Progressive PAC putting its stamp on the race for Allegheny Co. DA | Monday Morning Coffee

Color of Change PAC says it wants to ‘transform the way the criminal legal system should operate’

By: - May 8, 2023 7:14 am

The Allegheny County courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

(*This story was updated at 11:40 a.m. on Thursday, 5/11/23 to update the name of Color of Change PAC)

Allegheny County’s Democratic voters will have no shortage of choices when they head to the polls on May 16 to cast their ballots in consequential primary contests ranging from county executive and county council to the county bench and a host of local races.

But when it comes to the race with actual life and death implications, no campaign may be more consequential than the race for Allegheny County district attorney.

There, voters have their choice between six-term incumbent prosecutor Stephen Zappala and Matt Dugan, the veteran public defender, who’s challenging Zappala for the nomination.

As our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper reported last weekZappala is an establishment candidate who has the backing of local Republicans, and is expected to run as a Republican in the general election if he loses the intra-party canvass.

Zappala’s backers have tried to paint Dugan as “dangerously progressive,” but according to reporting by the Tribune-ReviewDugan doesn’t identify as progressive.

It’s against that backdrop that the political action committee Color of Change has jumped into the race on Dugan’s behalf.

The PAC, which raised $3.9 million in the 2021-22 campaign cycle, says it’s dedicated to “[designing] campaigns powerful enough to end practices that unfairly hold Black people back, and champion solutions that move us all forward. Until justice is real.”

Sakira Cook, the PAC’s vice president for campaigns, policy, and government affairs, took a few minutes to speak to the Capital-Star about the race, what the PAC does, and its vision for real justice in Pennsylvania’s second-largest county.

The conversation below has been lightly edited for length and content.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala (Pittsburgh City Paper photo).

Q: For the readers unfamiliar with Color of Change, please explain who you are and what you do. 

Sakira Cook (submitted photo)
Sakira Cook (submitted photo)

Sakira Cook: Color of Change PAC is a racial justice organization that has been fighting to create a more human and less hostile world for Black Americans. Our PAC is focused on electing progressive-minded prosecutors and DAs who will represent the communities we are fighting on behalf of; who look at the deep-rooted causes of crime, and the deep-seated racial disparities that exist throughout our criminal legal system across the country.”

Q: So why the race in Allegheny County? What’s at stake here? And what role do you see for your organization?

A: “Not only is it a pivotal race, you have the antithesis of our vision of safety in Stephen Zappala, who has a track record of focusing on incarceration instead of looking at alternatives that work. Black people are 67% of the county jail population and 13% percent of the county’s population. There is a direct correlation.

“Black children are charged at higher rates than white children. [Zappala] has focused on the prosecution of low-level offenses that also has increased the jail population. Those things for us, are critical factors in our determination of this race. Matt Dugan is a shining light of the direction our country should be going in — and the way we want to transform the way the criminal legal system should operate.”

(Editor’s Note: As our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper reported last week, the handling of low-level, nonviolent offenders is one of the most significant policy deviations between Zappala and Dugan. You can read more here.)

“District attorneys have broad discretion on how to prosecute, and which people to detain pre-trial. Years ago, Color of Change PAC launched a strategy to hold DAs accountable for decarceration, and to address racial disparities … People who are incarcerated pretrial are there because they can’t afford to pay bail. The system gives more power to DAs than public defenders.”

Allegheny County Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan
Allegheny County Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan (Photo via Pittsburgh City Paper).

Q: What does your involvement in this campaign look like?

A: “We are building momentum on the ground — mobilizing Black voters, starting conversations about the future of the county and its criminal justice system … [We] want to focus on a specific group of Black voters — low- propensity voters. Our goal is to meet voters where they are. … We’re trying to educate voters on the importance of district attorneys … and the role of the DA in our society.

(Editor’s Note: Part of that outreach effort to those voters includes a partnership with actress, writer, and director, Erika Alexander, a Philadelphia native, to reach voters. The group also is engaging in an extensive text-messaging campaign.)

“People think about mayors, but they don’t necessarily think about judges or DAs. We know that, to achieve our longer-term goals around police reform and reducing the number of kids who are charged as adults, understanding the role of the DA is critical.

Q: Is there a particular segment of the community that you’re targeting specifically? We saw, for instance, younger voters, especially voters of color, making their voices heard in 2022

A: “As a general matter, we’re looking at voters in the 18-35 range. Definitely younger, GenZ and younger millennial voters are key — not just this election, but in all our elections in this cycle.

“We’ve seen that when lawmakers try to undermine the system, it’s younger people” who lead the resistance, Cook added.

“We saw that in Tennessee to take on the Legislature around gun violence. Younger people in Florida who are pushing back against [Florida Gov. RonDeSantis. It’s younger people in Allegheny County who will bring out their parents and grandparents.”

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John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.