Allegheny County public defender to challenge DA Zappala in election
Longtime Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. could face a new challenger this fall.
Allegheny County public defender Lisa Middleman announced Monday that she’s launching a campaign for district attorney. She plans to appear on the November ballot as an independent.
“I’ve seen the racist, classist, criminal justice system at work,” Middleman said. “I’ve worked in it, I’ve talked to people around it, and I’ve seen that it’s not working.”
Zappala won the Democratic primary in May against his first challenger in 20 years, Turahn Jenkins, who resigned from his role as chief deputy director in the Allegheny County Public Defender’s Office in order to launch his campaign in July 2018.
Zappala, 61, of Fox Chapel, collected about 59% of the votes to defeat Churchill’s Jenkins, 41.
“I think that the fact that he hasn’t had a challenger demonstrates the power of the party machinery in Allegheny County,” Middleman said. “But we’re seeing elections of young progressive people with ideas that are outside of the old-school political party.”
In the May primary, Bethany Hallam of Ross defeated 20-year incumbent John DeFazio in a Democratic race for an at-large seat on Allegheny County Council. Middleman also pointed to the success of state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Braddock, who defeated former state Rep. Paul Costa in the May 2018 primary. Costa had held his seat since 1999.
Middleman, 57, of Franklin Park, said she must gather at least 3,700 signatures by Aug. 1 in order to appear on the November ballot.
Robert Morris University political science professor Philip Harold doesn’t think Middleman has a shot at beating Zappala. But Jenkins’ showing during the Democratic primary — he garnered about 40% of the vote — could indicate that now is a good time to challenge the incumbent.
“Barring some unforeseen incident, I wouldn’t think he was in danger of losing or anything at this point,” Harold said.
Like Jenkins, Middleman is running on a platform aimed at what both have described as a broken criminal justice system.
“I have 30 years of experience trying the most serious and most difficult cases,” she said. “I understand the issues. I’m not a politician, but I’ve talked to community leaders, I’ve talked to people within the criminal justice system.”
Middleman credited Zappala with bringing attention to issues like domestic violence and the rights of women and victims, but said that progress has been stagnant.
“We just need to continue now so that we can solve the problem,” she said, adding that she’s also interested in working on diversion programs that address issues like mental health, addiction, poverty, joblessness and homelessness intended to keep people out of the criminal justice system.
Middleman also criticized Zappala’s handling of the trial of Michael Rosfeld, a former East Pittsburgh police officer acquitted in March of homicide in the shooting death of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II, describing it as a “conflict of interest.”
She suggested establishing an independent body whose sole purpose is to investigate instances of police misconduct.
In the absence of that body, the Rosfeld case should have been referred to the state attorney general’s office, she said.
Zappala’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Middleman grew up in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood, studied at Duke University and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh Law School in 1987.
In addition to working in the public defender’s office for the past 32 years, Middleman helped to organize her union through the United Steelworkers. She currently serves as the grievance officer. She also works as a private criminal defense attorney.
She has not had to resign from her job as a public defender to run her campaign, she said.
“I just have to work twice as hard and twice as long,” she said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .