Rockey, 59 and the Republican nominee, was born well before the collapse of the steel industry and witnessed it firsthand as he grew up in the North Side. Now an Ohio Township resident, his campaign is focused heavily on jobs and his pledge to visit companies nationwide to try to get them to bring employment to the region.

Innamorato, 37, the Democrat, was born around the time steel faltered, and entered adulthood as the ‘eds and meds’ boom took off. She moved into burgeoning Lawrenceville in the 2010s and is part of a relatively new political class that does not view the region primarily through the lens of its industrial past. Her campaign is more focused on social services, addressing inequities and housing.

What started as a seven-candidate free-for-all in the spring is coming to an end. Allegheny County will elect a new county executive, its first since 2011, when voters choose between Innamorato and Rockey on Nov. 7.

Several million dollars have been spent by those seeking the office this year. Two longtime stalwarts of local government — county Treasurer John Weinstein and Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb — gave up lower offices to try, and fail, to ascend to the post. 

An Innamorato win would take the local progressive movement to new heights, its first countywide General Election victory, and mark the sixth consecutive county executive election won by Democrats.

A Rockey win could validate his campaign message that county voters are largely moderate, and the progressive left has gone further than they are comfortable with. It would prove what some had begun to doubt, that a certain kind of Republican candidate can still win here. The last Republican county executive was Jim Roddey, elected in 1999.

Top: Joe Rockey at an August campaign event at the South Side V.F.W. Bottom: Sara Innamorato at a party following a special election in September at an Etna gastropub. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Who are Innamorato and Rockey?

The two candidates cut drastically different paths to this moment, but they share at least one meaningful similarity. Both try to convey a populist message by recounting their upbringing in less-than-ideal circumstances. Innamorato frequently talks about losing her father to the opioid epidemic at a young age, and Rockey often talks about growing up in a home dependent on food stamps.

Innamorato entered politics five years ago. A surprising state House election win in 2018, while she was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, put her on the map, and her stature grew quickly among the local political crowd. In the House, she formed a political bond with Summer Lee (also elected in 2018 and now in Congress) and Ed Gainey, who became Pittsburgh’s mayor in 2022. 

She became the progressives’ choice for executive in a crowded primary field, a show of strength when progressive disunity likely would have led to a moderate Democratic nominee.

Left to right: Sara Innamorato and Joe Rockey. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Rockey is new to the political arena, at least as a candidate. This is his first run for any office, and records show a limited history of donating to candidates. He announced his campaign early this year and enjoyed an uncontested primary and the undivided support of the county party. 

He recently retired from a career as a PNC executive. He said in an August interview that local GOP strategist Mike DeVanney is a longtime friend of his and helped convince him to run after he retired.

What’s at stake?

The county government is sprawling and influential in a number of areas:

  • Its Department of Human Services is one of the largest in the state.
  • The executive is responsible for the county jail, which houses more than 1,000 incarcerated people at any time and has been under much scrutiny in recent years after a string of deaths in the facility.
  • The county regulates industrial polluters and levies fines against them.
  • The county administers elections and the executive sits on the Board of Elections — deciding its partisan majority — which is responsible for certifying the county’s votes.
  • The next executive will inherit a property assessment system called ‘broken’ by many, the subject of litigation and possibly the source of inequities and unfair taxation.
  • The executive appoints members of dozens of influential boards and commissions that set policy for the region.
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