Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato helped kickstart Southwestern Pennsylvania’s progressive movement with surprising state House victories in 2018. Tuesday night, Lee introduced Innamorato after the latter ascended to the very top of Allegheny County’s Democratic Party, winning the primary for county executive over well-established party hands — largely without courting the business community.
For the first time in 12 years, Allegheny County voters will elect a new county chief executive.
A decades-long custom of cross-cutting cooperation — between Democratic factions and Republicans, big labor and big business — could be on its way out. Innamorato and her allies could trade a tradition of collaboration between power brokers for a more direct connection with voters — a shift that may have major consequences both in future elections and in the function of government.
“What we’ve shown them in every single election cycle since we started is that the power of the people is always greater than the people in power,” Lee, now a member of Congress, said Tuesday night.
Now Lee, Innamorato and their friends are the people in power, at least in the Democratic Party, which has dominated county elections for the last two decades. Progressive Matt Dugan won the Democratic nomination for district attorney, and could join incumbent and primary winner Bethany Hallam (county council at-large) and fellow progressives Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Lee in government. And if November general elections go their way, their movement will get a chance to govern without major opposition in local office.
Innamorato will face Republican Joe Rockey in the general election in November.
“The county executive position is far more powerful than the mayor or a member of Congress,” said Joe Mistick, a Duquesne University law professor and political commentator who was an aide to former mayors Richard Caliguiri and Sophie Masloff. If Innamorato wins in November, “She can define how the government should work with this new alignment.”
In a Wednesday afternoon interview, Innamorato suggested the local power structure is evolving to be more inclusive, not going away altogether.
“There’s this conversation around being anti-establishment, but I reject that because I’m an elected official currently,” she said. “I’m a part of that political power structure. But it doesn’t mean you need to use that political power structure as it’s always been used. We can be less status quo and use those institutions and establishments for greater good and greater access.”
‘Single voice’ or clear-eyed debate?
Outgoing Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in an interview Wednesday that collaboration with pro-business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Allegheny Conference was key as leaders “worked together to try to dig Pittsburgh out of the economic hole from when steel collapsed.”
Some of the region’s big achievements have been logged when it has spoken with a single voice that includes institutional Pittsburgh and labor unions, said Tom Murphy, who served as Pittsburgh’s mayor from 1994 through 2005 and is now a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute.
“Ballparks happened due to a coalition of business people and unions,” Murphy said Wednesday. State funding often depends on that same convergence of interests. “We’ve got to, as a region, speak with one voice, because the legislature is averse, and if you’re going to get a Republican senator to vote for something, you probably need business people talking to that Republican senator.”
Said Mistick: “Nothing of any value has ever been achieved in Pittsburgh without cooperation with various factions of the Democratic Party and with the Republican Party, with business and labor … It won’t work any other way here.”
Innamorato said she would not hesitate to gather the region’s players around a table, but a “single voice” may be a thing of the past. “Sometimes things are going to be in conflict,” she said. “As long as we can acknowledge what our challenges are and be clear-eyed about them, then you can debate what the best policy solution is and where our resources need to go.”
There will be plenty on the next administration’s plate. The county’s population has declined since the start of the pandemic. A multibillion-dollar sewage infrastructure project looms. An affordable housing shortage and absentee office workers present existential questions for the regional economy.
Some traditionally powerful players may not be in the progressives’ corner.
Building trades unions threw their weight behind the opponents of Innamorato, Gainey and Lee. Gainey has butted heads with major nonprofits over tax exemptions and has been the target of criticism from some business leaders over conditions Downtown.
Mistick said business leaders have taken notice of last night’s results.
“The calls I’ve received this morning from the business community show that, at the very least, they’re deeply concerned about their future in our community,” Mistick said.
Innamorato said if elected, her administration would not shut out the business community, but its “concerns will be balanced with others that come from other communities that maybe have not had the same level of access that the business community has had.”
‘Not the typical players’
Murphy said the “one voice” approach may be even more central as the country enters what he called “a new renaissance in manufacturing.”
The region is winning some manufacturing developments, like a steel mill slated for Aliquippa in neighboring Beaver County, he said. But it is not so far winning in high-growth spaces like computer chips, lithium ion batteries and other emergent technologies.
“We are competing on an international stage” for those developments, he said. “We need to figure out how to get on that list.”
The business-and-labor coalition “gets stronger and then it gets weaker sometimes,” Murphy said, and he’s concerned about its durability.
“I think you see with Ed Gainey, Summer Lee and now Sara Innamorato is that there’s sort of a new coalition of leadership developing in Pittsburgh. Whether they’ll be successful or not remains to be seen. But it is not the typical players. The business community right now has not been actively involved with the mayor. That may change.”
Building trades unions, which have traditionally been close partners of county leaders, endorsed John Weinstein for executive in the primary.
Innamorato said she voted against their wishes on recent House bills that included large corporate tax credits and measures that could harm the environment, but when it comes to the right to unionize and boosting benefits for workers, “I stand out in front of those issues and have been a champion for them.”
Innamorato’s campaign was fueled in large part by service worker unions, which increasingly are a grassroots political force in the region.
Innamorato and her allies in office could be forgoing some unity with regional power players and betting that a more direct connection with rank-and-file voters will serve them better in the long run. “People want to know what you’re going to do for them,” said Hallam, and Innamorato effectively told them during her campaign. She contrasted that with Fitzgerald, who she called “out of touch with the voters” and prone to “do everything back-door, closed-curtain.”
The progressives’ voter-centric tactic has been successful at the ballot box, but the region is only beginning to find out how successful it will be in government.
If local government’s aims include things like employment, affordable housing and parks, it will need business “to fuel growth and jobs in our region,” said Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a civic organization including business and nonprofit leaders.
“Growth is what fuels our tax base and our tax base is what fuels our ability to invest in people,” she said. “We look forward to partnering with whoever becomes the county executive.”
Rich Lord and Emma Folts contributed reporting.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @chwolfson.
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