Hallam Beats DeFazio In Latest Win By Progressive Challengers

May 21, 2019

Challenger Bethany Hallam toppled John DeFazio in the race for the Democratic "at-large" seat on Allegheny County Council — the latest case in which an upstart progressive challenger toppled a well-established Democrat. 

And as with previous wins by state Reps. Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, Hallam saw the win as evidence of sea change in the local electorate.

"The people who are coming out to vote are not the typical voter," she said. "We heard that all day — people are finally waking up to the fact that local government is what it is all about."  

Hallam led DeFazio by margins in the high single digits most of the night, in what was the first serious challenge DeFazio has faced in his 20 years on council. Hallam offered an unusual profile from the outset. She foregrounded her own troubles with the law, which included misdemeanor offenses which she said were related to painkiller addiction, and which resulted in a jail stint. And she campaigned with unusual energy, considering that county council is a part-time position even for the two countywide "at-large" positions, one of which is held by a member of each major party.

She sought to foreground concerns at the Allegheny County Jail, appearing at an oversight board hearing – where DeFazio himself was in attendance – to voice concerns about a lack of hot water resulting from maintenance problems. She also agitated for a countywide ban on the disputed practice of “conversion therapy” for LGBT people. DeFazio promptly signed his name to legislation endorsing such a ban. It has been in committee since March.

In a statement, DeFazio congratulated Hallam and pledged to "help her in whatever way I can as she prepares to take office. It has been an honor to serve the people of Allegheny County over the past 20 years. I am proud of all that we accomplished."

DeFazio was not the only incumbent to be toppled. Olivia Bennett in Council District 13 trounced Denise Ranalli Russell by a 58 to 41 margin in a district that includes a swath of the city’s northern and eastern neighborhoods. Bennett too ran as a progressive, and joined Hallam in raising concerns about jail conditions during her campaign. Hallam cited that result as further evidence of a rising progressive tide. 

Hallam's message to established Democrats who were used to taking victories for granted: "We're coming for you. "

DeFazio is the longest-serving member of county council, part of the inaugural class elected in 1999, when county government switched from a system headed by three commissioners to the current format. (The only other member of that original class of 15 still serving on council, Charles Martoni of Swissvale, died earlier this week.) DeFazio is a longtime labor leader tied to the Steelworkers, but may be best known as a former professional wrestler. As council president, he has worked closely with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

A lone debate scheduled between the candidates last week was called off just hours before it was scheduled to begin, with DeFazio citing a “family emergency” his campaign did not specify. DeFazio and Hallam did, however, both appear at numerous meet-the-candidate events held by local chapters of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee.

DeFazio enjoyed the advantages of incumbency, raising almost $40,000, helped by area unions as well as Fitzgerald and state Sen. Wayne Fontana.

Hallam sought to reprise the recent success of other progressives, including County Councilor Anita Prizio, who narrowly defeated Republican Ed Kress for her seat north of Pittsburgh in 2017. But countywide races are steeper climbs, and Hallam raised roughly half DeFazio’s total, racking up $22,500 with a $4,000 check from the progressive political committee Unite! and with help from other activists.

The Republican at-large seat was also on the ballot, although incumbent Sam DeMarco faced no opposition.

In other county council action, incumbent John Palmiere bested challenger Joseph Rudolph to represent suburban communities to the south of Pittsburgh. And at least two county council races figure to be competitive in November. District 2, which covers the northwestern corner of the county, will feature Republican Cindy Kirk defending against Democrat Christine Allen; while Republican Sue Means must defend District 5’s South Hills suburbs against Democrat Thomas Duerr.

Republicans hope to counter with at least one challenge in a Democrat-held seat. Michael Freedman of Pleasant Hills is campaigning to garner enough signatures to appear on the ballot in District 6 this fall.