Sara Innamorato will be Allegheny County’s next executive, the first woman in the post and a departure from the centrist Democratic leaders that have held the office for two decades.
Speaking to her supporters after 11 p.m., Innamorato said she got a call from Republican nominee Joe Rockey, “and I thanked him for running a strong campaign.”
The former state lawmaker prevailed with just 51% of the vote, and portrayed the race as a highly charged contest with bracing highs and historic import.
“Over my time as a state rep and throughout this campaign, I have heard from other people who have struggled with their own addiction or have lost someone too soon to gun violence,” she said. “It’s not easy to share these stories, but we do so because government is best when it’s connected to the struggle of everyday people.”
She described her “North Star” as the “promise of building an Allegheny for all” that “is transparent, responsive and equitable.”
She raised a fraction of Rockey’s campaign haul — “millions of dollars got spent against us trying to divide us,” she told her supporters — but was armored with the backing of most area unions.
“I stand here as the first woman Allegheny County executive. I stand here because of the passion, faith and support of the people who are around me. A lot of them women.”
She said she stands on the shoulders of women elected before her, but especially credited her mother.
“My mom, when my family was struggling, she made sure that we had a place to stay,” she said. “Your strength gave me the fortitude to share my own story of losing my dad to the opioid epidemic, losing our home and our stability.”
Innamorato will succeed Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who has hit a term limit after 12 years in the post. Republicans made a strong run to replace Fitzgerald with Rockey, and came closer to winning control of county government than any time since 1999.
With the news, the progressive wing of the local Democratic party reached a new altitude as Innamorato, a 37-year-old from Lawrenceville, captured the county executive’s office in an atypically close election. Supporters were ecstatic at the prospect of a strong ally of both Pittsburgh’s mayor and its major healthcare union occupying a position held by a political centrist since 2012.
Slideshow from Innamorato’s election night party: Democrat Sara Inamorato claims victory in her bid to be Allegheny County’s first woman executive on Nov. 7, 2023. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
“People questioned her experience. The best experience you can ever have is lived experience,” Mayor Ed Gainey said at Innamorato’s watch party. “When you have somebody that has had life struggles and get up and come again. When you see somebody that has lost loved ones and get up and come again … that’s the type of leader we need for Allegheny County.”
Matt Yarnell, the President of SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania, in a press release, called it “an historic victory for working people. The right to organize and build worker power among the region’s largest employers was on the ballot this year and voters made it clear that it is a top priority in Allegheny County.” SEIU Healthcare has been in a lengthy struggle to unionize UPMC.
Innamorato will be sworn in Jan. 2 as the fourth county executive.
Lieut. Gov. Austin Davis, of McKeesport, predicted that Innamorato would be a partner to the governor who would “make sure we protect our fundamental freedoms like a woman’s right to choose, to make sure every person has equal access to the ballot box here in Allegheny County, and to make sure that people closest to the pain are closest to the power.”
Fitzgerald’s exit, overlapping with the takeover of the local Democratic party by a younger, more progressive power center, made this year’s executive closely watched and hotly contested, with different political factions seeing a chance to set the county’s course for the next four years and beyond.
The campaign attracted several million dollars in campaign contributions, first to a six-way Democratic primary and then to the General Election showdown between Innamorato and Rockey.
Rockey was a newcomer to the political arena, but ran a strategic and well-funded campaign to try to peel off moderate voters and counter the county’s Democratic leaning.
In the end, he cut into the Democrats’ margins, but not enough. Innamorato was on track late Tuesday to significantly underperform Democrats’ margins in the county in recent years, but still cleared the 50% threshold with thousands of votes to spare.
“I called Sara and wished her the best,” Rockey told his supporters. “I wish her and Allegheny County the absolute best as we move forward.”
He singled out police and the unions representing them, as well as correctional officers and building trades locals, for special thanks.
“We issued a jobs Renaissance plan, and again, I hope some of it will be followed,” he said.
“The middle truly matters, and the middle can truly make a difference in Allegheny County,” he said, noting that many Democrats appeared to choose moderate politics, “and I think that’s very symbolic.”
He called Will Parker, who ran for executive in the Democratic primary, someone with whom he “immediately knew we had a connection.”
After Rockey’s speech, Parker demanded the crowd’s attention, saying: “As we look around, what is this stage missing? It’s missing people of color. That’s why we lost. You can’t write us off.” Some Rockey supporters began to walk away as he spoke.
Democrats will have controlled county government for 24 consecutive years once Innamorato’s first term is up. Republicans last painted the county red in 1999 when Jim Roddey edged out Cyril Wecht to become the first county executive under the current form of government.
The result is welcome news for Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, a political ally of Innamorato, who could enjoy a better working relationship with the county government under her administration.
Gainey was elected two years ago in a major breakthrough for the progressives, but Tuesday’s result could give the movement even more momentum: While Gainey won in uber-liberal Pittsburgh, Innamorato prevailed countywide, showing that her message promoting diversity and economic and social justice can win over a broader swath of the electorate.
There are few places progressives have not taken over the levers of power in the county, from Innamorato and Gainey, to Congresswoman Summer Lee (elected last year), County Councilors Bethany Hallam and Anita Prizio and new City Councilors Khari Mosley and Barb Warwick.
Innamorato’s ascent is sure to bring the biggest change in local government in more than a decade. She could appoint new leadership to the county’s sprawling departments, including the multi-billion dollar Department of Human Services, 200-officer County Police Department, Health Department and more. Also of note: The county’s search for a new jail warden will still be in its early stages when Innamorato takes office.
Innamorato said during the campaign she would pursue a countywide property reassessment, something Fitzgerald vowed never to do, which would change tax bills for many county residents and is meant to result in a fairer system overall. Rockey said during the campaign he would not reassess.
She is poised to take a harder line against industrial polluters, ramping up enforcement against firms like U.S. Steel through the county’s health department. She has also opposed new fracking projects in the county.
A nurse at Allegheny General Hospital who asked not to be named, said abortion rights motivated her to vote for Innamorato because Rockey “refuses to state his personal beliefs” on the issue.
Rockey has said abortion rights are irrelevant to the race because the county executive role does not influence abortion policy. But the nurse said the idea that Rockey’s personal beliefs — on abortion and other issues — wouldn’t influence his policies is “absolute bullshit.”
Much of the conversation in the final weeks of the race centered around national politics and the 2024 election. The county executive casts the deciding vote on the county’s Board of Elections, which is responsible for certifying the election results. The Innamorato campaign brought in figures like Gov. Josh Shapiro to persuade voters that they should elect a Democrat to the post in light of the Republicans’ efforts to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
Innamorato will serve on the Board of Elections for the 2024 election, alongside Democrat Bethany Hallam and Republican Sam DeMarco. DeMarco voted against certifying the county’s 2020 results, but was outvoted by Fitzgerald and Hallam.
Innamorato was born in the late 1980s in Ross Township — late enough to make her the first county executive to grow up after the fall of the steel industry in the region. She frequently talked during the campaign about losing her father to the opioid epidemic, an experience she said informed her campaign’s focus on social services.
She eventually became one of many young professionals to buy a home in Lawrenceville in the 2010s. Not long after, she was elected to the state House in 2018, knocking off an establishment-backed Democrat in a primary. She was affiliated at the time with the Democratic Socialists of America, though she recently said she left the group in 2019.
She cruised to easy reelection wins in 2020 and 2022, and resigned her seat after winning the nomination for executive this spring.
Charlie Wolfson is PublicSource’s local government reporter and a Report for America corps member. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.
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