Sara Innamorato and Joe Rockey grew up during starkly different eras for the Pittsburgh region, a fact that shows in their visions as they compete in the hottest race for Allegheny County executive in decades.
For the first time in 12 years, Allegheny County voters will elect a new county chief executive.
Rockey, 59 and the Republican nominee, was born well before the collapse of the steel industry and witnessed it firsthand as he grew up in the North Side. Now an Ohio Township resident, his campaign is focused heavily on jobs and his pledge to visit companies nationwide to try to get them to bring employment to the region.
Innamorato, 37, the Democrat, was born around the time steel faltered, and entered adulthood as the ‘eds and meds’ boom took off. She moved into burgeoning Lawrenceville in the 2010s and is part of a relatively new political class that does not view the region primarily through the lens of its industrial past. Her campaign is more focused on social services, addressing inequities and housing.
What started as a seven-candidate free-for-all in the spring is coming to an end. Allegheny County will elect a new county executive, its first since 2011, when voters choose between Innamorato and Rockey on Nov. 7.
Several million dollars have been spent by those seeking the office this year. Two longtime stalwarts of local government — county Treasurer John Weinstein and Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb — gave up lower offices to try, and fail, to ascend to the post.
An Innamorato win would take the local progressive movement to new heights, its first countywide General Election victory, and mark the sixth consecutive county executive election won by Democrats.
Left: Joe Rockey at an August campaign event at the South Side V.F.W. Right: Sara Innamorato at a party following a special election in September at an Etna gastropub. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
A Rockey win could validate his campaign message that county voters are largely moderate, and the progressive left has gone further than they are comfortable with. It would prove what some had begun to doubt, that a certain kind of Republican candidate can still win here. The last Republican county executive was Jim Roddey, elected in 1999.
Who are Innamorato and Rockey?
The two candidates cut drastically different paths to this moment, but they share at least one meaningful similarity. Both try to convey a populist message by recounting their upbringing in less-than-ideal circumstances. Innamorato frequently talks about losing her father to the opioid epidemic at a young age, and Rockey often talks about growing up in a home dependent on food stamps.
Innamorato entered politics five years ago. A surprising state House election win in 2018, while she was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, put her on the map, and her stature grew quickly among the local political crowd. In the House, she formed a political bond with Summer Lee (also elected in 2018 and now in Congress) and Ed Gainey, who became Pittsburgh’s mayor in 2022.
She became the progressives’ choice for executive in a crowded primary field, a show of strength when progressive disunity likely would have led to a moderate Democratic nominee.
Left to right: Sara Innamorato and Joe Rockey. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Rockey is new to the political arena, at least as a candidate. This is his first run for any office, and records show a limited history of donating to candidates. He announced his campaign early this year and enjoyed an uncontested primary and the undivided support of the county party.
He recently retired from a career as a PNC executive. He said in an August interview that local GOP strategist Mike DeVanney is a longtime friend of his and helped convince him to run after he retired.
What’s at stake?
The county government is sprawling and influential in a number of areas:
- Its Department of Human Services is one of the largest in the state.
- The executive is responsible for the county jail, which houses more than 1,000 incarcerated people at any time and has been under much scrutiny in recent years after a string of deaths in the facility.
- The county regulates industrial polluters and levies fines against them.
- The county administers elections and the executive sits on the Board of Elections — deciding its partisan majority — which is responsible for certifying the county’s votes.
- The next executive will inherit a property assessment system called ‘broken’ by many, the subject of litigation and possibly the source of inequities and unfair taxation.
- The executive appoints members of dozens of influential boards and commissions that set policy for the region.
One of the most clear-cut disputes in the campaign: Rockey would continue outgoing Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s pledge to forgo a countywide property reassessment. Innamorato said she would work toward a reassessment after solidifying protections for seniors and longtime homeowners against tax bill hikes.
