The Battle for Western PA’s Most Powerful Job

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Home to more than 1.2 million people, Allegheny County is Pennsylvania’s second-largest county, and for the first time in over a decade its top elected position, county executive, will change hands. A race that originally looked to be wide open has quickly yielded a front runner, and with the May 16 primary fast approaching, a familiar theme has emerged: that of a contest between the Democratic Party’s establishment flank and its progressive wing.

Allegheny County executive is one of the most powerful positions in Pennsylvania, overseeing elections, boards and commissions, a $1 billion budget, and more. Rich Fitzgerald has held the office since 2012, but term limits prevent him from running for reelection again. Longtime Allegheny County treasurer John Weinstein has positioned himself as Fitzgerald’s likely successor. Weinstein opened his campaign with endorsements from the influential Building Trades Labor Council, and he shored up his support by winning both the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council Endorsement and the County Democratic Party endorsement, the former requiring a two-thirds majority that many pro-labor candidates fail to achieve.

This momentum, combined with Weinstein’s strong fundraising advantage, has elevated him as the early favorite. Weinstein’s campaign has already reported raising over $1 million, and he’s the only candidate currently airing TV commercials. He has a long history of solid fundraising. But a fractured primary field could create a vulnerability for him.

State Rep. Sara Innamorato finished in a strong second place for the party endorsement in a crowded field. A rising Democratic Party star who’s been endorsed by Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, and powerful progressive labor groups like SEIU, Innamarato is a skilled organizer. She won her current office by toppling a longtime incumbent in 2018, winning by an almost two-to-one margin in the primary. In addition to her progressive allies and proven ability to excite the party base, she could benefit from the presence of Michael Lamb in this race.

Hailing from a prominent political family, Lamb has served as the Pittsburgh city controller since 2008, a position he is leaving behind to pursue county executive. Well respected and long rumored to be eyeing the county’s top job, Lamb has found his campaign overshadowed as Weinstein has soaked up money, endorsements, and momentum from many key Democratic stakeholders. But Lamb won’t go quietly. He’s built considerable relationships in city politics, evidenced by his campaign’s ability to garner 28% of the party endorsement vote, despite competing with Weinstein for support from moderates and with Innamorato for progressives. Lamb’s name recognition and base support developed over years of successful campaigns      could cannibalize Weinstein’s demographic – thus freeing Innamorato to run in her own lane among the party’s increasingly prominent progressive voters.

Of the six candidates on the ballot for county executive, Innamorato is the only woman running a credible race. The other, former Pittsburgh school board member Theresa Colaizzi, who filed her nominating petitions at the last minute and is not well known, appears unlikely to garner much support. As for Innamorato, while she probably can’t match Weinstein’s fundraising, she can take heart from the region’s two most competitive recent races: the 2022 congressional and 2021 mayoral primaries, which both saw well-funded candidates lose to more progressive challengers with less money.

The final factor that could affect Weinstein’s front-runner status is a stream of recently published stories casting doubt on the long-time treasurer’s ethics. While Weinstein has pushed back on these allegations, reports have also emerged that the F.B.I. is investigating him in relation to his work on the board of the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority. These stories are coming out early, before most voters are tuning in, and time will tell what effect they have on Weinstein’s frontrunner status.

One thing is certain: the results in Allegheny County will be closely watched by national politicians on both sides. Between Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate election in 2024 and its status as a prized presidential swing state, turnout in Allegheny County’s upcoming primary will serve as an indicator of Democratic strength across Pennsylvania – with national implications. 

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