Stephen J. Zappala Jr. will continue his quarter-century tenure as Allegheny County’s top prosecutor after surviving a well-financed challenge in a race that forced the lifelong Democrat to run as a Republican.
Zappala reversed the results of the Democratic primary, won by Matt Dugan, a former public defender. The incumbent stayed politically alive by receiving the Republican nomination, then won slightly more than 51% of General Election votes despite the county’s 2-to-1 Democratic registration edge.
“First and foremost, I want to thank the voters of Allegheny County,” Zappala told supporters at his campaign’s watch party. “I think it was more a referendum of us as a community.”
“We were up against a billionaire,” he continued, in reference to George Soros, the liberal philanthropist who largely funded his campaign rival. “We had to be competitive, not just financially
Zappala said voters are “aware of some of the problems we have and some of the things that need to be done,” calling the vote “a referendum on us as a community.”
In his seventh term as district attorney, he said he’d like to explore the development of a municipal authority for the South Side and the South Side Flats. He described the area as a regional asset and said that, “rather than argue about undermanning the Pittsburgh police and not helping them do their job, we’re going to look at it a little bit differently, in a little bit more broader manner.”
In regards to the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, Zappala said the facility’s name and “the concept of a penitentiary in and of itself — that should disappear.” He has said that greater emphasis should be placed on providing juvenile offenders with education and support, and he referenced that in his speech.
“We bring health care, education, and as a last resort, then we talk about detaining younger people, even though serious consideration has to be given because they are serious crimes that people are being accused of,” Zappala said.
He also discussed the issue of homelessness, saying that under Pittsburgh mayors Bob O’Connor and Luke Ravenstahl, there were about 250 people characterized as being homeless, and most city police officers knew them. Zappala said that Pittsburgh was unprepared for its designation as a sanctuary city under Mayor Bill Peduto, which he said caused the population of unhoused people to grow to more than 1,000.
Unhoused people, he said, are “being exploited by the nickel and dime drug dealer. So there’s a new market Downtown,” he said. “So there’s a lot we have to do tonight. We’re not going to fix everything, but we’re going to start tomorrow morning.”
Zappala thanked his finance team early in his speech. He said his campaign was “up against a billionaire,” referencing Soros’ roughly $1.8 million in support for Dugan’s campaign. “We had to be competitive, not just financially,” Zappala said.
He said he faced “the national type of organization, the national type of commercials, the national media people that they bring to bear,” faulting Soros for “doing this all over the country,” and blaming such campaigns for liberal public safety policies and decline in cities like San Francisco. “I don’t know what the economic status of our county would be a year and a half from now if we continue to move in the same direction, but, which, by the way, we will not.
Not all welcome the news of Zappala’s political survival.
Corinn Lyon, 77, of Sheraden, said crime in the county also motivated her to vote — but it prompted her to vote against the DA candidate who positioned himself as tough on crime.
The retired US Airways worker and registered independent voted for Dugan because we need “new blood” in the district attorney’s office.
“[Zappala’s] been in there too long and I just don’t think he’s done enough,” she said.
That thinking, though, did not prevail at the polls.
Zappala became DA in 1998 after the judges of the county’s Common Pleas court elected him to fill a vacancy, and voters granted him a full term in the 1999 election. Then it was smooth political sailing for Zappala, who didn’t face a serious challenge until 2019, when he turned aside independent challenger Lisa Middleman with 57% of the vote.
Dugan — defeated tonight after besting Zappala in the Democratic Primary — earned the backing of local progressives who wanted to see Zappala’s career over, and perhaps more importantly, he earned the backing of Soros, who has funded numerous DA candidates throughout the country. The philanthropist bolstered Dugan with $700,000 worth of TV ads during the primary season and more than $1 million ahead of the General Election. Zappala raised considerable sums himself, including more than $600,000 ahead of his November rematch with Dugan, but it didn’t stack up with Soros’ support for Dugan.
“I would absolutely do it again,” Dugan told supporters at his campaign’s election watch party in Carnegie.
He said his campaign fought for people in the criminal justice system “who are underserved, whose needs are under-met.”
“I stand here, proud of the campaign that we ran, proud of the message that we brought unapologetically across the county demanding reform in our system,” he said during his concession speech.
Zappala accepted the Republican nomination after Dugan defeated him in the Democratic primary, thanks to several thousand Republican write-in votes. He also accepted the endorsement of the Forward Party, the centrist-focused national political group fronted by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
The two candidates clashed in a heated campaign season this fall. Dugan assailed Zappala for being too tough on nonviolent offenders and Black defendants. Zappala said Dugan would likely be too lenient toward criminals as DA, and said he would be too beholden to Soros.
Zappala is new to the GOP side of the ballot, and referred to himself in a debate as a “law and order Democrat,” but he has pulled support from traditional Republican donors and politicians. And while the ink is still drying on his party switch, he is the first Republican elected to countywide office (other than a county council at-large seat which is virtually guaranteed to the party) since 1999, when Jim Roddey was elected county executive.
Zappala campaign spokesperson Ben Wren said that voters in the county are deciding how far they’re willing to be pushed to the left. He said that Democrats are getting increasingly liberal and added that there is division in the county between what he referred to as city Democrats and Mon Valley Democrats.
Dugan, a Moon Township resident, worked in the public defender’s office from 2007 until this year, and served as chief public defender since 2020.
Venuri Siriwardane is PublicSource’s health and mental health reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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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.