At debate, Allegheny Co. exec candidates go deep on issues
It seems unlikely that the candidates’ answers will change many voters’ minds. But for several of them, it might have been their first chance to talk to a large audience
Candidates for Allegheny County executive meet for a debate on Tuesday, April 18, 2023 (Capital-Star photo by Kim Lyons).
PITTSBURGH – The seven candidates running for Allegheny County executive– six Democrats and one Republican– met in a debate Tuesday to try to make the case for why they’re the best person to run the commonwealth’s second most populous county.
The candidates were all asked about some of the most pressing issues facing the county at present: how they would handle a shortage of affordable housing, whether they’d conduct property reassessments under the current system, and what they would do about problems at the Allegheny County Jail. They also received questions specific to them or their campaigns.
It seems unlikely that the candidates’ answers will change many voters’ minds, but for several of those running, it may have been their first exposure to a larger audience of voters in Pittsburgh, the county seat.
They’re all vying to replace current County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who is term-limited, and cannot seek re-election. Because of lopsided voter registration margins, the winner of the Democratic primary could well end up serving as the next county executive.
Hosted by independent media outlets PublicSource and NEXTPittsburgh , the debate was held at Point Park University and moderated by Pittsburgh journalists Natalie Bencivenga, Tony Norman, and Charlie Wolfson. It’s the only debate among the candidates ahead of the May 16 primary, and followed several candidates’ forums across Allegheny County over the past several months.
The mood grew tense at times, with candidate Will Parker, an entrepreneur and app developer, calling out what he views as the region’s “systemic racism,” and when former Pittsburgh Public School board member Theresa Colaizzi accused state Rep. Sara Innamorato D-Allegheny, of challenging signatures on her nominating petitions.
The candidates introduced themselves with opening statements about their vision for the role and the county:
- Colaizzi said “the vision that I have is that this county comes closer together as a unit working together, so we can move forward.”
- Attorney and former Allegheny County Councilor Dave Fawcett said in addition to attracting jobs and sustaining the region’s “beautiful green hills and waterways,” the next executive had to address crime and criminal justice. “You need safety– that’s government’s number one concern– and you need accountability,” Fawcett said. “I think we need someone who’s not a career politician but someone like me who has experience in government, but has real world and life experience.”
- Innamorato said her background in “nonprofit land” prepared her well for the county executive role. “You always have a mission and you have a vision and values,” she said of the nonprofit sector. “My mission is to ensure where we can create a region where we can all thrive and that we’re creating shared and sustained prosperity for all of us.”
- Michael Lamb, Pittsburgh’s city controller since 2007, said the new executive should build new relationships with the county’s municipalities. “These 130 municipalities hold us back in so many ways, when it comes to decision making around economic development, when it comes to public safety,” he said. “My idea is to create an office of municipal partnership to help deliver value-added services in every community across all of Allegheny County.”
- Parker said his platform was focused on diversity in the region’s technology sector and the economy, with a focus on inclusion. “I want to make sure not only are we inclusive when it comes to our social needs, but our financial needs,” he said. “There’s so much we can do for everyone, but we need to work together.”
- Joe Rockey, a former executive at PNC Bank and the only Republican running for county executive, said he grew up in a “challenged” financial environment. “I am an individual who knows what it means to shop with food stamps,” Rockey said. “And my mission as county executive is to create prosperity for everyone in Allegheny County.”
- John Weinstein, Allegheny County’s treasurer for the past 25 years, said he viewed the executive role as being the marketing advocate for the county. “We need the business community, the labor community and the nonprofit and foundation community all together as one,” he said. “I believe that’s how we move the region forward… we have to make it conducive for people to come here and build operations to create jobs.”
Innamorato was asked about her track record as a progressive, and acknowledged that while that’s how she identifies, “I also identify as pragmatic.” She pointed to her work in the state House where she said she worked with people across the aisle, in private industry and other stakeholders “to get things done, to bring resources back to this region, to repair roads and bridges, build libraries and invest in people.”
