In the race to succeed Rich Fitzgerald as Allegheny County executive, Republican Joe Rockey has cast himself as a moderate. Democrat Sara Innamorato, by contrast, has cast herself as a progressive. The county has a long history of electing both Democrats and Republicans, but it’s been nearly a quarter-century since a Republican was elected to the county’s top office. Rockey’s campaign will be one test of whether county voters will support a candidate who says he wants the votes of conservative voters but who is focusing his campaign messages on appeals to moderates.
For the first time in 12 years, Allegheny County voters will elect a new county chief executive.
WESA and PublicSource reached out to voters via social media and face-to-face interviews in Downtown and McCandless in early October, seeking urban and suburban voters with diversity roughly mirroring the county’s. The interviews solicited a spectrum of liberal, moderate and conservative voices, while avoiding participants professionally involved in politics. The voters shared nuanced views of what it means to be a moderate and what they look for in a candidate.
Many of the voters said they didn’t know anything about Rockey or Innamorato, but they did have opinions about whether a candidate pitching themselves as a moderate would work for them.
Some voters said that a moderate candidate is appealing to them, although they would want to look more closely to see if the candidate is truly moderate. On many of the issues the voters cared about most — such as abortion or homelessness —– those voters disagreed about what being moderate means.
Other voters worried that candidates who described themselves as moderate wouldn’t be bold enough to take meaningful action.
Some self-professed liberals said they thought the word “moderate” had become a cover for conservative candidates who wanted to seem more appealing. One liberal voter who moved from Alabama to Allegheny County three years ago said there isn’t a single way to be moderate: In Alabama, being moderate means being anti-union, he said, but in Pittsburgh being anti-union would be a liability.
There are still some undecided voters out there. One voter in her 20s who voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016 said she had come to regret the decision, and now the most important issues to her are the environment and animal rights. Rockey might have a chance to persuade a former Trump supporter, but Innamorato’s campaign has focused more heavily on tightening environmental enforcement.
Joe Smetanka, of Hampton, manages a retail property in McCandless, where he spoke to WESA. He doesn’t like political parties and believes all candidates should be independent. But he also doesn’t like politicians who say they are moderate.
Smetanka votes in every election and says he is leaning toward voting for Rockey because he seems to be the more pro-business candidate. He didn’t realize that Rockey was trying to position himself as the moderate candidate. “I think he’s got to be a little bit more aggressive and progressive there,” Smetanka said.
Pearlina Story of Wilkinsburg spoke to WESA Downtown. She says she believes candidates who say they are moderate will not be strong enough to follow through on their commitments.
“That means you might say that you’re going to do something and we vote for you because you promised. You’re going to do that, then turn around, do something else,” she said. “So I like somebody to stand firm on what they say.”
Story works with homeless people Downtown and says homelessness and abortion are the most important issues to her. “I don’t believe in abortion, but I believe that a woman should have a right to say what she wants to do with her body,” she said.
Story plans to vote for Innamorato. She liked Innamorato’s political advertisement more than Rockey’s advertisement, she said. Rockey “was talking about almost the same thing, but he didn’t seem like he was as secure in his feelings,” Story said. “He just sounded like he was just being political and not being specific.”
Nancy VanSickel of Gibsonia spoke to WESA in McCandless. She prefers to identify with issues rather than a political party. She is strongly opposed to abortion rights and says she believes taxation and the proper size of government are key issues. She likes moderate candidates, in theory, but also wants to see for herself what they stand for. “People can say anything,” she said.
VanSickel said former Republican state Rep. Mike Turzai was one of the candidates she was most proud to vote for, but she didn’t know anything about either of this year’s candidates for county executive.
Sylvia Combs, of Sewickley, spoke to WESA in McCandless and is a strong Democratic voter. She said she would worry about any candidate who calls themselves a moderate because she wouldn’t know where they stand on the issues she cares about, including schools and vaccines. She said it seems to her that self-described independents and moderates in the past few elections take conservative positions rather than liberal positions. “It doesn’t seem like they’re actually independent,” she said.
Combs moved to the area two years ago and says she isn’t familiar with many local political candidates, including those running for county executive. Combs is energized about voting for more liberal school board members this year: She said she believes the old school boards made conservative choices about mask mandates and vaccines.
Beth Schongar, who lives in the Central North Side neighborhood of Pittsburgh, responded to a callout on social media and is a member of the Green Party, said many people are confused about what being moderate means. “A lot of people think moderation means you just aren’t going to change much. To me, that’s conservatism,” she said. “I’m looking for someone who is looking reasonably at the situation we’re in and realizes where there’s urgency.”
