A progressive wave washed away the competition in Western Pennsylvania: How they did it and what it means

On Tuesday, Sara Innamorato continued her streak of victories, winning the Democratic primary for Allegheny County Executive.

The 37-year-old, three-time state representative from the city’s Lawrenceville neighborhood beat Democratic Party stalwarts John Weinstein, Allegheny County’s treasurer since 1999, and Michael Lamb, Pittsburgh city controller since 2008, according to unofficial tallies.

“We knew we had a path to victory, but I didn’t get into this because I wanted to be a politician,” Innamorato told an audience at her victory party on Tuesday. “I always wanted to just be in it to serve my community.”

The people powered her campaign, Innamorato said.

“Government is a reflection of us, is a reflection of our identity, our values, our priorities, our worlds. And if we do not see that reflected back to us it’s our duty to change that.”

So far, Innamorato, a progressive who first took office in the blue wave of the 2018 midterms, beating a longtime incumbent, has never lost an election.

The progressive movement in Allegheny County has not only propelled her into power, but helped campaigns by such unlikely politicians as U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa.;, Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey; U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio D-17th District, and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-12th District.

After years of moderate Democrats controlling the political narrative in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, progressives such as Innamorato have shown their victories can’t be dismissed as one-offs or flukes.

Theirs is a movement that resonates, and their supporters organize voters and win.

“We used to say, back in the day when they doubted us, and they said ‘these crazy women can’t win those state House seats,” Lee told the election night audience. “What we showed them tonight, what we showed them in every single election cycle since we started is that the power of the people is greater than the people in power.”

People will look at Allegheny County’s progressive movement and what it’s done in the past five years as a “blueprint for the nation,” Lee tweeted on Wednesday.

Even candidates like Matt Dugan, who has said he doesn’t identify as a progressive, but promised change from the status quo of the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office, convinced enough Democrats that a new way of doing things was needed.

“We saw it in 2021 as well, with Summer being elected,” Dugan told the Capital-Star in the days after he won the Democratic primary, beating longtime incumbent Stephen Zappala. “The race that made us confident to run was the Chris Deluzio race.”

Deluzio, a Navy veteran and attorney who sought to protect voting rights while working for organizations including the Brennan Center for Justice, was elected to the 17th House district seat formerly held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb.

Deluzio beat Republican challenger Jeremy Shaffer in the 2022 midterms by nearly 7 points, after running a populist campaign with a progressive message that included support for labor unions.

“We saw the lead up to this, we saw where the electorate was heading,” Dugan said. After the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, the interest in criminal justice issues has not gone away, he added. “I think the narrative has changed a little bit because we know violent crime is up. But I think folks are looking for different ways of handling that. And, you know, our message stayed consistent the entire time.”

Sam Wasserman, communications director for the Innamorato campaign, told the Capital-Star that consistency was a hallmark of that campaign as well.

“I think it’s really about sticking to this true and passionate message that the people have been really wanting for years, which is just to actually deliver,” Wasserman said.

He noted that Innnamorato didn’t just carry the city of Pittsburgh, perhaps the most left-leaning segment of Allegheny County voters, but took areas like the wealthy, traditionally conservative North Hills suburbs as well. Innamorato grew up in the northern suburb of Ross Township.

Wasserman, who has been communications manager in Mayor Gainey’s administration since 2022, said progressives such as Gainey and Innamorato run campaigns that reflect the people they want to represent.

“And making sure that it’s actually a people-first movement, with people-first priorities and people-first policies that deliver tangible results,” he said.

Innamorato’s county executive campaign, Wasserman added, was about “how to create a county government that invests in a better quality of life for our communities.”

Even the response to what may have once been effective attack ads has shifted, Wasserman said.

Late in the campaign, when it was clear she was the front-runner, her opponents started to run ads questioning Innamorato’s experience in the Legislature.

One ad by Michael Lamb’s campaign noted she had not passed any bills as lead sponsor in her four years in Harrisburg — but left out important context.

