Newcomer seeks to unseat longtime Allegheny County councilman in at-large election
A stalwart of Allegheny County Council faces a rare challenger for a seat he’s held since the governing body started nearly 20 years ago.
John DeFazio, a member of Allegheny County Council since its inception in 2000, faces political newcomer Bethany Hallam in a race for the Democratic at-large seat.
The race will appear on primary election ballots across the county Tuesday.
DeFazio, the 78-year-old council president and a Democrat from Shaler, said he’s running again because he wants to continue helping people.
“I’m proud of my record,” he said. “I think I’ve done a lot of good for a lot of people.”
His opponent, 29-year-old Hallam of Ross, said she’s challenging the long-time incumbent because she’s tired of the status quo.
“I think that I’ve seen first hand a lot of the pain and suffering that the people of Allegheny County have been feeling,” Hallam said. “That they’re not being represented, that their concerns are not being heard.”
DeFazio and Hallam will face off during Tuesday’s primary election for a spot on the November ballot for the at-large county council seat. The winner will likely cruise to an unopposed victory in November.
Traditionally, one of the two at-large seats is held by a Democrat and the other by a Republican.
Incumbent Samuel DeMarco III, a Republican from North Fayette who has served on council since 2016, is also up for reelection this year and is running in the primary unopposed.
Hallam has made criminal justice reform a pillar of her campaign, calling for wide-spread changes to how the county addresses issues like cash bail, sexual assault, housing policies at the jail and diversion and treatment programs that reach people before they’re arrested.
It’s a topic she said residents across the county are talking about because it’s “not just about their tax dollars going to waste on this broken system, but also about their loved ones,” Hallam said.
It’s an issue DeFazio said he is not considering.
“I think we’ve been doing a decent job down there, and there’s certain things that are out of our jurisdiction that people talk about that we can’t do,” he said.
DeFazio pointed to examples of council’s accomplishments over the years, including keeping county taxes steady, efforts to bring in entry-level jobs and passing an anti-bias ordinance in 2009 that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity by businesses. There are other projects that the public may not realize council played a role in, like bringing an NCAA wrestling tournament to Pittsburgh in March, he said.
“I don’t have to promise what I’m going to do,” DeFazio said. “What I’m talking about is things I did do, and I want to continue to do that, and do it better.”
Other than a countywide ban on conversion therapy he and council member Paul Klein, D-Point Breeze, introduced in March, DeFazio has not sponsored a piece of legislation since 2016.
That bill was introduced two weeks after Hallam called on council to introduce such a proposal.
Hallam said that she’d like to see council move forward with the bill immediately, before it’s “lost in the shuffle” and county council falls behind. Pittsburgh City Council passed a similar ban on conversion therapy about two years ago.
There are only two other competitive primary races for county council seats. Democrats will square off in primary races for District 6 and District 13.
In District 6, which covers municipalities south of Pittsburgh stretching from Baldwin Township and Baldwin Borough to Clairton City and Elizabeth Borough, seven-year incumbent John Palmiere, 76, Baldwin Township, is challenged by Joseph Rudolph, 68, of South Park Township.
Incumbent: John Palmiere
• Occupation: Owner, Palmiere’s Hair Center
• Previous elected offices: Served on County Council since 2011. Previously served as a school board member for the Baldwin Whitehall School District for 23 years.
• Why do you want to serve on county council? Palmiere said he wants to continue working with council to build on past successes, including keeping a balanced budget, improving bond ratings and keeping taxes steady. He also counted improvements to county parks — including South Park, which serves residents of District 6 — among council’s achievements since he has been a member.
Palmiere noted that he expects a proposal to establish a county police review board to come out of committee soon. He said he plans to vote against the proposal.
“Our people just don’t think it’s necessary, and I’m here to represent District 6 and what they feel is necessary,” he said.
• How will you address residents’ concerns regarding air quality in the Mon Valley and throughout the county? Palmiere said council has been working with health department staff since the Dec. 24 fire at Clairton Coke Works to monitor the situation.
