Progressive candidates in Pittsburgh won two key races on Tuesday. Reform candidate and chief public defender Matt Dugan ousted a longtime tough-on-crime incumbent to win the primary for district attorney in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County. State Rep. Sara Innamorato won the Democratic primary for Allegheny County executive. Both will advance to general elections in November. Dugan is currently running unopposed, and Innamorato will face Republican candidate Joseph Rockey.
The wins add to a recent body of progressive success in a crucial swing state where Republicans have made inroads in recent years. Since 2018, progressives have surged in Pennsylvania races from Congress to state legislature and local government, picking up key seats in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia along the way.
Conventional politics in swing states have typically shunned progressives in favor of moderate candidates. Tuesday’s results are evidence that candidates who prioritize issues facing working people can help build the Democratic base in purple states rather than shrink it, Rep. Summer Lee, a progressive Democrat who went from the Pennsylvania state House to the U.S. House last year, said during remarks at Innamorato’s election party on Tuesday night.
“Back in the day when they doubted us, and they said, ‘These crazy women can’t win those state House seats,’ we told them back then that the power of the people was greater than the people in power,” Lee said. “What we showed them tonight, what we’ve shown them in every single election cycle since we’ve started is that the power of the people is always greater than the people in power.”
In 2018, Innamorato was first elected to the state House along with Lee, who also represented parts of Pittsburgh. They both beat longtime incumbents in Democratic primaries. Philadelphia elected its first Working Families Party council member, Kendra Brooks, in 2019. Philadelphia organizers won election to the state House 2020. And Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey beat a Democratic incumbent and won election in 2021.
In 2022, Lee was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives after defeating a moderate Democrat and an onslaught of outside spending by conservative Democrats and Republicans. Sen. John Fetterman’s 2022 election over Republican candidate Mehmet Oz built on those progressive wins.
On Tuesday in Philadelphia’s mayoral race, though, the left candidate lost to Cherelle Parker, a former city council majority leader who had support from a cadre of Democratic officials and local unions, as well as Philadelphia’s Black clergy. Former city council member Helen Gym came in third place with 21 percent of the vote to Parker’s 33 percent. Gym’s campaign had been buoyed by endorsements from national progressives, and the last poll in the race showed her with a slight lead. A preliminary breakdown of votes by the Philadelphia Inquirer showed that Parker won in precincts that were majority Black and precincts with incomes below $75,000, while Gym had more support in wealthier and majority white communities. Parker will face Republican candidate and city council member at large David Oh in November.
As candidates focusing on issues of economic inequality, corporate profits, and social infrastructure have surged, they’ve faced opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. Republican donors have worked with Democrats to fight insurgent progressive candidates in federal and local races across the country. A Republican megadonor poured out $1.1 million in the final days of the Philadelphia mayoral race to oppose Gym and influence city council races. He is also the sole donor to a new federal PAC launched to target challengers in Democratic primaries.
Preliminary takeaways from Philadelphia’s mayoral race have compared its dynamics to New York City’s election of Mayor Eric Adams in 2021. Parker campaigned on combating gun violence by ramping up the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, which contributed to overpolicing in many Black neighborhoods impacted by crime. Criticisms of the policy fueled a movement for reforms that elected District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2017 and again in 2021. Philadelphians have also endorsed candidates who support more aggressive criminal justice reforms, like city council members Brooks and Jamie Gauthier.
Right-wing media also attacked Dugan for his similarity to Krasner, who campaigned on addressing the city’s unequal justice system and holding police accountable for misconduct. Krasner was reelected overwhelmingly in 2021, beating a police-backed opponent who pushed a return to aggressive policing and indiscriminate prosecution. In Allegheny County, Dugan ran a campaign focused on reforming the criminal justice system, diverting low-level offenses, ending cash bail, focusing on violent crime, and enhancing services for victims. Observers have criticized Dugan for his support from the Justice & Public Safety PAC, which is supported by George Soros.
Innamorato ran a campaign similarly focused on housing, environmental equality, investing in mental health treatment and diversion programs, ending solitary confinement, and enforcing corporate taxes. The office of Allegheny County executive is one of the most powerful in the western part of the state and controls a $3 billion annual budget.
“Tonight, voters in Allegheny County showed once again that they are hungry for leaders with big ideas who will fight hard for working people,” Working Families Party Mid-Atlantic Elections Director Shoshanna Israel said in a statement on Tuesday night. “They rejected tough-on-crime fearmongering from a decrepit political establishment and embraced reformers who will invest in and support our communities.”
Pennsylvania politics have shifted dramatically in the years since the state voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016. Trump’s win energized Pennsylvania Republicans for the first time in decades. That momentum slowed after President Joe Biden flipped the state blue again in 2020, and Republicans have run increasingly extreme candidates as the party seeks to rebuild power. As an antidote, progressive candidates have sought to build coalitions and energize voters who might be new to politics or had grown disenchanted with machine politics.
“This is a victory not just for Sara Innamorato and Matt Dugan,” Israel continued, “but for the people-powered movement that knocked on tens of thousands of doors to elect them. It’s a victory for those who want an Allegheny County that works for everyone, not just the powerful and politically connected.”