This year’s race for Allegheny County executive — in addition to swaying key policies around the jail, economic development, taxes and the environment — will provide the clearest picture yet of where the county and region are headed politically.
Is this a moderate county, as GOP executive candidate Joe Rockey says it is, hearkening back to the county that elected Republicans as commissioners and then as its executive in the 1990s despite overwhelming Democratic registration numbers? Or is the county leaning further to the left, reflective of the recent string of progressive election wins?
“This election will tell us how centrist the county is,” said Joe Mistick, a Duquesne University law professor who worked as an aide to former Pittsburgh Mayors Richard Caliguiri and Sophie Masloff.
A county where Republicans regularly won elections and even led the government just two decades ago is now a place where Democrats have fully taken the reins and Republican wins are few and far between.
Rockey has set out to prove that the county can still swing red for the right candidate. He has spent the past six months saying he’s a moderate’s moderate, and he insists that’s the lane most county voters want to occupy.
Former state Rep. Sara Innamorato, the Democratic nominee for executive, is trying to extend a progressive winning streak to the countywide level, while proving the movement appeals to voters outside of ultra-liberal enclaves.
Election Day is Nov. 7.
A Republican victory in Allegheny County wasn’t always such a tall task. County voters elected two Republicans to its three-member commission in 1995, Republican Jim Roddey was elected as the first county executive in 1999, and seven of 15 county council members were Republicans for part of the 2000s.
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett carried the county in 2010 en route to winning the governor’s office.
“When Jim Roddey was elected as a Republican, we were more Democratic than we are now,” Mistick said. “But people weren’t foreign to voting for a Republican.”
Dems’ recent dominance can be traced to a reduction in voters crossing party lines, another expert says.
“The hyper-polarization that we’re experiencing at the national level has been trickling down and creating a sense of tribalism among voters,” said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a political science professor at Chatham University, “so that where they might normally have looked more carefully at who the candidates were at the state and local level, what the issues were, and decided based on personality or a specific issue position, now it feels like there’s so much at stake that voters are in one camp or the other.”
A recent poll showed a majority of Allegheny County voters identify as either liberal or conservative, and some who were interviewed for this article said they are suspicious of candidates who call themselves moderate. Even some who do think of themselves as independent said they would scrutinize a candidate’s record to see if the candidate is truly moderate.
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 that of the county. 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.
One of the voters, Joe Smetanka, is a property manager from Hampton Township. He said he doesn’t like party labels such as Republican or Democrat. But he also doesn’t like politicians who call themselves moderate.
“I’d prefer to have the candidate being more aggressive and more different than just being moderate there,” he said. “I think we need more change, more progressiveness, more futuristic and strategic-type thinking.”
Smetanka is leaning toward voting for Rockey.
Pearlina Story of Wilkinsburg, who plans to vote for Innamorato, said she thinks candidates who self-identify as moderate may not be strong enough to follow through on their commitments. “I like somebody to stand firm on what they say.”
In about five years, left-wing candidates have supplanted moderates as the local Democratic Party’s power center, taking over key offices and all but ending an era for the region where moderate Democrats — mostly white men — dominated elections through the 2000s and early 2010s.
Innamorato herself was at the vanguard of the movement when she and Summer Lee won state House seats in 2018. Lee went on to Congress last year, and their ally Ed Gainey became Pittsburgh’s mayor in 2021. Progressive judges, magistrates and council members rose with them. Now, Innamorato is trying to cement the group’s political heft, proving that its candidates don’t just win in low-profile races or with favorable district lines.
Mistick said the surge of left-leaning Democrats is more a product of moderates campaigning ineffectively than voter sentiment shifting significantly.
“Regular Democrats stopped doing the organizing they need to do to win elections and progressives started doing them,” he said. Moderates “were not prepared.”
A public opinion poll published in September by the pro-industry group Pittsburgh Works Together asked voters if they consider themselves conservative, liberal or moderate. The results offer a muddy picture: The largest group of respondents answered ‘moderate’ (40%), but a collectively larger group chose an ideological side: 34% answered ‘liberal’ and 25% ‘conservative.’