“Our electorate is smarter than those attacks give them credit for,” Wasserman said. “They know that we had a Republican Legislature up until this year, and they know that no bill advanced with a Democrat as its lead sponsor.” And, voters were aware of a key piece of legislation that Innamorato sponsored in the House: the Whole Home Repairs program, even if they weren’t aware Innamorato was involved, he said.

The response from voters as the Innamorato campaign knocked on doors in the closing days of the campaign, was not to question her on the content of the attack ads, but to ask “why are they so afraid of her?” Wasserman said.

Bethany Hallam, a progressive who has gone toe-to-toe with county officials over conditions at the Allegheny County Jail, also faced negative attacks during her bid for reelection to the county council at large seat.

Joanna Doven, press secretary for former Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, ran a campaign where she questioned Hallam’s past substance abuse, which along with her past incarceration, are two things Hallam has discussed freely both before and during her tenure on county council.

Her position has been that as a formerly incarcerated person, she is uniquely qualified to speak on issues that affect people at the county jail.

But even with the endorsement of outgoing county executive Rich Fitzgerald, Doven’s tactics didn’t appear to resonate with voters. Hallam won the primary with 56% of the vote, unofficial tallies showed.

Jennifer Rafanan Kennedy, chair of Innamorato’s campaign committee and managing director of progressive coalition Pennsylvania United, told the Capital-Star that the organizations in her coalition have been working together on issues they identified as important to people in western Pennsylvania for a long time.

“We’ve done really incredible things that nobody thought was possible,” Rafanan Kennedy said. “Whoever thought Meadville in Crawford County would have a climate action plan or a rental registry for anti-retaliation against tenants? Those are things that can come from people in a community having a vision, and electing someone who shares their values and working together to actually make change.”

Gainey, Lee, and Innamorato all had campaigns that presented voters with a vision, Rafanan Kennedy added. “That vision has not just been ‘I'm a singular politician and I’m offering these things.’ They’re actually about the things we’ve organized around, the issues that people care about and that actually matter deeply in their lives.”

A coalition of people and organizations have worked together to create the conditions for change and the leaders who share their values, she said.

“And building that muscle and working as a coalition, we have really become a majority,” she continued.

“We have been working on affordable housing and making sure every single one of our neighbors has a safe, affordable place to call home. We are working on making sure people have clean air and clean water. We are working on making sure that workers in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County are respected and have a voice in the workplace and can have a union, and a decent wage to take care of their families. These are the things that really matter here.”

Rafanan Kenney noted that Lee often says: “The people closest to the pain should be the people in power,” the people who are helping create solutions.

“That’s the kind of coalition we’ve built, where people can really participate, where their voices can be heard. And they can see themselves in the people they elected to represent them,” she said.

Wasserman said western Pennsylvania progressives are a very politically active and aware electorate, and he expects that to continue.

“This summer we’re already planning on doing major voter registration and making sure we are reaching people in new communities,” he said. “Because come 2024, this is the battleground, Allegheny County. It’s going to take a lot of work, but we’re not afraid of work because we understand that it pays off when we work collaboratively, and when we work inclusively.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

John Fetterman to return to U.S. Senate by April 17

PITTSBURGH — U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., will return to the Senate on April 17, after spending several weeks in the hospital for treatment of clinical depression, a source close to the senator confirmed to the Capital-Star on Wednesday.

Fetterman checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. in mid-February. His chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, said at the time that Fetterman had experienced depression “on and off throughout his life,” but that it had grown severe in the weeks before he entered the hospital.

Fetterman, 53, suffered a stroke in May 2022, just before Pennsylvania’s primary election. He spent two nights at George Washington University Hospital in D.C. last month, after he reported feeling lightheaded. Tests at the time showed no sign of another stroke or seizures.

Earlier this month, Jentleson tweeted a photo of himself meeting with Fetterman at the hospital, adding “John is well on his way to recovery” and grateful for all the well-wishes he received. “He’s laser focused on PA & will be back soon,” Jentleson continued.

In recent weeks, Fetterman has issued several statements through his staff and joined Senate legislation, including a bill meant to prevent future train derailments such as the one last month in East Palestine, Ohio.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

Pennsylvania governor blasts Norfolk Southern for ‘arrogance and incompetence’ in train derailment

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio – Freight hauler Norfolk Southern showed “arrogance and incompetence” in how it handled a fiery train derailment near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border earlier this month, Gov. Josh Shapiro said Tuesday.

