Democrats extended their dominance of Allegheny County government last night. The party picked up one seat in the fifteen-member county council, when Tom Duerr beat Sue Means in the heart of the South Hills suburbs by roughly 20 percentage points.
That leaves Republicans with just three seats, the GOP's smallest share in council's 20-year history. Among those remaining is Republican Cindy Kirk, who held off Democrat Christine Allen in the North Hills and Ohio Valley communities of District 2. The other incumbent facing opposition Tuesday night, Democrat John Palmiere, bested Republican Michael Freedman elsewhere in the South Hills.
Countywide, Democratic County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and County Controller Chelsa Wagner were re-elected over token Republican opposition.
Means was widely perceived as vulnerable in both parties. Democrats have been surging in the area, winning high-profile special elections involving state Senator Pam Iovino and Congressman Conor Lamb – for whose two Congressional campaigns Duerr has worked.
“You can’t ignore that the district is trending Democratic,” said Jim Burn, a former county councilor and one time chairman of the county’s Democratic committee. “You’ve really seen a change in toward the Democrats.” And he said Means couldn't rely on the advantage of incumbency “because for the most part, nobody knows who is on council or what they do.”
Republican county councilor Sam DeMarco, who was a shoo-in for the GOP's at-large council seat Tuesday night, agreed that being a council incumbent could be a disadvantage. He said incumbents struggle to raise money and gain name recognition, even while, “[y]ou have a record for people to attack.”
But he said Tuesday night’s results could be the darkness before the dawn. DeMarco assumed the chair of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County this summer, amid rising discontent with prior chair D. Raja, who lost to Iovino in the special election. Raja was criticized in GOP circles for failing to recruit candidates or generate enthusiasm among rank-and-file voters.
“The party is in a challenging time, and we’re not doing a good job of reaching out and communicating,” DeMarco said. “That’s one reason I was elected in July” to lead the party. But he said he simply hadn't had enough time to recruit better candidates and build support for them.
Tuesday’s results could give new life to a proposed countywide police-review board. Means voted no on the bill this summer: Duerr has said he will vote yes.
Council will also see two other new faces, both of whom bested Democratic incumbents in the May primary and faced no opposition Tuesday. Bethany Hallam, who beat John DeFazio to hold the Democratic at-large seat, and Olivia Bennett, who beat incumbent Denise Ranalli Russell, both ran progressive challenges against more conservative Democrats. Bennett has also said she supports a police review board, and would also replace Russell’s “no” vote – potentially cementing a favorable majority if the measure comes up again.
More broadly, both Bennett and Hallam seem bound to shake up council, which has often been criticized for following Fitzgerald’s lead. And having an overwhelming majority on council, Burn surmised, might give the council more room to move left next year.
Even if the candidates in competitive races Tuesday skew more moderate or conservative, he said, “The candidates who won in the primary have staked out a position in favor of county council stepping up as an independent body,” he said. “You can change that narrative that you’re just another administrative agency.”
But DeMarco said there weren’t just partisan divisions on council. “I think if you see folks come in and try to move council to extremes, you may see reluctance of some other Democrats to follow along. You may see a more bipartisan approach.”
And for now, that is the best Allegheny County Republicans may be able to hope for.