Fawcett was asked to explain why he believed he was familiar enough with the nuances of the county administration after being off of county council for 15 years. “I’m the one person that really knows county government because I was on the county council for eight years when it started up,” he said.
“We got a ton of things done at the time: we consolidated the row offices, we passed air pollution regulations, we passed the smoking ban.” He added that he had worked with former county executives Jim Roddey, a Republican, and Dan Onorato, a Democrat, as well as Fitzgerald “so I really do know what needs to be done” in the county.
Colaizzi bristled at a question about her being a late addition to the candidate pool and a “sporadic presence” at campaign events. She said she was “looking around and seeing what position that I would be interested in and I would qualify for and this one kept popping up.” Colaizzi said Innamorato had “questioned my signatures and therefore put me behind,” which explained her late entry into the campaign.
Innamorato replied that Colaizzi was absent from early campaign events where the candidates collected signatures to get their names on the ballot and said an “outside party” had challenged Colaizzi’s paperwork. “It’s very normal to look at ensuring all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed,” Innamorato added.
Lamb said a former 15-year city employee who was found to be holding another job with a school district and allegedly lived outside the city– both against city rules– was terminated when it was discovered. He added that it had not been confirmed the employee lived outside the city. “She was rightfully terminated,” Lamb said, “we took the right action when it was disclosed.”
Weinstein said there was “no conflict whatsoever” when asked about his large campaign war chest, and whether the treasurer had exercised “an unusual level of political influence” during his campaign. “Can the public be certain that you will serve their interest over that of your donors?” Bencivenga asked.
“I’ve met a lot of people in Allegheny County and made a lot of friendships with the business community,” Weinstein replied. “And the people that have donated to my campaign –and the checks that you’re referring to– don’t do any business with Allegheny County whatsoever.”
Rockey was asked about his party’s stance on abortion and attempts by Republicans at the state level to restrict abortion access. “If elected, would you move to reverse any of the county’s recent measures to protect reproductive freedom in the county?” Wolfson asked.
Rockey didn’t directly answer the question, saying that abortion law and regulations are established at the state and national levels. “The county executive actually has no say in the legal nature of abortion,” Rockey said. “As county executive I would follow the law, that would be my responsibility.”
On the Allegheny County Jail and whether they would replace the current warden:
Fawcett: “I would bring in independent, third party auditors who have experience and expertise in looking at prisons and incarceration facilities to find out what it is we should be doing here.”
Innamorato: “Seventeen people died in Allegheny County Jail or shortly after being discharged [in the past three years]… that’s unacceptable, and we need to have a full plan on how to reinvent the jail and make sure the people who are in our charge, who are in that facility are cared for and treated with dignity. That’s going to require new leadership.”
Weinstein: “My immediate plan is to separate the functions of the jail, where the warden would only be in charge of the prisoners… a director will be hired to run the day to day operations of the jail. The entire operation needs an overhaul.”
On the lack of affordable housing in the county:
Lamb: We need to work with our municipalities around blighted properties… we want to create a countywide tax claim bureau that’s going to expedite that process to get properties back on the tax rolls and provide real affordable housing opportunities.”
Rockey: “We need to invest, invest, invest … at PNC, the affordable housing tax credit business was part of what I had responsibility over. It is the fundamental driver of affordable housing being built in this country. It’s a federally supported program that puts tax credits into the community to allow for development to create new housing stock.”
On property assessments:
Parker said that he would not call for property reassessments, but took his answer in another direction. “Let’s get back to what we’re dealing with right now: We’re dealing with racism in Allegheny County,” he said, and questioned why voters continue to vote for candidates who “feed you all this rhetoric. Why do you keep voting for them and then just come back and complain?”
Colaizzi used the phrase “white elephant in the room” several times to refer to nonprofit entities UPMC and Allegheny Health Network, both of whom she said should contribute more financially to the region, including to address the affordable housing shortage. “These people need to be held accountable for all the land they’ve bought up all over the county… because there’s a lot of homeless people out here.”
The primary election is scheduled for May 16.
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