How 3 new Allegheny County Democrats are shaking up the party’s old guard |
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Jamie Martines

About two months after Bethany Hallam pulled off a stunning upset in the Democratic primary for an at-large seat on Allegheny County Council, she celebrated with the supporters who helped her defeat 20-year incumbent John DeFazio.

“Nothing compares to when you really know you put everything you had on the line for the idea of something better for everyone — and that was our message all along: How can we make life better for the people in our districts?” Hallam told the crowd of about 30 people gathered in Swissvale on July 16. Most of them were of the newly formed political action committee UNITE.

Hallam credits her win to the support from UNITE, led by first-term state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Braddock, and backed by a board of progressive leaders throughout the Pittsburgh region.

Founded in January 2019 to support candidates promising reform on issues such as criminal justice, the environment and economic opportunity, UNITE endorsed two other candidates during the May Democratic primary: Olivia Bennett, who challenged incumbent Denise Ranalli Russell for the District 13 seat on Allegheny County Council, and Pam Harbin, a school board candidate for Pittsburgh Public Schools.

All three UNITE-backed candidates won their races, disrupting the Democratic Party establishment and showing that political outsiders are changing the face of Allegheny County politics.

A spokeswoman for the Allegheny County Democratic Committee did not return a call for comment.

“I think we showed that young people, people of color, women, people who have been marginalized — maybe it’s that they’ve always been here, but they didn’t have an outlet,” Lee said. “They didn’t have an ‘in’ to politics. And what we were able to do is show that there is another side of Western Pennsylvania, there’s another side to Pittsburgh. There are people who have been left out, who if you give them the tools, if you give them the care and attention, they can do big things.”

UNITE donated $11,000 to Hallam’s campaign — about half of her total contributions — which helped to fund social media and newspaper advertisements and to pay campaign staff, along with an in-kind donation — of a consultant.

“You can’t do it without money,” Hallam said. “That is the hardest thing. That’s why organizations like UNITE are so important, because I truly believe I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did without their support.”

In comparison, the DeFazio campaign had over $41,000 in contributions and in-kind donations by May 6.

Hallam defeated DeFazio by 7,420 votes, garnering 53% of the vote.

UNITE’s support translated to more than just money, Hallam said. The UNITE network lent expertise and guidance on how to run a campaign and helped to generate enthusiasm for Hallam’s candidacy.

“Where they lack money, then they need people,” said Lee, who in the 2018 primary beat former state representative Paul Costa, a Democrat from Wilkins, by 36 percentage points for the District 34 seat he held since 1999. “They need attention. They need a machine.”

Rep. Sara Innamorato, D-Lawrenceville, defeated Costa’s cousin, Dom Costa, during the same election. He had held the District 21 office since 2009. Innamorato won by 28 percentage points.

Also in 2018, another young, progressive woman, Lindsey Williams, 35, D-West View, edged out Ross Township Republican Jeremy Shaffer to become state senator from the 38th District.

All in the timing

Lee didn’t have formal political experience prior to running for the seat. After graduating from law school, she worked as an organizer around raising the minimum wage and advocated for changes at the Woodland Hills School District following several incidents of violence at the hands of school resource officers and staff.

Her platform for state representative included similar issues: raising the minimum wage to $15, pushing for equitable funding for public schools and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

Environmental issues, like opposing a new fracking site at the Edgar Thomson Plant in Braddock or the construction of the Shell cracker plant in Beaver County, also became pillars of her campaign.

The political demographics of Allegheny County have been shifting further to the left in recent years and were boosted by the 2016 election, said Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics, based at Chatham University.

“The timing of everything coming together has caused this change of newcomers coming into politics, and also being successful,” she said.

PACs like UNITE target funding gaps that candidates who are traditionally underfunded might experience, especially at critical times like early in a campaign, she said.

Similarly, the Women for the Future PAC, which has given about $50,000 to candidates since it was founded in December 2017 to support progressive, women candidates across the Pittsburgh region, backed 14 candidates in the May primary. All of them won. Bennett, Hallam and Harbin were included in their ranks.

“We specifically wanted to provide money for candidates, frankly because we found that’s what the boys did,” said Natalia Rudiak, co-founder of Women for the Future and a former Pittsburgh City Council member. “They had their fancy fundraisers and they had their deep-pocketed friends. And I could even say that as a candidate myself, the vast majority of my donors were wealthy men. That’s just how the game was played. That’s just who has money in this town, or that’s who chooses to give in this town, whether it’s attorneys, developers, lobbyists.”

They set out to cultivate a new donor base that includes women, whose time and money typically go to causes or charities that do not involve politics, Rudiak said.

Since 2017, about 86 percent of the organization’s 565 individual donations have come from women, she said.

“It doesn’t have to be a ton of money, but a little money can go a long way,” said Philip Harold, a political science professor at Robert Morris University in Moon, emphasizing UNITE candidates’ commitments to connecting with voters face-to-face. “But certainly the door-knocking can have that success. It’s not a flash in the pan.”

Because they were running on similar platforms, candidates backed by UNITE were able to share resources, promoting each other as they knocked on doors and mailed out joint flyers, said Pam Harbin, whose campaign received $6,000 from UNITE in the Democratic primary for a hotly contested seat on the Pittsburgh school board.

UNITE volunteers knocked on about 9,000 doors throughout Allegheny County for all three candidates, according to figures provided by UNITE organizer Kareem Kandil.

Harbin beat her opponent, Anna Batista, with 54% of the vote. Batista was backed by Mayor Bill Peduto.

“We were able to use that platform to say these are all the candidates, so if you’re excited about working for Pam because she worked on the school-to-prison pipeline, you should also support Bethany because of her criminal justice reform platform,” Harbin said.

Issues related to criminal justice — like improving oversight at the Allegheny County Jail and decreasing the number of young people who are funneled from schools into the criminal justice system — were part of all three candidates’ platforms.

Liv Bennett, who beat incumbent Denise Ranalli Russell in Allegheny County Council District 13, knew she wouldn’t be able to knock on every door in her district, which includes Downtown, the Strip District, Lawrenceville and the North Side in Pittsburgh along with the borough of Bellevue.

But she knew she had to try, she said.

“I wanted Summer Lee numbers,” said Bennett, who counts Lee as a mentor. “I wanted to win by such a margin that there’s no doubt.”

Bennett won with 58% of the vote, beating her opponent by 1,811 votes.

Bennett said she connected with Lee over their shared experience as women candidates who are people of color, and how to navigate racism and sexism on the campaign trail.

“If you’re a black woman candidate, you get both,” Bennett said.

Black women are under-represented as candidates for elected office, accounting for about 2% of candidates who challenge incumbents nationwide, according to a 2018 analysis conducted by the Brookings Institution.

They’re also less likely to receive early campaign contributions or endorsements that could be crucial to running a successful race, the study said.

UNITE donated $1,500 to her campaign and helped with canvassing.

“Typically, this is what keeps people from running: The financial constraints, and the fundraising,” Bennett said. “And typically, black women do not have the network of other demographics — we’ll say white men, mostly — donor networks, and things such as that.”

So goes the nation

Races in Allegheny County mirror campaigns in neighboring states that made national headlines as younger, progressive candidates running grassroots campaigns challenge longtime incumbents.

Among the most high-profile was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York City. In the May 2018 primary race for U.S. House, the first-time candidate upset Joseph Crowley, who had held the congressional seat since 1999 and was one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the House. In a heavily Democratic district, Ocasio-Cortez coasted to victory in the general election.

In Massachusetts, Ayanna Pressley — the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress — beat out 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano for the 7th District congressional seat.

Pressley has since established the Power of Us political action committee, which supports other political newcomers, particularly women and people of color.

“I think what’s happening in Western Pennsylvania is actually more poignant, it’s actually more of a message,” Lee said. “Because New York is known as a progressive bastion. We know New York will turn out progressive folks. We know that New York is likely to turn out more diverse folks. That’s not what you get in Western Pennsylvania.”

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