Allegheny County DA Zappala faces challenge from independent Middleman, a longtime public defender
Allegheny County Public Defender Lisa Middleman is the second candidate to try to topple District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.’s 20-year tenure.
Turahn Jenkins challenged Zappala, 62, in the Democratic primary in May. Jenkins, who left his post as the chief deputy director of the county public defender’s office to enter the race, took about 40% of the vote.
That on its own shows the unusual political circumstances surrounding this election, said Philip Harold, an associate dean and political science professor at Robert Morris University.
“In a normal year, Zappala would be cruising to reelection,” he said, noting that Zappala lost Pittsburgh but dominated the rest of Allegheny County during the primary.
Primary election results show Jenkins carried most of the voting districts in Downtown Pittsburgh, the Hill District and the far east neighborhoods, plus areas of Wilkinsburg, Edgewood and East Pittsburgh, among others.
“It would still be a huge upset were he to lose,” Harold said of Zappala and the November election. “But there is certainly the possibility, and Zappala supporters are concerned.”
He said Middleman is well-funded and running a good campaign.
“[She] could tap into the anti-incumbent sentiment that we have seen in the last handful of years,” he said.
Middleman is running as an independent. There is no Republican candidate in the race.
Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics, said that Middleman has been successful in identifying her voters. What will matter in the end, she said, is if she motivates them to turn out on Tuesday.
She said the race in itself is likely a local reflection of a wider movement.
“There’s been a real movement by the progressive side of the Democratic party from local offices into statewide offices, and I think this is just a continuation of that progressive movement,” she said.
Zappala’s campaign did not respond to an interview request. He did not attend a candidate’s forum last month hosted by the League of Women Voters. Middleman attended but could not speak, as the League of Women Voters requires all candidates be present for any of them to speak.
Despite their differences in visibility, both have spent about the same.
As of Oct. 25, Middleman had raised $196,590 and spent $103,424 of it. Zappala, as of the same date, has raised $232,664 and spent $104, 743.
Most of Middleman’s donations have come from individuals, with the majority of them $1,000 and less. Zappala has the support of local unions based on contributions, including $25,000 from Steamfitters Local 449 and $25,000 from the Western Pennsylvania Laborers PAC.
Middleman, 57, has not run for public office before. While studying at University of Pittsburgh Law School, she clerked in the Allegheny County Public Defender’s Office. She spent time working in another area of the law, but after graduating and passing the bar in 1987, she returned to the public defender’s office because she felt a connection to its mission.
What clinched it, she said, was when she won a retrial for an individual convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
“To have that kind of impact on another human being’s life was extraordinary,” Middleman said. “That’s why I’m running for district attorney.”
Her campaign focuses on criminal justice reform, which she said too many people interpret as “letting people walk away from criminal behavior.”
“That’s absolutely not true,” she said. “Those people who prey on others … need to be incarcerated. Reform just means you look at the causes and work collaboratively with other systems to try to stop crime before it happens rather than punishing people after it happens.”
She said it’s time to return to the district attorney’s office to working “for the people, not the politicians.”
“Because of mismanagement, we’re not as safe as we could be,” she said. “We’re locking up the wrong people.”
Zappala’s campaign website pledges that type of work.
“My office treats each case we receive as a unique circumstance,” he wrote. “We must use the right tools — warrant offices, diversionary programs, treatment and support systems, and contemporary technologies – to ensure anyone who enters the justice system returns to their communities a healthy, productive member of society.”
He also pointed to cash-bail reform, noting he’d petitioned the state Supreme Court “on multiple occasions” to change the cash bail rules to keep low-income defendants out from behind bars while they await trial.
Zappala has come under fire in the past year and a half, beginning with the police shooting of unarmed black teenager Antwon Rose II in June 2018. Middleman criticized the handling of the trial when she announced her candidacy, saying it was a “conflict of interest.” She instead suggested an independent body that handles only police misconduct investigations.
She also criticized Zappala’s office earlier last month when it came to light that four teenagers charged in a homicide had been held in the county jail for more than a year before the District Attorney’s Office dropped the charges.
Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter .