Candidates for countywide offices gathered at the Community College of Allegheny County campus on Pittsburgh’s North Side Monday for a forum co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters, ACLU of Pennsylvania, the Black Political Empowerment Project and Pittsburgh United.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and his Republican opponent, Matt Drozd, were both in attendance to take questions from voters.
“I think it’s important — people ask questions and like to know what our positions are for the next four years,” Fitzgerald, who has held the office for two four-year terms, said of why he attended the forum.
Questions covered a range of topics, including taxes, housing, transportation, fracking, and equitable investment in people and communities across Allegheny County.
“We’re in a really good spot,” Fitzgerald said during the forum. “We’ve got a couple challenges — transportation and workforce development — we’ve got to continue to train people. And, quite frankly, we’ve got to import more people, and we’ve got to diversify with respect to ethnicity and race. We’re moving forward in the right direction.”
Fitzgerald touted investments in affordable housing and job training programs, as well as the region’s affordability and quality of life, noting that the 2020 proposed budget, once again, does not include a property tax increase.
Drozd repeatedly questioned why such investments didn’t happen sooner, calling for more resources for transportation, green energy and alternatives to incarceration.
“Let’s go find out who has a better plan than we do, and let’s implement it here,” said Drozd, a former two-term Allegheny County Council member who spent most of the summer standing with campaign signs along some of the county’s busiest roadways. “Let’s go look at that in other cities, like Atlanta, whatever they have, that’s the way we learn. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
The full forum is available online at the League of Women Voters’ Facebook page.
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner and her Republican opponent, Brooke Nadonley, were both invited but did not attend the forum. Wagner had planned to attend but decided not to when she learned her opponent would not be there, her campaign said after the event.
Also missing was Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen J. Zappala Jr. The Zappala campaign confirmed last week that the district attorney would not be attending due to a conflicting event organized by his campaign, despite repeated attempts by the League of Women Voters to find another date that would be suitable for Zappala.
His opponent, Independent candidate Lisa Middleman, was present for the forum.
Middleman was introduced by forum moderator Jessica Lynch, of the League of Women Voters, but was not permitted to speak.
All candidates for an office must be present in order to speak at the forum per League of Women Voters rules.
“I’m here because I think, if the voters have questions, they should certainly have the chance to ask candidates those questions, and so I always make myself available,” Middleman said following the forum.
If given the chance to participate in a forum with her opponent, she would have liked to discuss topics like decreasing the jail population, stopping the school-to-prison pipeline as well as treating mental health and substance abuse issues, she said.
Middleman is the subject of an ethics complaint announced Thursday by County Council Members Sam DeMarco III, a Republican from North Fayette, and Denise Ranalli Russell, a Democrat from Pittsburgh’s Brighton Heights neighborhood, over a press conference she held Oct. 7 at noon in the rotunda of the Allegheny County Courthouse.
DeMarco and Ranalli Russell allege that Middleman violated the county ethics code by holding a campaign-related press conference in a county workplace during business hours.
Middleman and her campaign pointed out that press conferences, including campaign announcements, are routinely held at the courthouse and maintain that she did nothing wrong.
“It’s really unfortunate that political games are distracting from the issues,” Middleman said of the ethics complaint.
As a part-time employee with the public defender’s office, Middleman said she does not have set hours but chose to hold the press conference at lunch in order to be respectful to her employer.
DeMarco said Monday there are no plans at this time to withdraw the complaint.
“We’re just trying to sort this stuff out to do the best job we can, and not to move forward with something that would be inaccurate,” DeMarco said.
This includes reviewing the county ethics code to determine whether County Council should suggest policy changes to require permits for future events — like press conferences or rallies — held in and around the courthouse, DeMarco said.
Update: This story has been updated to state that Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner had planned to attend the event.