“The combination of greed, incompetence and lack of concern for our residents is absolutely unacceptable to me,” Shapiro said during a news conference near the crash site, where he was joined by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine

“I’ve been outspoken about the serious concerns that I have with the company’s failed management of this crisis,” the Democratic governor continued “They chose not to participate in the unified command. They gave inaccurate information and conflicting modeling data, and they refused to explore or articulate alternative courses of action when we were dealing with the derailment in the early days. In sum, Norfolk, Southern injected unnecessary risk into this crisis and they created confusion in this process.”

In the days following the Feb. 3 derailment of 50 cars of one of its freight trains, the company conducted a controlled release of vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, from five of the cars, rather than wait for a possible explosion.

The fiery release created a cloud of black smoke, and raised concerns about pollution and health effects for residents in the area near the wreck, which included Darlington Township in Beaver County, north of Pittsburgh.

Regan said Tuesday that his office is ordering Norfolk Southern to conduct “all necessary actions associated with the cleanup from the East Palestine train derailment.” The railroad “will clean up all contamination in soil and water” and be responsible for transporting the contamination “to ensure that residents are not impacted further.”

The work will be done to the EPA’s specifications, Regan continued, and Norfolk Southern will reimburse the agency for the cleaning services conducted by its staff and experts, as an additional layer of insurance.

“If the company fails to complete any action ordered by the EPA, the agency will immediately step in, conduct the work ourselves and then force Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost,” Regan added. “In no way shape or form will Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess that they created.”

Regan said the railroad would be required to attend public meetings at the request of the EPA.

The company said in a statement on Monday that it was working to excavate soil and water near the derailment site that had been contaminated.

Shapiro praised the EPA for the order requiring the railroad to pay for cleanup.

“It is an important step that will give our communities confidence that they will not be on the hook for the cleanup that was made at the hands of a multibillion-dollar company’s mess,” he said. “In the face of Norfolk Southern’s arrogance and incompetence, I want you to know we are fighting back.”He added that his administration would “remain vigilant for any threats to Pennsylvania.”

DeWine, a Republican, said there was a need for Congress to “take a hard look at real safety” following the derailment.

“There is something fundamentally wrong when a train like this could come into a state, and the current law does not require them to notify the state or local officials,” DeWine said. “That simply has to be changed.”

He added that it made “absolutely no sense at all” that the railroad was not required under current law to make such notifications.

“The two of us as governors of states that have been directly impacted by the tragedy, we’re going to make sure that our voices are continued to be heard.”

Also on Tuesday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he was seeking to impose tighter regulations on freight trains that carry toxic chemicals such as the one that derailed in East Palestine.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

The usual bag of political tricks probably won’t work: Research shows Gen Z voters crave something different

A new post-election national report on Gen Z voters finds the youngest voters wish they had more information about candidates before they went to the polls, and that if political candidates and parties want to reach this generation, the usual bag of political tricks probably won’t work.

The report is based on research from the Walton Family Foundation, education advocacy nonprofit Murmuration, and public opinion research firm SocialSphere. Its goal was to gather insights and information for those who want to figure out how to appeal to Gen Z voters, which it designates as youth aged 15 to 25.

“I think the overall theme of this suite of research that we’re doing on this project is that a lot of people talk about Gen Z, but they don’t talk to Gen Z,” John Della Volpe, founder and CEO of SocialSphere and director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, told the Capital-Star.

“People in my position, pollsters, think about messages to engage with Gen Z. But for them it’s about values, not messages, and not transactions. So there has to be alignment on values. And honestly, that is the biggest opportunity Democrats have and the biggest challenge that Republicans have,” he said.

The research began in May, with three big town-hall style groups in Houston, Atlanta, and Columbus, and two smaller groups in Arkansas. It also included national surveys of 3,805 people between 15 and 25, and about 1,108 people over 25. A second national survey in late August polled high-schoolers, and a third round included interviews conducted in the days and weeks after the November midterm elections.

