Democrat Stephen Zappala won Tuesday’s election for Allegheny County District Attorney thanks to a strong showing in the suburbs. But campaigners for independent challenger Lisa Middleman say they are redrawing the political map.
Zappala carried about 60 percent of the vote outside the city of Pittsburgh. That's the opposite of the picture inside the city, where Middleman garnered about 60 percent of ballots.
Because most voters live in the suburbs, Zappala won the race by a comfortable 14 percentage points overall.
But Middleman's campaign manager, Darwin Leuba, said the challenger’s effort built a countywide movement while out-fundraising Zappala. Campaign finance records show Middleman brought in more than $288,000 since June, compared to about $222,000 for Zappala during the same period.
Leuba said Middleman formed a coalition throughout the county that will put future candidates in a better position to campaign for reforms.
“There are so many more races that we are so much better equipped to mobilize for because we’ve built this operation in just the past five months,” Leuba said. “And this is all thanks to Lisa Middleman for stepping up and putting herself out in a race that nobody said she could win.”
Leuba said he expects progressive candidates like Middleman to wage competitive bids in local state House races next year. He named Democratic state Reps. Daniel Deasy, Anthony DeLuca, Brandon Markosek, Adam Ravenstahl, and Harry Readshaw as potentially vulnerable incumbents.
During her campaign for district attorney, Middleman argued the county needs sweeping criminal justice reforms such as decriminalizing low-level offenses and ending the use of cash bail. Zappala, meanwhile, touted his history of making more modest changes, like connecting defendants with treatment and support and calling for the reduced use of bail.
The district attorney’s campaign manager and son, Steve Zappala, acknowledged there could be a growing hunger for change.
“I do think the county is changing,” he said. “I think that starts with the city and permeates out.”
The campaign manager said such a shift "requires a dialogue" rather than "mean tweets and nasty comments on the internet.”
After winning the election Tuesday, DA Zappala told supporters that Middleman's campaign had stoked divisions among voters. Seeing few policy differences between Middleman and himself, he said his opponent's campaign amounted simply to saying "bad things about the incumbent."
"To continue to divide our community along whatever lines," Zappala said, "whether it be racial or otherwise doesn’t make any sense, and I promise you I’ll do the best I can to bring people back together."
Lara Putnam is a University of Pittsburgh professor who has been studying political shifts in suburban communities. She's also been participating in them: Election Day found her campaigning for Middleman in Bridgeville. She says Middleman faced challenges: Her late entry into the race, and the fact that Zappala was the nominee for both major parties hampered her even in liberal suburban bastions like Mt. Lebanon. Middleman won some precincts there, but only by narrow margins, while Zappala trounced her elsewhere.
"Obviously she didn’t do as well as she needed to do in the upscale and more liberal suburbs," Putnam said. But she said future races might be different.
For one thing, over one-quarter of votes cast Tuesday were straight-party votes for the Democratic and Republican slates – all of which went to Zappala's column. A state law signed this fall will remove straight-party voting in future elections. Putnam says that "probably won't be a game-changer, but it might help." Experience elsewhere has shown that removing straight-party options coincides with less turnout in poor areas, but on the other hand, "it is going to make it easier for third-party challengers and those trying to pull voters across party lines."
More importantly, Putnam says, reformers did well when the landscape wasn't tilted against them. In the South Hills, county council candidate Tom Duerr – who supports the creation of a countywide police-review board – beat a board opponent, Republican Sue Means. And she said she spoke on Election Day with voters from across the spectrum who voiced sympathy with Middleman's agenda.
"Anyone contemplating the question of what changes are possible, and whether there is a constituency for a more reformist DA – all the indicators look pretty good," she said.
Lucy Perkins and Chris Potter contributed to this report.