“We’re keeping a real close watch, like I said, monitoring it on a steady basis,” he said, adding that efforts to improve air quality and keep the situation under control will continue.
Challenger: Joseph Rudolph
• Occupation: Physician practicing allergy medicine at a private practice in Pleasant Hills
• Previous elected offices: None
• Why do you want to serve on county council? Rudolph said he hopes to pursue projects related to supporting volunteer firefighters and funding higher education as a member of county council. Rudolph’s proposed “Dime a Day” program would add a small surcharge on electricity consumption for households and commercial businesses to help fund volunteer fire departments across the county and offset the cost of training, equipment and deployment. He also hopes to work on a program that would provide one year of free college or occupational training to county residents.
• How will you address residents’ concerns regarding air quality in the Mon Valley and throughout the county? Rudolph said he would be “a very loud voice” for residents concerned about air quality in the county. As both a resident impacted by inversions and a physician treating patients with allergies, Rudolph said he has experienced the effects of poor air quality first hand and will use his position on council to work with the health department and to advocate on behalf of residents.
In District 13, which covers a swath of Pittsburgh including Downtown, the Strip District and Lawrenceville, along with northern Pittsburgh wards up to Bellevue Borough, incumbent Denise Ranalli Russell, 52, of Pittsburgh’s Brighton Heights neighborhood, is challenged by Oliva “Liv” Bennett, 40, of Pittsburgh’s Northview Heights neighborhood.
Incumbent: Denise Ranalli Russell
• Occupation: Owner, barber shop in Etna
• Previous elected offices: City of Pittsburgh Democratic Committee member, 27 Ward District. Served on County Council since January 2016.
• Why do you want to serve on county council? Ranalli Russell said she loves her role as a councilwoman. She said she has helped restore weekend bus service to Garfield, worked with senior citizens and collaborated with colleagues and saw her district thrive with development, job growth and infrastructure repair.
• How do you plan to address the issue of equitable housing in District 13? Ranalli Russell said she would like to see a system created to fine those who do not abide by the TIF and LERTA contracts. Those fines could be put into a fund that would provide assistance to low-income or first-time home buyers to help with mortgage closing costs or help current home owners rehabilitate their existing homes.
“It is difficult to see some of the architectural history of our neighborhoods being replaced by large development projects that are generally squeezing out residents that are not able to pay the rental market rates,” she said. “I would like to see more residents stay in their existing homes or purchase a home which will bring back neighborhoods that are like extended families.”
Challenger: Liv Bennett
• Occupation: Basic research administrator for the University of Pittsburgh
• Previous elected offices: None
• Why do you want to serve on county council? Bennett wants to be the voice for all in the community. “County Council has authority over many services, such as the Health Department, Port Authority and the county jail, where there is work that needs to be done. I want to actually do that work that the citizens of Allegheny County need and deserve.”
How do you plan to address the issue of equitable housing in District 13? Bennett said she would bring up the idea of land trusts, where developers are not able to buy up land, but the land always belongs to the people. She would also do more vetting of developers and require developers to have a plan for affordable and equitable housing in the district before giving them the green light to develop. She would also work with community organizations to see how they can work together on affordable and equitable housing.
These County Council seats are also up for a vote this year, but candidates are not facing challengers in the primary:
• Samuel DeMarco III, R-North Fayette, running as an incumbent for an at-large seat.
• Cindy Kirk, R-McCandless, running as an incumbent representing District 2.
• Christine Allen, D-Sewickley, is challenging Kirk for the District 2 seat.
• Sue Means, R-Bethel Park, running as an incumbent representing District 5.
• Thomas Duerr, D-Bethel Park, is challenging Means for the District 5 seat.
• Nicholas Futules, D-Oakmont, is currently vice president of council and is running to keep his District 7 seat.
• DeWitt Walton, D-Hill District, running as an incumbent representing District 10.
• Paul Klein, D-Point Breeze, running as an incumbent representing District 11.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .