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Allegheny County executive race tests abortion, Israel as election issues

The executive in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, does not have much, if any, power when it comes to abortion rights. Nor does the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas fall within its purview.

Yet it’s these national issues that will likely play a major role in Tuesday’s election for the most powerful local office in the state’s second-most populous county.

Insiders and strategists on both sides cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the results of the Pittsburgh-area battle between former Democratic state Rep. Sara Innamorato and former Republican banking executive Joe Rockey, as well as a highly contentious battle with county prosecutors. . But the elections will take the temperature of a crucial voting bloc ahead of next year’s presidential race and test whether progressive momentum in this western Pennsylvania Democratic enclave can continue or face a rollback of stick after years of progress.

“A dress rehearsal for 2024”

In the battle for county executive, Innamorato and Rockey are seeking the most powerful local office in this part of the state, with the ability to oversee billions in spending and control local agencies, including the board of elections County.

Innamorato, a progressive who was first elected amid a wave of local successes from the left in 2018, sought to portray her opponent as a Trump-aligned Republican who would jeopardize abortion access and would jeopardize local elections. Innamorato also discussed efforts to increase affordable housing, purify the county’s air and water supplies, and other quality of life issues. But it’s these national issues, she said, that will be at the forefront of voters’ minds Tuesday.

“A lot of people don’t know what the county executive is or isn’t doing,” Innamorato said in an interview, describing the election as “a dress rehearsal for 2024.” “So… a lot of national issues that we hear about – people go to the polls and think about these things. »

Rockey, who campaigned as a moderate, business-friendly Republican and distanced himself from Trump, said abortion rights were irrelevant to the race because his role had little or no relevance. ability to influence abortion policy. He also praised the work of the county elections board, suggesting it would not seek to make big changes to local election policy.

The first-time candidate, who did not respond to interview requests, has sought to make inroads with independents and more moderate Democrats concerned about the county moving too far to the left.

He has seen significant spending on his behalf, including from a group largely funded by Jeffrey Yass, a prominent Pennsylvania-based GOP megadonor. Rockey sought to frame the race around crime, homelessness, job growth and his opposition to a countywide property tax reassessment. But in recent weeks, he has highlighted Innamorato’s past ties to the Democratic Socialists of America in light of the left-wing organization’s anti-Israel stance following Hamas terror attacks last month.

Hours after Rockey called on Innamorato to reject the organization, she did so, writing on the social media site who coldly ignore the horrific attacks on innocent Israelis. .” She added that she has not been affiliated with DSA since 2019 and later said she wanted to make clear “that there is no doubt that I stand with my Jewish neighbors.”

The war between Israel and Hamas has fueled divisions among local democrats. Rep. Summer Lee, D-Pa., whose local rise was closely linked to that of Innamorato, was one of several Democratic members of the House of Representatives to call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and voted against a pro-Israel resolution condemning Hamas because she said it did. do not recognize the impact of the war on Palestinian civilians, journalists and aid workers. (Lee said the Hamas attack was “horrible, unjustifiable and must be condemned.”)

On the other hand, Sen. John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, another Pittsburgh-area progressive, has taken a decidedly pro-Israel stance, sparking statewide backlash from Palestinian rights activists and even some former staff members. At a rally in support of Democrats including Innamorato on Sunday, Fetterman was interrupted by a pro-Palestinian protester who was escorted from the event by police, as reported by NBC affiliate WPXI .

Allegheny County is home to a large Jewish population of approximately 50,000 people. It also just marked the fifth anniversary of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history, which took place in Pittsburgh.

Speaking to NBC News, Innamorato called the effort to tie her to the DSA “lazy,” adding that she is a “pragmatist” who has been able to govern effectively and keep her promises in her state district. House. Regarding Israel and Gaza, Innamorato said the Hamas attacks “opened a lot of wounds and a lot of pain” to residents who experienced the Tree of Life shooting, adding that she sees her role here as “reassuring the Jewish community on the fact that we stand alongside the Jewish community.” we see them, we cannot accept anti-Semitic behavior.

“And we will mobilize resources to ensure their safety and security and to eradicate any idea of ​​anti-Semitism, because anti-Semitism comes from the same seed as Islamophobia and racism, which is hatred and white supremacy, and that just won’t work to be included in our administration.

