Port Authority and Pittsburgh police respond to a stabbing along Smithfield Street on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Downtown. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Port Authority and Pittsburgh police respond to a stabbing along Smithfield Street on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Downtown. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

The race to be Allegheny County’s top prosecutor, between incumbent Stephen Zappala and challenger and Democratic nominee Matt Dugan, has drawn unusual national attention for a local election.

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A local contest that’s usually sleepy and uncompetitive has become a flashpoint in the long-running debate over criminal justice reform, attracting outside attention and money and causing a longtime incumbent to switch parties.

Dugan defeated Zappala, who has served as district attorney since 1998, in the Democratic primary in May. But Zappala accrued enough write-in votes in the Republican primary to earn that party’s nomination, setting up a rematch before the broader electorate. 

Dugan’s campaign has attracted big money from a progressive mega-donor, reflecting a new strategy by the donor class to bypass federal and state politics and try to bring change at the local level. Zappala’s side has invoked scenes of chaos in cities from coast to coast to make their pitch, and he received an endorsement from the Forward Party, a centrist group with presence nationwide.

Dugan, who served as the county’s chief public defender, said in a press conference Friday that he has a plan to improve public safety conditions in Downtown Pittsburgh. Zappala countered that Dugan would go too far in catering to defendants, jeopardizing public safety in the process. 

Pennsylvania Justice & Public Safety PAC, a political action committee funded by billionaire progressive donor George Soros, gave more than $700,000 in in-kind donations — mostly in the form of TV ads — to Dugan’s primary campaign. That represented about 90% of the campaign’s total contributions through early June. 

Zappala’s campaign received mostly local money ahead of the primary, including some five-figure checks from labor unions.

Filings showing fundraising since June are due to be disclosed in October. 

City Cast Pittsburgh interviewed PublicSource reporter Charlie Wolfson on this topic. Their conversation:

Zappala supporters, meanwhile, are using media interviews and television ads to invoke other cities — some with prosecutors backed by Soros — stoking fears that crime-ridden streets and lawlessness could come to Allegheny County if Dugan prevails, framing this race as a referendum on progressive approaches to criminal justice nationwide. 

The Forward Party announced its support for Zappala by sending former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman — who positioned herself as a crime-fighter — to Pittsburgh. The group has a presence in dozens of states and is fronted by former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. It later endorsed Republican county executive candidate Joe Rockey.

The crush of money flowing in and the heightened, nationalized rhetoric make this race different from what county voters are accustomed to in local elections.

Outside support coming in

Dugan’s campaign finance disclosure ahead of the May primary showed a modest amount of money given directly to the campaign — just over $70,000. The bulk of his support instead came as in-kind contributions, almost all attributed to the Pennsylvania Justice & Public Safety PAC, consisting largely of research, polling, television ads and mail. The PAC’s mailing address is in Washington, D.C. and its disclosure filed with the county shows that all of its money came from Soros.

Why would anyone outside Allegheny County, let alone a billionaire, care about a county-level race here? 

Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a Chatham University political science professor, said donors are growing frustrated with inaction at the federal level and increasingly see local seats as an avenue to bring about change. 

“They know that they can quietly put money into these races and affect change with the discretion that exists at the local level, out of the scrutiny of the national media, out of the scrutiny of high-profile state races, and start creating change from the bottom up,” Sweet-Cushman said. 

Matt Dugan, Democratic candidate for Allegheny County district attorney, holds a press conference on public safety in Market Square on Friday, Sept. 21, 2023, in downtown Pittsburgh.. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

An array of Soros-funded PACs has backed reform-minded prosecutor candidates in many counties in recent years, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and the former San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who was recalled by voters last year.

Chris Bonneau, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said such out-of-town spending in local prosecutor races used to be nearly unheard of, but has gained steam in the last few years. 

District Attorney Stephen Zappala (Photo from alleghenycountyda.us)

“It’s much more about criminal justice reform,” than local politics, Bonneau said. “If they have an agenda of criminal justice reform and they want to see changes, then they target not only Allegheny County but other counties where there are key races or key openings on the ballot. And much like a Supreme Court case is kind of about the litigants but not really — it’s about the broader policy issue — I think it’s a similar thing at work here.”

Competition in DA races across the country used to be uncommon, Bonneau said. Zappala won a contested election in 1999, then didn’t face a spirited challenge until 2019, before Dugan swiped the Democratic nomination from him.

“Prior to [the past 10 years], most prosecutors rarely got opposition, and when they did, the incumbents won with overwhelming percentages of the vote,” Bonneau said. “Now, prosecutor elections have really become the flashpoint in criminal justice reform, particularly in urban areas.”

Local policy in a national debate

A new television ad from Zappala’s campaign features footage not just of Allegheny County, but of Philadelphia and San Francisco. Scenes showing robberies and shootings, purportedly in other cities where progressive prosecutors have prevailed in recent years, are meant as a warning of what could happen here if Zappala loses.

“The same extremists who created this now want Pittsburgh to be their next social justice experiment,” a narrator says in the ad as carnage fills the screen.

Dugan dismissed the ad in an interview as “a standard red meat ad for Republicans” and criticized Zappala for shifting “blame or responsibility to other entities.” 

Asked for a response, Zappala campaign spokesperson Ben Wren said, “It’s clear Matt Dugan doesn’t want to answer for what the policies he proposes have already done to other cities.”

Dugan took to Market Square last week to roll out his plan to curb Downtown crime, saying the DA’s office should take a leading role in the process alongside Pittsburgh’s mayor, police and county leaders. He suggested creating a dedicated magistrate to handle and become familiar with Downtown cases, and said he would establish more channels for Downtown residents and business owners to communicate their concerns to the DA’s office.

“Now, prosecutor elections have really become the flashpoint in criminal justice reform, particularly in urban areas.”

Zappala issued a press release hours later, accusing Dugan of not understanding the DA’s duties. Zappala blamed current conditions Downtown on Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, spurring another pair of dueling press releases between the mayor and DA, pointing the finger at one another.

A top point of contention in the race is Dugan’s opposition to the use of cash bail. Zappala and other critics say the position shows Dugan would turn dangerous criminals loose, endangering the public. Dugan counters by saying he would still seek pretrial detention for defendants with violent histories or other risks using risk assessment reports that are already produced for each bail hearing.

Dugan’s website also suggests he would look at cutting down on probation periods for nonviolent offenders, saying “unnecessarily long” probation periods are leading to an increased jail population. He would seek periods of supervision “that balances public safety and the rehabilitative needs of the defendant.”

Zappala’s campaign website does not have an issues page; the 25-year incumbent is not campaigning on changing policy. He is positioning himself instead as a firewall against progressive policies.

“I will never permit your safety to become an experiment,” Zappala says in the TV ad.

Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at charlie@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Erin Yudt.

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Charlie Wolfson is an enterprise reporter for PublicSource, focusing on local government accountability in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. He is also a Report for America corps member. Charlie aims to...