Is Allegheny County politics going tribal? Centrist traditions to be tested Nov. 7.

Allegheny County executive candidates Sara Innamorato (left) and Joe Rockey during a televised debate on WTAE-TV on Oct. 3. (Photo by Clare Sheedy/PublicSource)
EXECUTIVE DECISION: Candidates for county executive try to portray each other as representing political extremes, even as voters weigh moderation’s value and polling suggests polarization.



This year’s race for Allegheny County executive — in addition to swaying key policies around the jail, economic development, taxes and the environment — will provide the clearest picture yet of where the county and region are headed politically.

Is this a moderate county, as GOP executive candidate Joe Rockey says it is, hearkening back to the county that elected Republicans as commissioners and then as its executive in the 1990s despite overwhelming Democratic registration numbers? Or is the county leaning further to the left, reflective of the recent string of progressive election wins?

“This election will tell us how centrist the county is,” said Joe Mistick, a Duquesne University law professor who worked as an aide to former Pittsburgh Mayors Richard Caliguiri and Sophie Masloff. 

A county where Republicans regularly won elections and even led the government just two decades ago is now a place where Democrats have fully taken the reins and Republican wins are few and far between.

Rockey has set out to prove that the county can still swing red for the right candidate. He has spent the past six months saying he’s a moderate’s moderate, and he insists that’s the lane most county voters want to occupy.

Former state Rep. Sara Innamorato, the Democratic nominee for executive, is trying to extend a progressive winning streak to the countywide level, while proving the movement appeals to voters outside of ultra-liberal enclaves.

Election Day is Nov. 7. 

A Republican victory in Allegheny County wasn’t always such a tall task. County voters elected two Republicans to its three-member commission in 1995, Republican Jim Roddey was elected as the first county executive in 1999, and seven of 15 county council members were Republicans for part of the 2000s.

Republican Gov. Tom Corbett carried the county in 2010 en route to winning the governor’s office.

“When Jim Roddey was elected as a Republican, we were more Democratic than we are now,” Mistick said. “But people weren’t foreign to voting for a Republican.”

Dems’ recent dominance can be traced to a reduction in voters crossing party lines, another expert says. 

“The hyper-polarization that we’re experiencing at the national level has been trickling down and creating a sense of tribalism among voters,” said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a political science professor at Chatham University, “so that where they might normally have looked more carefully at who the candidates were at the state and local level, what the issues were, and decided based on personality or a specific issue position, now it feels like there’s so much at stake that voters are in one camp or the other.” 

A recent poll showed a majority of Allegheny County voters identify as either liberal or conservative, and some who were interviewed for this article said they are suspicious of candidates who call themselves moderate. Even some who do think of themselves as independent said they would scrutinize a candidate’s record to see if the candidate is truly moderate.

WESA and PublicSource reached out to voters via social media and face-to-face interviews in Downtown and McCandless in early October, seeking urban and suburban voters with diversity roughly mirroring that of the county. The interviews solicited a spectrum of liberal, moderate and conservative voices, while avoiding participants professionally involved in politics. The voters shared nuanced views of what it means to be a moderate and what they look for in a candidate.

The founder of the Forward Party, Andrew Yang, stands behind endorsed Republican Joe Rockey who stands at a podium.

The founder of the Forward Party, Andrew Yang, endorsed Republican Joe Rockey last month because he said Rockey had aligned himself as a moderate candidate. (Photo by Oliver Morrison/WESA News)

Pearlina Story of Wilkinsburg stands on the street in Market Square.

Pearlina Story of Wilkinsburg, who plans to vote for Innamorato, said she thinks candidates who self-identify as moderate may not be strong enough to follow through on their commitments. “I like somebody to stand firm on what they say.”

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