A western Pennsylvania Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Democratic divide over the Gaza war is hurting Innamorato locally, with Rockey having a “significant impact” with his efforts well funded to link it to the DSA.

“In Pittsburgh, it’s become a major issue,” this person said of Israel.

“What’s also interesting right now in both campaigns: Sara wants to talk about abortion; Joe Rockey doesn’t want to talk about abortion,” this person added. “Joe Rockey wants to talk about Israel. Sara doesn’t want to talk about Israel. None of these issues have anything to do with the executive.

Innamorato, for his part, has sought to puncture Rockey’s moderate image by linking him to abortion opponents and election deniers, highlighting his donations to Trump-aligned Republicans and his involvement in anti-abortion religious charities.

Abortion rights also take center stage in the biggest statewide race Tuesday, which seeks a seat on the state Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court race “is hotly contested because of abortion,” said Abigail Gardner, a Democratic strategist and informal adviser to Innamorato. “And I think with the Ohio referendum next door, all sides continue to focus on eggs and abortion.”

And then there’s the question of control of the county board of elections, as the county executive effectively serves as the deciding vote on all decisions made by the panel, which includes a Democrat and a Republican. Whichever party controls the board will be able to set policy regarding the placement of drop boxes and pre-solicitation of votes, and will be responsible for certifying the vote.

To me, the reason it’s worth it for Republicans to spend (millions) trying to win a long-shot county executive race is because he’s the one who certifies the election in 2024,” he said. Gardner said.

Innamorato cited Allegheny County GOP Chairman Sam DeMarco, the Republican on the election board, as evidence of why Democrats should be worried about a GOP takeover. DeMarco was one of Trump’s alternate electors in Pennsylvania and was questioned at his home last year by the FBI. (Speaking to NBC News, DeMarco said the election “will be administered in accordance with the law and in full compliance with the law,” adding that he believes Allegheny County is doing “an excellent job” in conducting elections.)

He said Trump’s voter list would only have been used in the event of a final court ruling declaring him the winner, adding that he viewed the effort as purely procedural and “in no way an attempt to ‘undo’ President Joe Biden’s victory.

Republicans haven’t won a seat in 24 years. Surveys show that a race is within their reach in this majority Democratic county.

“I think they presented a good candidate,” Gardner said. “The Republican brand is so toxic that they almost don’t want to tell you he’s a Republican. It’s really about ‘he’s a moderate’.

“I don’t think he’s going to win,” she added, “but maybe it will be very close.”

State Democrats are trying to bolster Innamorato in the latter part of the race. Governor Josh Shapiro cut an ad for her while Senator Bob Casey campaigned for her.

“Sara will probably win,” Democratic strategist Mike Mikus said. “Rockey will have to get at least 30%, probably 35% from Democrats. And it’s going to be hard. In the post-Trump world, this no longer happens.”

One Democrat faces off against another – who is running as a Republican

Allegheny County’s other hotly contested election is for district attorney, where Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan, a Democrat, is running against incumbent District Attorney Stephen Zappala, a Democrat running on the Republican ticket who has lost the primary to Dugan this spring. Many of the themes impacting the race for county executive are also being contested here — particularly a battle over progressive criminal justice ideals. (Republicans targeted Dugan because he was almost entirely funded by a group backed by liberal billionaire George Soros.)

“Steve Zappala does not share Democratic values ​​on criminal justice, nor really those of the Democratic Party writ large,” Dugan said. “He does not represent the current Democratic Party, either nationally or especially here locally. Here, he doesn’t respect the Democratic Party.”

Ben Wren, Zappala’s campaign manager, said local Democrats were seeking to frame elections around anything other than the economy and crime, issues top of mind for local voters. He said Zappala is “the same law-and-order Democrat he’s always been,” saying he won’t change the party registration and has run on the Republican line before.

DeMarco said local voters could send a message to both parties Tuesday.

“We could send the message to Republicans that if you want to be competitive in these urban environments, you need to run qualified, moderate candidates, not far-right ideologues,” he said. “And at the same time, they could send a message to Democrats that progressives have pushed them too far to the left.”

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