Local elections in Democratic strongholds at both ends of Pennsylvania next month could show how voters feel about progressive candidates and issues such as abortion and crime ahead of the 2024 election.
Philadelphia will get a new mayor, and Allegheny County — where Pittsburgh is the county seat — will see a new executive. Voters there will also decide whether to reelect the district attorney with backing of another party, after his long career as a Democrat.
The Nov. 7 results in Pennsylvania’s two biggest population centers will set the electoral stage for 2024, when the state will be a prime presidential battleground, with candidates taking lessons about how Democrats see crime into the next election cycle and the strength of progressives in local races.
In Philadelphia, Democrat Cherelle Parker, a former state legislator who has had a long political career in the state, will face Republican David Oh, a former City Council member. Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney, in office for eight years, is term limited.
Parker, a moderate, emerged from a crowded field vying for her party’s nomination in the heavily Democratic city.
Oh, 63, ran unopposed in the Republican primary. He acknowledges getting elected mayor is a tough battle in a city that — in his words — hates Republicans. But he said he has often butted heads with the party and has created a coalition of Democrats and independents who supported him during his time on the council.
“Where people are today, it might take an outsider to buck the system,” he said. “There are people who are Democrats who are kind of like outsiders in rhetoric but they’re not. They’ve not really fought any of the systems.”
Parker, 51, said her long experience — working in government since she was 17, serving as a state lawmaker and on the City Council — allows her to bring different people to the table to make change.
“We can’t solve these problems alone. We need federal, state and local government, along with the private sector and philanthropic communities, to help us address the public health and safety,” she said.
Oh and Parker agreed crime is the most pressing city issue. Both want to see more officers employed and more deployed in neighborhoods.
Oh rejected Parker’s stance that tactics such as stop-and-frisk should be used to curb crime, which he said will create animosity. He pushed upgrading technology to better support them.
“The community has to want the police to be there, and police have to stand for the enforcement and respect of the law,” he said.
Parker called for a well-trained police force with cultural competency and emotional intelligence. She said misuse cannot be tolerated, but also was resolute that reform by redirecting funds or slashing budgets — a push that saw a burst of energy in 2020 — wasn’t the right answer, either.
“I’m glad I didn’t succumb to the emotional pressures of the moment and buy into a philosophy that was antithetical and not coming from the people who were experiencing the most pain,” she said.
Public safety is also a prominent campaign issue in the Pittsburgh area, where progressive Democrat Sara Innamorato, a former state legislator, and Republican Joe Rockey, a former chief risk officer at PNC bank, are running for Allegheny County executive. The two are seeking to replace term-limited Democrat Rich Fitzgerald, in office since 2012.
Rockey, 59, is pushing for more officers on the street, where Innamorato has focused on developing a comprehensive public health approach to public safety.
Innamorato, 37, also indicated that national issues — like voting rights and abortion access — remain potent among voters. She supports a shield law that would protect women who come to the county from other states to get abortions, she said.
She said that her time in the Legislature allowed her to bring more dollars back to the county, but that when it came to distributing those funds, it came down to the county government. She sees county executive as the “ultimate doer” position.
“I feel like taking on this position, we can take county government and make sure there’s more of a community-led, people-centered process, and we can talk about things that haven’t really been championed at the county level in a strategic and cohesive way,” she said.
Rockey emphasized his business background, saying he used to manage larger budgets and more people as a corporate executive.
“I believe what we should be doing is focusing on Allegheny County with practical solutions, as opposed to running this county from an ideological perspective,” he said.
During the spring primary for elected prosecutor, Allegheny County’s Democratic voters enthusiastically supported the more progressive candidate over the more moderate long-term incumbent. They’re back for a rematch in November, with the losing incumbent running as a Republican.
The county’s chief public defender, Matt Dugan, bested District Attorney Stephen Zappala, who has held the role for more than two decades, by double digits. But Zappala secured enough write-ins in the Republican primary to get that party’s nomination.
Dugan, 44, said that changes are needed in the district attorney’s office and that he wants a greater focus on connecting low-level, nonviolent offenders to drug and alcohol services or mental health treatment.
“We don’t always have to see these life-altering consequences of a criminal conviction,” he said. “That, then, will allow us to free our time, our resources and our attention to the prosecution of violent crime.”
During a debate last week, Zappala said lower-level crimes still must be persecuted so problems don’t spiral out of control.
“We’ve treated both drug dealers and persons who possess and run with bad guys as violent,” he said. “And that’s not going to change in my administration.”
Brooke Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.