Schongar is hopeful about Innamorato but worries that the pressures she’ll face running a large organization for the first time could undermine her effectiveness.
Julia Spitak just moved to McCandless from the Detroit suburbs as part of her rotations in her nurse-practitioner degree program. She said she would like to vote for candidates who are moderate because she believes it means they would look at all sides of an issue. For example, she says, she thinks many people worry about trees only when they kill spotted lanternflies but she also feels bad for the insects.
“It kind of becomes a really good debate because it’s like: Do we save the trees or do we save these insects?” she said. “I don’t know.”
The environment and animal rights are two of the issues most important to her. She voted for Trump in 2016 but came to regret that decision. “I had thought some of his views were interesting, and I thought maybe he had some good ideas for America,” she said. “But then once he actually became president, I think there was a lot of controversy. And I didn’t agree with everything that he said or did.”
Spitak won’t just vote by party line. “I tend not to think in terms of Democrat or Republican,” she said. “I tend to kind of just look at what they’re talking about and then decide how I feel based on that.”
Wes Wright is a liberal architect who moved from Connecticut to The Run section of Greenfield in Pittsburgh two months ago, and he spoke to WESA Downtown. He thinks most Americans are closer politically than the media sometimes portrays and ideally he would support politically moderate candidates who are willing to work with everyone. “But in practice, I think it’s difficult for people to actually be moderate, especially on cultural and social issues,” he said.
Civil rights, biking infrastructure and climate change are some of the issues most important to him. He voted for Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama but says he doesn’t yet know which local political candidates he’ll vote for in November.
Joe Miller of Avalon sells building supplies, such as soap and paper towels, and he spoke to WESA Downtown. He says office workers are staying away from Downtown because of crime. He thinks that’s because local politics has skewed too far to one side — liberal.
He thinks government intervention leads to problems. He doesn’t understand why some people, in his observation, choose to be homeless. “When I see more tents go up, that’s not how I live. Maybe camping in the woods. That’s fun. But then get home to bed,” he said. “Full time? I just don’t get it. I don’t.”
Miller has come to support more Republicans than Democrats lately. He supports Rockey in part because Rockey seems more supportive of businesses and because he seems more moderate than Innamorato. “Moderate is — I want some enforcement of the laws,” he said.
Bobby Hillman of the Arlington neighborhood in Pittsburgh responded to our callout on social media. He moved to Pittsburgh three years ago and began volunteering for the Democratic Socialists of America. He believes candidates who claim to be moderate are just skirting the issues. “They’re trying to be able to say as little as possible and appeal to as many people as possible without potentially offending anyone,” he said.
Hillman is originally from Alabama, and in that state the moderate position is to be anti-union but in Pittsburgh it’s the reverse, he says. He believes Innamorato won her primary race because she focused on issues rather than responding to attacks about her previous affiliation with the Democratic Socialists of America. “Regardless of what anyone else is saying, her campaign has been focused on, here’s what the issues are. Here’s what we want to do around them,” he said.
Mitchell Nagy lives in the South Side Slopes and responded to our callout on social media. He said he leans pretty far to the left and wants a working-class candidate who will support labor, the environment, criminal justice reform and urbanist issues. But he said that popular discourse has pushed what it means to be a moderate rightward. “You’ll see Joe Biden get called a leftist extremist,” he said. “He’s about as right-down-the-middle as it could be.”
Nagy would support a moderate candidate with consistent views, he says. But he worries that moderation prevents them from living up to their views. “You say, ‘Hey, we’re not for racism and bigotry,’ but then you don’t do anything to address the systemic causes and sources of that kind of discrimination, then it’s just kind of doublespeak.”
Nagy says Rockey does seem pretty moderate, but he’s been turned off by Rockey’s tough-on-crime rhetoric. “I think that we can address our problems without trying to throw more people in jail,” he said “We’ve already got the world’s highest incarceration rate in this country. We don’t need to be any tougher on crime.”
Nagy believes Innamorato is liberal but not extreme. She wants to help people with addictions rather than throw people in jail, he said; she’s not calling to abolish police or abolish prisons. “She’s not out there at the Democratic Socialist rally,” he said, “chanting to seize the means of production.”
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA who focuses on coverage of education, politics, environment and health.
This reporting was made possible with financial support through the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.
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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.