How DA Stephen Zappala dominated the suburbs and other takeaways from the 2019 election | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

How DA Stephen Zappala dominated the suburbs and other takeaways from the 2019 election

click to enlarge Stephen Zappala - CP PHOTO: JARED WICKERHAM
CP photo: Jared Wickerham
Stephen Zappala
The highly contested and publicized race for Allegheny County District Attorney was not as close as expected.

Twenty-year incumbent District Attorney Stephen Zappala (D-Fox Chapel) won re-election with 57 percent of the vote, defeating Lisa Middleman (I-Highland Park) by more than 38,000 votes, a 14-point win for Zappala and a total domination in municipalities outside of the city of Pittsburgh.

The race boiled down to Middleman's reform platform versus Zappala's record and efforts to increase security measures through surveillance cameras and other methods.


Middleman brought up the racial disparities in Allegheny County’s criminal justice system, while Zappala ran on reforms like lowering cash bail and creating diversionary courts during his tenure, but reports have shown those efforts haven't been effective.

Ben Forstate, an election mapper and analysis who lives in Fox Chapel, was surprised at exactly where Zappala won and how large his margins were in suburban municipalities. He thought suburbs like Fox Chapel, Mt. Lebanon, and Sewickley would support Middleman more.

“I expected it to break down more on income and education. And it didn't,” says Forstate.

Zappala won all the precincts in Fox Chapel and Sewickley and the majority of precincts in Mt. Lebanon. Middleman won the majority of the precincts in the city of Pittsburgh, but little else. She won several boroughs with large Black populations, like Braddock, Swissvale, and Wilkinsburg, but lost virtually all other suburbs in the county.
Forstate says it is unclear if this election really sets a true urban-suburban divide on issues like criminal justice, and that though that there was a lot of attention played to the race, it doesn't mean it was on everyone’s radar.


Lara Putnam is a political analyst at the University of Pittsburgh who canvassed for Middleman yesterday. She talked to 150 people in Bridgeville, which voted narrowly for both Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012 and President Donald Trump in 2016.

She says that voters there had heard about the race through television commercials about Middleman and Zappala, and were open to Middleman ideas of reforms. However, Putnam says the larger implications of race in Zappala's tenure and Middleman's campaign were not as noticeable in the suburbs.

“The TV ads were clearly impactful,” says Putnam. “But I don't think [bigger issues] were as salient in the suburbs, like how high the stakes were for communities of color.”

Putman also believes the DA election results shouldn’t necessarily be looked at as a contest between a progressive candidate and one that campaigned as right-of-center, even if that is how some observers saw it.

For one, she says, Zappala received a boost from straight-party votes since he was both the Democratic and Republican nominee. Those straight-party votes accounted for about 47 percent of his total tallies. But also, Zappala is a well known Democrat who had the backing and support of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee and the state party.
Forstate also notes the Democratic committee is largely responsible for canvassing in many parts of the suburbs. And even though, as City Paper has reported, some suburban committees wanted to canvass for Middleman, committee rules barred them from not supporting Zappala.


Other signs from the election show these suburban areas aren’t exactly conservative bastions either, even if they mostly chose Zappala over Middleman.

Zappala is a well-known Democratic name and Putnam says that was likely helpful in the race where the issues were less salient in the suburbs. She also says his campaign message could have been more palatable to those voters and that it wasn’t just the structural advantages that pushed him over the top.

“There are a lot of Dem-curious suburbs, where local Dems were ascendant,” says Putman. “But they might not have been really paying attention to micro-tune their ballot to support Middleman.”

For example, Democrats won two out of three open seats on Fox Chapel council, which is possibly the first time legitimate Democrats won seats there. (Forstate says people have sat on council before as Democrats, but they were Republicans who switched parties in order to get on the ballot). Former Democratic state Rep. candidate Betsy Monroe won a Fox Chapel seat and received the most votes of any candidate.

Traditionally Republican Franklin Park also saw Democrats win three out of four races for borough council, taking down three Republican incumbents. Franklin Park council is now split between three Democrats and three Republicans. A Democrat in Indiana township is up by one vote with all precincts reporting. Franklin Park and Indiana township Democrats ran anti-fracking campaigns, differentiating themselves from state and federal representatives like state Rep. Mike Turzai (R-Marshall) and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Mt. Lebanon), who support fracking.

In McCandless, Democrats picked up two council seats. (The township's Ward 5 race was won by a Democrat as well, but that nominee is a longtime Republican who lost the GOP primary, but secured enough write-in votes to run as a Democrat in the general.) In Plum, three GOP incumbents lost to Democratic challengers.

Ross Township moved even farther to the left, with Democrats flipping three GOP-held seats. Of the nine-member body, the only Republican left is commissioner Jeremy Shaffer.

Upper St. Clair saw a surprise upset Democratic victory on council in 2017, but this year Republicans won all four local races, including a borough-wide contest. However, Democrat Thomas Duerr did well there in his dominating performance for Allegheny County Council District 5.
Duerr secured 60 percent of the vote and flipped a Republican-held seat. In the North Hills county council seat, Republican Cindy Kirk maintained her District 2 seat, but Democratic challenger Christine Allen did win some precincts in traditionally Republican Franklin Park, McCandless, and Richland.

In the end, both Forstate and Putnam believe the Allegheny County District Attorney race would have been different had progressive organizing coalesced around a candidate in the Democratic Primary.

Putnam says there was nothing that indicated suburban voters wouldn’t support a candidate like Middleman, if she ran as a Democrat in the General Election. And Forstate says that Middleman did historically well for an independent running countywide.

“I think there still is an appetite,” says Forstate of candidates like Middleman. “I don’t think the county leaders should underestimate that.”

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