Generally speaking, races for the 15-member Allegheny County Council don't come with a lot of built-in interest. But Democrats across the county are expected to have a choice between two candidates with notable backgrounds – and the choice to make a generational change.
County Council members serve part time. Two of council's seats are elected "at-large," with one seat reserved for each of the major parties. John DeFazio, a 77-year-old veteran union leader with the United Steelworkers, has held the Democratic seat since county council was established nearly 20 years ago. Outisde the world of politics, though, he may be best known as former professional wrestler, “Jumpin Johnny,” who competed in the 1960s and 1970s.
DeFazio’s re-election bids have generally flown under the radar: he hasn't had a challenger on the ballot in recent cycles. But this year he could face a 29-year-old rival, Ross Township resident Bethany Hallam, with a notable backstory of her own.
Hallam works as an administrator for a personal-protection academy, but as a high-school lacrosse player, she says she suffered a pair of knee injuries that led to a prescription for opioid painkillers.
“That led to almost a decade of addiction,” she said, “where I made a bunch of bad decisions and ended up in the Allegheny County Jail for about five months.”
Court records show that Hallam faced a number of drug-related charges filed in 2013. The more serious offenses were withdrawn, while Hallam pleaded guilty to a handful of misdemeanors. But she said she later violated the terms of her probation, landing her in jail.
“It was while I was in there that I realized this wasn’t really who I was,” she said. That was the beginning of a recovery process over two years ago. But, she said, “After seeing a lot of the injustices in our criminal-justice system” – including mistreatment of jail prisoners – “I knew the only way to effect change in this process was to entrench myself right in it.”
Misdemeanor offenses are generally not a bar to holding elected office. The state Constitution bars anyone from holding office who has been convicted of an “infamous crime” like embezzlement, bribery, perjury or any felony. Hallam, who said politics “is what I’ve been living and breathing for the past five years,” has become a Democratic committeewoman at the county and the state level. She makes no secret of her jail time, talking openly about it on her campaign website.
If elected, Hallam said she would push for reforms at the jail, which has been criticized for concerns including a number of prisoner suicides. She also said she would seek to prevent hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in county parks and push for more government transparency. She cited the tax-incentive proposal made to Amazon – which local officials kept under wraps until Amazon announced it would move a second headquarters elsewhere – as a crucial lapse in openness.
As for DeFazio, she says, "it’s not about him as a person at all." But considering he’d been on the county council since its inception, “It’s time for new blood.” Culturally and economically, “Our region is changing every single day," she said. "I believe we need someone understands those changes.”
For his part, the 77-year-old DeFazio said he did plan to run again.
“I don’t do this for the money," he said. "I do it to help people.”
For much of his tenure, he said, he’d only kept $3,000 of the $9,000 annual sum paid to councilors.
County government gives the lion’s share of the power to the county executive. Under DeFazio, council has supported the agenda of the current executive, Rich Fitzgerald, himself a former county council president.
“Things have been pretty good with him,” DeFazio said.
DeFazio said he didn't know Hallam, and said his previous runs had been low-intensity affairs.
“I’ve never had a yard sign, really," DeFazio said. "I’ve never had to spend a lot of money.”
A key moment in the race will be March 10, when the Allegheny County Democratic Committee makes its endorsement. That endorsement represents the preference of party leaders, and it can have a significant impact on races where little attention is paid.
Hallam said she will seek the approval of her fellow committeepeople, but intends to remain in the race with or without it.
“I’m excited to give people a choice, because that’s what democracy is about.”