Sara Innamorato’s run for Allegheny County Executive gained national attention when Bernie Sanders endorsed her toward the end of the primary race. The Nation, a mainstay progressive magazine, ran an article May 16 with a headline declaring “a Bernie Sanders progressive could be the next leader of one of America’s largest counties.” Innamorato gladly accepted the endorsement of the Vermont Democrat, who she cites as a big inspiration for her entrance into politics as a state representative in 2018.
Despite the national interest, during an interview with Pittsburgh City Paper, Innamorato specified her focus on Allegheny County, where there’s been a series of progressive electoral victories.
“I mean, it’s always nice for your ego,” she says, laughing. “And I think it helps with fundraising, you know, bringing more dollars in nationally. But at the end of the day, it’s always about focusing on, it’s here, right? I’m running a campaign to represent the people of Allegheny County.”
In the past few years, Pittsburgh area progressives have won several major elections by maintaining a close coalition and taking advantage of enthused, on-the-ground organizers. This wave built on a movement active in the area for decades, which ignited after the 2016 presidential election.
Sanders’ surprisingly competitive — though ultimately unsuccessful — primary challenge that year prompted a surge of progressive electoral victories across the country, funded largely without corporate super PAC money. Donald Trump’s victory in the general election raised the stakes for many, and further energized the progressive movement.
Five years on, that momentum was shifting the narrative in Allegheny County. Narrow primary victories by Democrats Ed Gainey in the 2021 Pittsburgh mayoral race and Summer Lee for a Pittsburgh-area U.S. House seat the following year represented sea changes for local government that garnered national media attention. Gainey, who ran on police reform and affordable housing initiatives, bested former mayor Bill Peduto, a beloved liberal leader of years past; and Lee, often considered a new addition to the progressive “Squad” in the House, beat attorney Steve Irwin, a Peduto-endorsed moderate.
With establishment heavyweight Rich Fitzgerald set to conclude his final executive term in December, several Democrats entered the race earlier this year hoping to fill his seat, raising unusual sums of money for a local election. Innamorato won handily, with a more than 8% lead over the second place finisher, John Weinstein, and almost double the votes of Michael Lamb, the candidate endorsed by Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald told WESA the day of the election, “it’s been seven years in a row of the far-left winning Democratic primaries in Allegheny County. It looks like we’re going to become similar to places like San Francisco or Seattle or Portland with a far-left agenda of our elected officials.”
Innamorato told City Paper she always ran with a clear, strategic path to victory in mind and felt affirmed when polling released about two weeks before the election showed her in the lead. Negative ads painting Innamorato as a radical flooded local television stations. Her campaign made sure to invest in television ads to increase Innamorato’s name recognition and present a positive message. But perhaps the most important strategic decision was investing heavily in the old school tactic of door-knocking.
“It was investing in field in a very strategic and intentional way,” Innamorato says. “Our field director was phenomenal and really focused on making sure that we were hitting areas and hitting as many doors as possible and managing volunteers and making sure that they were thanked for their time and energy and felt they were part of the campaign.”
The official campaign knocked on more than 40,000 doors, while independent groups supportive of Innamorato also reached more than 110,000 homes, according to Sam Wasserman, the campaign’s communications director.
Bend the Arc knocked on about 2,000 doors, according to Jonathan Mayo, an activist with the Pittsburgh chapter of the progressive Jewish group. When out canvassing, Mayo and other door-knockers with the organization realized most residents were unfamiliar with Innamorato and the main themes of the election. They found themselves forced to introduce the race and Innamorato to people simultaneously. Talking about Innamorato’s issue set and priorities, such as a focus on improving the area’s poor air quality, got people on board.
In addition to door-knocking and grassroots outreach, Wasserman also emphasized the sense of solidarity among progressive candidates, who gladly lend their support to each other.
“One of the really unique things here in Pittsburgh that has been powering these victories, and especially these victories increasing in size, is the respect and trust that the leaders that we have put up for office have in each other,” Wasserman, who also worked for Gainey, says. “When Ed Gainey first declared, Sara and Summer were there from day one. And when Summer first declared, she got to start with a boost of knowing who Ed Gainey supporters are. And when Sara was able to do the same thing, they kept building on each other.”
Naturally, when Innamorato gave her victory speech the night of the primary, Gainey and Lee joined her on stage with their own words of celebration.
Mayo, who was also the treasurer for Gainey’s 2021 mayoral bid, says Lee’s and Innamorato’s successful 2018 state House campaigns made it clear that local progressives could make real headway in the electoral map.
“I think, for so long, we had this idea that elections of any one given official didn’t matter, and for good reason. I could see why a lot of people and a lot of communities could think that, because government did not impact them day to day,” Mayo says. “But seeing Summer and Sara upend the establishment, and win by running on these bold, progressive platforms, was a wake-up call. And it’s only grown from there.”
