Zappala wins Democratic primary in Allegheny County DA race

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A resident walks near a polling place in East Liberty on May 21, 2019. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Incumbent District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. beat progressive challenger Turahn Jenkins in Tuesday’s primary election, likely extending his 20-year stint as the Allegheny County’s top prosecutor.

Zappala won with 59.1% of the vote. As of today, he faces no declared challenger in the upcoming general election in November.

In a statement, Zappala commended Jenkins for a “well fought race and a valiant effort to advance the conversation on criminal justice.”

Referencing key campaign issues about criminal justice reform, Zappala noted that “the public demands of the District Attorney are changing, and I enjoyed having that conversation with the voters.”

Zappala continued, saying he is “looking forward to getting back to work advancing the agenda that they have insisted upon: further reduction of cash bail, more pathways toward diversion and less incarceration, advocating reform of laws determining justifiable use of force and categorizing violent acts against the LGBTQ community as hate crimes.”

Jenkins' campaign did not immediately return calls for comment.

Since winning election in 1999, Zappala hasn’t faced a primary challenge until Jenkins. Zappala was originally appointed to the position by Allegheny County judges in 1998.

Jenkins began his legal career in the Allegheny County Public Defender’s office before becoming an assistant district attorney in Zappala’s office. He then worked in private practice for several years before re-joining the public defender’s office in 2013.

Zappala has been criticized for his handling of the prosecution of former East Pittsburgh police officer Michael Rosfeld for the killing of Antwon Rose II. Rosfeld was acquitted, and local activists had called for Zappala’s ouster in demonstrations after the shooting. Acquittals are common nationwide in trials of officers accused of killing residents.

Jenkins, meanwhile, has been criticized for stating that he viewed homosexuality as a sin, a tenet of the church he attends. As Jenkins’ campaign wore on, he said he supports the LGBTQ community and would defend them if elected district attorney. At a March fundraiser, he said he is “standing up for everybody, without exception.”

District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. (Photo from alleghenycountyda.us)

Mary Ann Trifaro, a Mt. Lebanon resident and recently retired officiant of weddings and funerals, said she was all in for Zappala. She was stationed at Mellon Middle School as a volunteer to hand out fliers for Mt. Lebanon Democrats. She said she thinks Zappala is “fabulous” and had her picture taken with him at a recent event.

“I like Steve, I think he’s doing good,” she said. “I think he’s honorable.”

Maddi Lehman, another Mt. Lebanon resident who’s semi-retired and works part time at Learning Express Toys, said she appreciates Zappala’s local family ties.

His father, Stephen Zappala Sr., was an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge who was also elected to serve on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. His grandfather, Frank Zappala, was a state legislator and magistrate judge in Pittsburgh.

Garfield resident Linda Buckner also supports Zappala.

“He seems like he's doing a good job,” said Buckner, 67. “I haven't heard negative things about him. He seems like he's for the people.”

Ebony Carrington and her son Alex Beasley support Jenkins.

“I see that there doesn't appear to be a lot of equality in the justice system,” Carrington, 43, said at the East Pittsburgh Community Center. “I think Turahn is a fair man for the people, and I'd like to see some better things for the people.”

She chose Jenkins, she said, because she wants to see local police officers held accountable.

“I'd like to see the police being policed,” she said.

Allegheny County District Attorney candidate Turahn Jenkins speaks at a March fundraiser. (Photo courtesy of RaCarol Woodard)

Jenkins announced his candidacy after officer Rosfeld shot Rose in East Pittsburgh and Zappala charged Rosfeld with criminal homicide. In March, a jury acquitted Rosfeld of all wrongdoing.

After the trial, Jenkins said Zappala should have personally tried the case rather than assigning assistant district attorneys. Were he district attorney, Jenkins said he would have served as lead prosecutor.

“Turahn, from what I know, he would have taken that case on. That's a high-profile case,” Beasley, 23, said in East Pittsburgh. “But Zappala doesn't have the experience to do that in the courtroom.”

In March, Erin McClelland, a political strategist on Zappala’s campaign, said it would have been improper for Zappala to “grandstand” by trying the case.

Beasley said he’d like to see more black men in positions of power, and ones who care about local communities.

“He brings a lot more to the table than what Zappala brings to the table,” he said.

For East End resident Paula King-Smith, Zappala inserting himself into Pittsburgh’s recent debate on gun control was a problem. As Pittsburgh City Council members were debating a package of bills to limit the use of certain automatic and semi-automatic weapons and accessories, Zappala issued a letter saying that the city didn’t have the authority to take such action and that residents would likely file criminal complaints against the council members who voted for the measures. The bills, which became law April 9, were introduced as a response to the Oct. 27 shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

“I wasn't impressed with that,” King-Smith, 70, said. “I believe that someone should be able to have a gun to hunt, even a small weapon for self protection maybe, but an AK-47, I don't see why. And I think the city [officials] should have the right to say, look we don't want this in our city.”

King-Smith also said she was leaning toward Jenkins because she wants to see shorter sentences for people convicted of non-violent crimes.

“I think [Jenkins] would be for the more humane jailing of people,” she said. “If you haven't done a violent crime, you shouldn't get 20 or 25 years or something like that.”

Jourdan Hicks is a community reporter at PublicSource, she can be reached at jourdan@publicsource.org.

J. Dale Shoemaker is PublicSource's government and data reporter. You can reach him at 412-515-0060 or by email at dale@publicsource.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @JDale_Shoemaker. He can be reached securely via PGP: bit.ly/2ig07qL

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