The county’s property assessment system has been a subject of controversy for decades, and properties have not been reassessed since the last time a judge ordered the county to do so, more than 10 years ago. The result, experts say, is a property tax that effectively overtaxes low-income communities and undertaxes others. A reassessment would result in more or less the same amount of revenue to the county, but would increase some individuals’ tax bills while lowering others.
Innamorato has pledged to take a hard line on pollution controls and opposes new fracking projects and a hydrogen hub of the sort recently awarded to the Philadelphia region and West Virginia instead of a Western Pennsylvania proposal. Rockey blames the incumbent county administration for driving U.S. Steel to invest in Arkansas instead of Western Pennsylvania, and while he said he would continue enforcing anti-pollution laws, he downplayed the impact of heavy industry on the region’s air quality.
Allegheny County Jail
This issue has brought a measure of agreement between Rockey and Innamorato. They concurred early in the campaign that former Warden Orlando Harper had to be replaced (he retired in September) and that jail operations needed an overhaul, criticizing current leadership in light of numerous deaths in the lockup. Both also said they would take an active role in the Jail Oversight Board, something that Fitzgerald has taken heat for avoiding.
The question of whether and how to open a juvenile detention center in the county became a feature of this campaign the moment Fitzgerald took the surprising step of closing the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center in late 2021. Members of both parties criticized the move and said the county needed an open facility. Rockey said as much early and often during the campaign, while Innamorato took a more cautious stance, not fully embracing the concept but acknowledging its necessity. Both candidates have criticized Fitzgerald’s latest move to contract with a private nonprofit to operate the facility.
The county government has a limited role when it comes to policing. The vast majority of the thousands of officers within the county are employed by municipal departments, which answer to their respective leaders. The county has its own force of approximately 300 officers. Rockey proposed over the summer to expand that complement by 10% and have the department take a more active role in assisting municipal departments when needed. Innamorato said she, too, would be open to expanding the police ranks in a televised debate in September. During the primary season she emphasized social services and addressing homelessness to improve public safety.
Election administration hasn’t stolen much attention during this campaign, but Innamorato’s side has begun raising it lately, ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Democrats have said it would be dangerous to give Republicans a majority on the county’s Board of Elections, pointing to the 2020 cycle when former President Donald Trump’s campaign pressured local officials to block results in swing states. The county board certified the county’s 2020 results by a 2-1 margin, with the one Republican member voting against. Rockey has said he opposes Trump, calling him “incredibly divisive,” and that the 2020 election was conducted fairly.
Aside from certification, the county administration is responsible for distributing mail-in ballots, staffing polling places and facilitating ballot drop boxes or satellite voting centers.
Turnout for odd-year elections is typically far below 50%. But voters showed up for this May’s primaries in far higher numbers than four years prior, and highly competitive countywide races could lead to relatively high participation this year.
Rockey could be Republicans’ strongest candidate for executive in many years, perhaps since Roddey. (Republican Matt Drozd notched under 32% of the vote in 2019, D. Raja managed almost 38% in 2011, and the GOP had no nominee in 2015.) But his task is a tall one: For every registered Republican in the county, there are two registered Democrats. Rockey has been open about his need to convince a boatload of Dems to back him, and his campaign rolled out a “Dems for Rockey” group this month.
The last Republican wins for county leadership, in 1995 and 1999, came when Democrats had an even bigger registration advantage that they have today. But a nationalization of local politics and growing polarization have made it less likely for voters to cross their party in the voting booth — making Rockey’s task different, and more difficult, than that of local Republicans in the 90s.
How to vote, and other resources
Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 7. Voters have until 8 p.m. on Election Day to return mail-in ballots, either by mail or hand delivered to the elections office at 542 Forbes Ave.
The voter registration deadline has passed. Click here to check your voter registration status.
Click here to find your polling location.
Learn more about elections for other offices with a voter guide coming soon in partnership with Pittsburgh City Paper.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Erin Yudt.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.