At a deeper level, among those who said they identify as liberal, more respondents said they are ‘very liberal’ than ‘somewhat liberal.’
The poll doesn’t quite match Rockey’s claim that “the vast majority” of the county’s voters reside in the middle.
What’s more, experts say voters tend to overstate their own moderation and independence.
“Everyone’s independent except when you actually look at how they vote, no one’s independent,” said Chris Bonneau, a political science professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “People who are truly independent don’t vote.”
Sweet-Cushman of Chatham University said voters could shy away from terming themselves liberal or conservative, despite their actual beliefs, because of their negative connotations.
“Voters who don’t know too much about politics — which is virtually everybody, especially in a general election — they say they don’t want to be pigeonholed into this thing that has been categorized as being ugly or attached to some figure on the left or the right whom they don’t admire,” said Sweet-Cushman, who specializes in political psychology.
“And so it’s a lot easier to think of yourself as a moderate than to identify with one of those extremes.”
Wes Wright, a liberal architect who lives in Greenfield, said he would like to support moderate candidates, “But in practice, I think it’s difficult for people to actually be moderate, especially on cultural and social issues.”
The same poll that showed a healthy but minority segment of the county identifies as moderate may show that national political affiliations are seeping into local issues, with basic perceptions of reality taking partisan tilts.
Asked about the state of the county’s economy, 48% of Democrats said it was excellent or good, compared with just 12% of Republicans. On the subject of air quality, 42% of Democrats said the county’s air quality is getting worse, compared with 17% of Republicans.
Rockey’s campaign has tried to tie Innamorato to the “Defund the Police” movement, saying her views are extreme and out of step with county voters. Innamorato has not called for defunding or shrinking the county’s police force during the campaign, though the Pittsburgh Works Together poll shows there is a significant amount of Democratic support for the idea.
Voters were asked to choose between two statements, one centered around “We need to support our police” and the other focused on redirecting financial resources away from policing. Of respondents, 29% favored diverting resources from the police — 42% of Democratic respondents and 2% of Republicans.
Joe Miller, a building supply seller from Avalon, said he believes local politics has skewed too far to one side. “We either go too far left or too far right. Right now we’re too far left,” he said. “And you can see the result.” He said crime Downtown was keeping office workers out of the city center.
Each candidate has spent time on the campaign trail accusing the other of being much further to the left or right than they let on — effectively trying to tap into voters’ distaste for both extremism and the political party they do not belong to.
Rockey’s campaign has frequently tied Innamorato to her past involvement with the Democratic Socialists of America and used terms such as “extreme” and “radical” to describe her. Innamorato’s backers have sought to tie Rockey to the national Republican party, associating him with former President Donald Trump and anti-abortion elements.
What could conceivably tie a county-level post with a largely administrative role to presidential politics?
The issue of election administration encapsulates the nationalization of local politics and the distrust between partisan sides: The county executive sits on the county’s Board of Elections, which is responsible for certifying election results. The outcome of this election will decide which political party holds a majority on that board ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
The board received little attention until 2020, when Trump and his backers tried to pressure jurisdictions across the country to nullify election results. The board ended up voting 2-1 to certify the 2020 results, with the board’s one Republican member voting against.
Democratic nominee Sara Innamorato at a campaign press conference (left) and Republican nominee Joe Rockey at a meet-and-greet event. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Rockey has said in recent interviews that the 2020 election was conducted fairly, with Biden the rightful winner — and he’s called Trump “incredibly divisive” and said he won’t support him in the future. The local Democratic party is telling voters not to take him at his word, saying in a September press conference that he is “working with MAGA allies who want to take over the county election board.”
For all the jockeying among the candidates over ideology and messaging, the election results will still depend mostly on which voters turn out, Sweet-Cushman said.
“Most people are not following,” the candidates or their pitches, Sweet-Cushman said. “So they’re not going to be able to distinguish between whether someone with an ‘R’ next to their name is a MAGA Republican or whether they’re someone who is advocating for more moderation, because they’re not paying attention.”
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at 90.5 WESA and a former environment and health reporter at PublicSource. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was fact-checked by Emily Briselli.
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.