Anti-Reform DA Survives in Pittsburgh Region After Switching to GOP

Allegheny County's incumbent prosecutor defeats the public defender who beat him in the Democratic primary; meanwhile, reformers see hope in a new, progressive county executive.

Alex Burness   |    November 8, 2023

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala during a June 2018 press conference.(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Criminal justice reformers suffered a major defeat on Tuesday in the Pittsburgh region, as Stephen Zappala, Allegheny County’s punitive 25-year district attorney, secured a seventh term by besting public defender Matt Dugan.

The race was a rematch of the county’s Democratic primary in May, when Dugan beat Zappala by about 10 percentage points. But Zappala soon flipped party affiliation and ran in the general election as a Republican after the local GOP, lacking its own DA candidate, organized a write-in campaign to make him its nominee. With nearly all ballots counted by early Wednesday morning, Zappala led Dugan 52 to 48 percent.

As Zappala clung to power this election, Allegheny County’s reform movement scored a significant win in the race for county executive: progressive Democrat Sara Innamorato, who has criticized mass incarceration and who favors overhauling the troubled local youth detention system, beat Republican Joe Rockey. The margin was tight: Innamorato was up about 2 percentage points—fewer than 10,000 votes—as of early Wednesday.

In a county that is very racially segregated and where Black and poorer residents face much higher rates of incarceration, Innamorato pledged a new vision. “We’re bringing together people who have been left out and pushed out and shut out of Allegheny County Government for too long,” she told supporters Tuesday night. “We will create compassionate solutions to addiction, violence, and poverty.”

Tanisha Long, an Allegheny County-based organizer with the Pennsylvania nonprofit Abolitionist Law Center, said Innamorato’s win is thrilling for those working in the Pittsburgh region to reduce incarceration and over-policing. Among other things, the new county executive will inherit power to nominate a new warden for the county’s deadly jail and will wield considerable influence over the board overseeing that jail; she will also be in charge of the city’s scandal-plagued youth detention system. “Those are real things, and there is real hope,” Long told Bolts

But Zappala’s victory places substantial limits on many moves toward more progressive criminal justice policy in Allegheny County through 2027, when he’d be eligible to seek an eighth term. 

He’s long been a staunch opponent of reform: He claims to hold police accountable but has seldom prosecuted any officers and, in one famous 2010 case, declined to file charges against a group of white officers who brutalized an unarmed Black teenager. In one year alone, The Appeal found, he prosecuted nearly 2,000 low-level drug possession cases. He mocks the idea of “conviction integrity” units in D.A. offices, which are meant to examine past cases in which innocent or overcharged people were imprisoned. A 2018 investigation found that the vast majority of children charged as adults by his office were Black. And two years ago, Zappala instructed his staff to offer no plea deals to the clients of a local Black attorney known for pursuing racial justice. 

Activists worked hard in recent years to win over voters in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, which lean whiter and more conservative than those in the city. An April Bolts analysis found that areas of Allegheny County that most acutely feel the weight of incarceration have clamored for reform in the DA’s office, but that Zappala has held onto power thanks to suburban voters, who generally have much less direct experience with the local criminal justice system.

That dynamic held on Tuesday night: Dugan dominated in the city of Pittsburgh, which has a population of about 300,000 people, but Zappala hardly lost a precinct in the suburbs, which represent about 900,000 people.

“It’s really disheartening and disappointing that a person who has shown that they have no regard for people of color in Allegheny County, for kids in Allegheny County, has been given another few years,” Long said. “As a Black voter, it feels like the county does not care about us.”

In his campaign, Zappala played up suburban antagonism toward the city. One of his recent television ads painted a grim picture of what Pittsburgh would look like with Dugan as prosecutor, using dark surveillance footage from other cities—gunmen on roadways and at a gas station in Philadelphia, an assault and a carjacking in San Francisco, a drug deal through a car window, a break-in at a jewelry store.

“I will never permit your safety to become an experiment,” Zappala said in the ad. In the days leading up to the election, Zappala reportedly threatened to sue to gain control of the city’s police force, which he has argued does not adequately respond to violent crime.

The public radio station WESA reported Zappala told supporters Tuesday night that this election was “a referendum on us as a community.” 

Rockey used rhetoric similar to Zappala’s in his campaign for county executive. “This is our home, not a laboratory for progressive experiments,” he said in a television ad, during which he also touted endorsements from local police leaders.

Activists had hoped the outcome of this year’s DA and county executive races would help them build on recent wins. The Pittsburgh region is far from the deep-blue bastion found to the east in Philadelphia, and Republicans held key positions in Allegheny County in the 1990s and 2000s, and Pennsylvania’s last GOP governor, Tom Corbett, carried the county as recently as 2010. But progressive-backed candidates have amassed substantial power this decade, winning races for Pittsburgh mayor, U.S. Congress and the county council. 

County Councilmember Bethany Hallam, who is among those Allegheny County progressives swept into office in recent years, told Bolts ahead of Tuesday’s election that Dugan and Innamorato represented the last major pillars in the local political makeover. “If progressives can win these two, we can show what we can do when we are finally in a position to implement our policies,” she said.

Instead, Hallam, Innamorato, and others looking to reduce incarceration and build a justice system in the Pittsburgh area that relies less heavily on punishment will have to contend, yet again, with a top prosecutor resistant to the very idea of reform.

“It’s going to make it very, very difficult to affect radical change, for a while,” Long said.

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