Among Gen Z voters, 33% said they wished they’d had more information about candidates before voting. Seventy-eight percent of Gen Z voters considered it important to address systemic racism, and 29% said abortion and reproductive rights were the issue they were most concerned about when they voted in the 2022 midterms.

Rachel Janfaza, a freelance journalist and fellow with the Walton Family Foundation, conducted listening sessions included in the research. She also conducted election day exit polling with Gen Z voters in Philadelphia.

“One of the things that stood out to me was just this idea that young people are craving more information about the candidates who are on their ballot, the initiatives that are on their ballot,” Janfaza said. “And while there is a lot of talk about ‘go vote, go local,’ that oftentimes gets lost on young people who are like, ‘well, what am I voting for? Or who am I voting for?’ They really want more information, and some of them even said they refrained from voting because they didn’t have enough information and they didn’t want to make an uninformed decision.”

And this cohort showed up in significant numbers in those midterms, bucking the conventional wisdom that young people don’t vote: A Tufts University report on exit polls found an estimated 27% of voters age 18-29 cast ballots, the second-highest turnout of that demographic in the past three decades.

But not all of them love the “Gen Z” label, her research found.

“The term Gen Z has been stigmatized in a way,” a student at Dover High School in Delaware told her. “Especially older generations see [someone in] Gen Z as someone who is too sensitive or you can’t say anything to them because they’ll always get offended,” she said.

Janfaza said many of the young people she interviewed spoke eloquently about issues that are directly affecting their lives, such as fear of gun violence, the climate crisis, wanting access to reproductive healthcare, college affordability or housing.

“You name it, it runs the gamut,” she said. “But they’re able to very succinctly point out these issues and how they’re directly impacting them. And yet, aren’t necessarily always making the links to how and if these issues are going to be affected by the candidates who are on their ballot.”

Gen Z voters speak about wanting to see change, she added, but don’t necessarily see voting as the vehicle for that change.

“There’s a lot of talk about democracy that I think falls flat for our generation,” one 20-year-old student organizer at Georgia Tech said, adding she hopes for “Americans to have the power to change the things in their everyday lives for the better and not a political system that essentially just stands in the way of all that.”

The top issue on the minds of Gen Z voters?

“Overwhelmingly in our conversations we talked about gun violence,” Janfaza said, adding it wasn’t restricted to young people in classrooms.

In the Philadelphia conversations, almost every young woman she spoke to said the issue driving them to the polls was reproductive health care and women’s rights, Janfaza told the Capital-Star.

“They wanted to elect someone, especially for the governor’s seat, who was going to make sure that there was access,” she said. There was also a focus on gun violence. “Some of the people I spoke with in Philadelphia said this area has increasingly become more dangerous when it comes to daily incidents of shootings. And that was very palpable.”

The researchers also found that while yes, Gen Z gets a lot of information from social media, it isn’t enough for politicians to make a few TikTok videos and call it a day. Candidates need to meet young people where they are, both online and in person.

“Governor [Josh] Shapiro was all over college campuses,” during the campaign, Janfaza noted. “And I think that made a big difference. I spoke with a lot of young people in Pennsylvania in the lead up to the election who said when they saw him on campus, it was like, ‘Whoa, you know, he’s actually here.’ And they felt like she was listening to them. I think that that’s something that across the country, young people are really craving from their elected officials.”

And authenticity from candidates is crucial for this voting cohort, Della Volpe added.

“So be on TikTok if you’re authentically comfortable on TikTok, right? That’s how they poked fun at [GOP Senate candidate Mehmet] Oz. Remember the ‘crudite’?” Della Volpe said, referring to Mehmet Oz’s widely-mocked video where he tried to illustrate the high cost of groceries by describing a tray of vegetables as “crudite.”.

The way Gen Z thinks about the issues in politics is different than the way millennials and other earlier generations did, Della Volpe said.

“There’s an urgency that I didn’t recognize in millennials.” Much of it has to do with the fact that Gen Z are seeing first-hand the effects of climate change, and what it looks like to have reproductive rights stripped away, issues that may have felt a bit more abstract to earlier generations. “It is a concrete, tangible connection between a policy and an outcome.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.