Mayo says he believes the wave of progressive victories in around Pittsburgh is unique in the sense that it’s happening in an area not known for being incredibly progressive. He raised Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s initial upset victory in 2018, noting that she ran in a very progressive district, which encompasses New York City’s Bronx, Rikers Island, and Queens. Pittsburgh area progressives had “more to push against,” he says.
It now appears to Mayo that the Pittsburgh area’s Democratic establishment machine that sustained Fitzgerald through three terms is weakening. It has money and prestige, but, Mayo says, it does not have “people-power” for its campaigns.
“I think we’re seeing that that machinery is not operating well anymore, and people are recognizing that,” Mayo says.
Area progressives also hailed Matt Dugan’s successful primary bid for District Attorney against Steve Zappala, a 25-year incumbent, as a victory for the movement, in addition to Bethany Hallam’s reelection to Allegheny County Council. Deb Gross, a city council incumbent endorsed by the Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America chapter, also won her election. Still, a few candidates running to the left of their opponents lost in May, including the two other DSA-endorsed candidates: Dennis McDermott, who ran for county council, and Darwin Leuba, who ran against appointed incumbent Corey O’Connor for county controller. Gainey and many local groups endorsed O’Connor, who won by a substantial margin.
Kirsten Rokke, an organizer with Pittsburgh DSA, largely door-knocked for the organization's slate of endorsed candidates and, despite the two losses, commended the overall momentum of the area’s progressive movement. Rokke organized in the Chicago area before moving to Pittsburgh and noted that Chicago’s Democratic establishment seems to have a much larger bankroll.
“One thing that I think is notable, I see relative to Chicago at least — and I know similar things in New York and in Philly too — I think that the [party establishment] opposition here is a little less organized, in my experience,” Rokke says. “These are significant wins, but some of the folks that they were against are more vulnerable from not having to fight to keep their power in the past.”
Steve Paul, a Philadelphia-based director of the statewide progressive activist organization One Pennsylvania, described Innamorato as an easy endorsement for the group. He says there’s a similar trend of progressive victories in Philadelphia, even though some similarly progressive challengers haven’t yet been able to win.
The reasoning behind that is complicated, Paul says, but he notes that it helped in Allegheny County that the progressive coalition aligned very clearly behind Innamorato. He also says that candidates opposing Helen Gym, a Sanders- and Ocasio-Cortez-endorsed progressive candidate who ran for mayor in the Democratic primary in Philadelphia, spent a lot of money against her. Overall spending in the race exceeded $31 million, making it the city’s most expensive political contest to date, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. The mayoral primary between Gainey and Peduto was paltry in comparison, racking up less than $2 million, according to PublicSource.
These progressive wins didn’t come out of nowhere — there has long been a progressive movement in Pittsburgh. Nonprofit group Pittsburgh United formed in 2007, primarily around economic development issues. Jenny Rafanan Kennedy, the group’s director for 11 years, says it got its start advocating for issues like clean water, unionization, and affordable housing.
“Those have always been resident issues in Pittsburgh, and we made a lot of progress in Pittsburgh in creating a progressive city,” she says.
The group later expanded to include Pennsylvania United, formed partly, she says, to combat state-level opposition to progressive sentiment in Pittsburgh. While Democrats with varying degrees of progressive bona fides now run the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia areas and have led the state as governor twice in a row, the state’s congress has long been controlled by Republicans.
Pennsylvania State Sen. Jay Costa, who’s been in office since 1996has a reputation as a pragmatic dealmaker, says there’s been progressive sentiment in the state assembly for years, but that he’s seen it get dramatically easier to at least advance policy in his tenure. He’s worked recently with Innamorato and Gainey on advocating for tax breaks for long-time homeowners. He also says that hate crime legislation he introduced with State Rep. Dan Frankel in the wake of the antisemitic mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue originally went nowhere, but has gained more traction this year.
Costa — whose brothers, Paul and Dom Costa were unseated by Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato respectively during the 2018 election —says progressive challengers are primed to do really well in any Democratic primary race.
“It grows within a Democratic primary universe of voters, which is important to understand that piece of it,” Costa says. “Because they are speaking to a majority of Democratic primary voters, and they’re not necessarily speaking to the whole voting universe at large.”
And he was not surprised to see the recent wave of progressive victories, given their grassroots organizing, youthful energy, and awareness of issues relevant to ordinary people.
“Sara had people committed to the cause. Summer Lee had people like that. Ed Gainey had people like that in neighborhoods and communities,” Costa says. “That’s the difference.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated One Pennsylvania is based in Philadelphia. It has been corrected to reflect that the group is based in Pittsburgh with statewide offices.