Pittsburgh Progressives Win Trifecta as Establishment Moves into Co-opt Electoral Victories

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey (left) and Congresswoman Summer Lee (right) celebrate Sara Innamorato's (center) victory as Allegheny County Executive (Stephanie Strasburg/Public Source)

PITTSBURGH, PA. – Yesterday, as Allegheny County Executive Democratic nominee Sara Innamorato was giving her victory speech in Pittsburgh’s super hipster Bloomfield neighborhood, suddenly, the side doors of Trace Brewing opened, and in walks James Hill, the long-time right-hand man of former Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, clad in an expensive suit. 

Two years prior, in 2019, Hill’s former boss Bill Peduto, a corporate Democrat, who angered many Black Lives Matter activists, had become Pittsburgh’s 1st incumbent Mayor ever to be defeated for re-election. In a surprise victory, progressive Ed Gainey became the first Black ever elected Mayor of Pittsburgh by organizing a multiracial, progressive coalition that included Innamorato and her allies. 

Hill, who now works with corporate developers as part of the Downtown Partnership, had publicly stayed out of endorsing anyone in the tight race to be Allegheny County Executive.

With over 6,000 employees and a budget of over $1 billion, the position of Allegheny County Executive had been held by corporate Democrat Rich Fitzgerald for 12 years, making Fitzgerald the most prolific fundraiser and power broker in Western PA.

Now, after the results were finally known and it was clear that Innamorato had defeated Weinstein by a margin of 37%-29%, Hill was rushing in the side door of Innamorato’s party to hop on board the winning team’s bandwagon. With Allegheny County being a heavily democratic county, Innamorato win the primary against Weinstein all, but assures her election in the fall.

“Our government should be a force of good in people’s lives, and if we don’t see that happening, it is our duty to vote and change that,” the 37-year-old Innamorato told a crowd of over 200 supporters who struggled to hear in the brew halls, whose crowd spilled outside onto the sidewalk. 

Nor was Hill the only corporate Democrat trying to wiggle his way into Innamorato’s victory party. Kevin Acklin, the president of business operations for the Pittsburgh Penguins, a former chief of staff of corporate Democrat Mayor Bill Peduto, and top corporate democrat fundraiser, also tried to push his way through the crowd at Trace. 

Six years prior, I had sat with Sara Innamarato at a much smaller victory party for a local magistrate candidate a few blocks away at Mixtape nightclub. At that party back in November of 2017, Socialist Mik Pappas was celebrating his defeat of Ron Costa to become the first elected socialist magistrate in Pittsburgh. 

At the time, Innamorato, a scrappy Pittsburgh community activist inspired by the Bernie Sanders movement, was considering a run against another member of the Costa political family, State Representative Dom Costa, a former police chief. Then, Innamorato’s odds seemed long, but that night at MixTape nightclub, she felt Pappas’s victory had given her a new sense of confidence. 

“Maybe, I could pull this off and win. If Mik could beat a Costa, maybe I could too,” the then 31-year-old Innamorato told me as we had beers that night. “It’s so scary because it’s gonna be so hard, but I just gotta go out there and run and try.” 

A year later, in 2018, Innamorato defeated Dom Costa by a margin of 64%-35% in her first run for state representative. Across town that same year, Summer Lee would also defeat another member of the Costa family, Paul, to become the first Black woman elected to the State House from Western PA. 

The two then began to actively primary Democrats in Pittsburgh. In 2019, the pair backed Bethany Hallam, who toppled County Council President John DeFazio, who was the district director of the Steelworkers in Pennsylvania. Then, the two backed two state representative candidates, Emily Kinkead and Jessica Benham, who beat incumbents and several judges.

In 2020, Lee and Innamorato also backed state Rep. Ed Gainey in a successful bid to unseat incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto, becoming the first Black Mayor of Pittsburgh.

Now, with Lee in Congress, Gainey installed as Mayor, and Innamorto elected as County Executive, progressive allies had achieved a trifecta in controlling the top three politically powerful positions in Western PA. 

“I thought I’d never see this day,” said retired 73-year-old UE News Editor Al Hart, a long-time Innamorato supporter. “I have been a left winger for more than 50 years. My generation could never pull this and we never figured out how to elect real progressives in places like Pittsburgh and younger people than me, much younger than me, and I am glad I lived long enough to see it.” 

Hart’s union, the UE, was one of only a handful of unions to back Innamorato in her run for County Executive. The other unions supporting her included the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, UFCW Local 1776, Pittsburgh Chapter of Starbucks Workers United, and the SEIU, which spent over $300,000 on behalf of Innamorato. 

The local AFL-CIO endorsed her opponent John Weinstein because Innamorato had called for banning fracking in the region. Many construction unions spent heavily against her running for county executive, a position that she pledged to use the position to block fossil fuel projects on which many union members are employed.  

After news broke that Innamorato defeated Weinstein by a margin of 37%-to-29%, local AFL-CIO President Darrin Kelley wrote a statement congratulating Innamorato on winning the powerful county executive position. 

“While Sara was not our endorsed nominee, we share many core values, and she has worked hard throughout her career to build good working relationships with our members and the workers we represent. We appreciate all she has done to build those relationships, we know her heart is with our members, and we look forward to continuing to work together,” wrote Kelly. “We know that there are a lot of serious issues to work out between us, but we are committed to putting in that work and finding a way to move forward together, and we believe that she shares that commitment.”

Labor leaders like Al Hart cheered the capitulation of the construction unions that for so long had been allies of the pro-fracking, corporate democrats in Pittsburgh. 

“The center cannot hold in Allegheny County,” said Hart. “The corporate democrats have no way of winning and the business unionist know it too now.” 

Darrin Kelly wasn’t the only pro-fracking establishment figure congratulating Innamorato that night. Despite his public image as an outsider, Senator John Fetterman has long supported fracking and has never backed Lee, Gainey, or Innamorato in their primary challenges to progressive incumbents. 

“Congratulations @Innamo, the next County Exec. for Allegheny County,” tweeted Fetterman. “Yinzers are standing up for our forgotten communities and leading the way for the nation.” 

Progressive leaders like Congresswoman Summer Lee, who had been traveling companions with Innamorato during their four years together as state representatives in Harrisburg, noted it was a victory for a new movement in Western PA. 

“Yesterday was a resounding confirmation that our region is ready for a more just, equitable, and progressive future. It was a mandate for racial, economic, and environmental justice,” Lee tweeted on Wednesday afternoon. “It was a win for our working class (union), multiracial, multigenerational movement, and we will not let up!”

However, the movement is now a new movement, with many of its movements leaders being part of the elected power structure in Allegheny County; presenting many interesting questions and new challenges for activists about what the movement looks like moving forward in Pittsburgh. 

At Innamorato’s victory party on Tuesday night, as we watched corporate democrat operatives like Kevin Acklin and James Hill, it was clear that many in the corporate and establishment democratic world were seeking ways to co-opt the progressive electoral energy in Pittsburgh. 

“It’s incredible to see progressives win so much in Allegheny County and I hate to say it, but we are the power establishment now,” one long left-time leftist told me as we stood outside Innamoarto’s victory party at Trace Brewing yesterday. “We are certainly going to have push to make the establishment doesn’t coopt our electoral victories.” 

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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