TV that he was not part of the effort, which has been waged on a number of platforms, including phone texts and signs. Costa did not repsond to a voicemail message Monday afternoon.
At least some of those messages appear to be sponsored by “Americans Against Socialism." It's unclear where the group receives its funding. There is no political action committee registered in that name in Pennsylvania, and it's unclear that there is a connection between the effort and a federal political action committee registered under the same name in New York State.
A webpage carrying that brand and similar messaging appears to have been registered in mid-October by Kania Enterprises, a local consulting firm. A PayPal page soliciting donations also identifies the firm, whose employees have supported Republican candidates. But no one at the company responded to calls or emails sent for comment Monday.
Innamorato says she is less worried about the effect of a write-in campaign on her own candidacy, but more concerned that charges of socialism will rebound on other Democrats. Lindsey Williams, who is a DSA member, has been running in a state Senate district that overlays much of Innamorato’s district. Williams’ rival, Jeremy Shaffer, has been labeling her as a socialist. That race, too, has been shaped by unusual financial activity.
As for the "socialist" label, Innamorato shrugs. “America has elements of both capitalism and socialism,” she said, citing programs like Medicare in particular. “If you simply say you’re against socialism, it means opposing a lot of programs that are very popular.”