By BRANDON MCGINLEY
Now is the time for members of the quiet, bipartisan Joe Rockey faction in Pittsburgh’s political class to make their move.
World events have managed what no electoral opponent of local progressives has: placing a left-wing candidate, in this case former state representative Sara Innamorato, in a pincer between her perceived authenticity and her perceived moral rectitude.
At the same moment, a poll showing Mr. Rockey within a single percentage point of his opponent — conducted for a pro-Rockey super PAC but by a respected nonpartisan firm — is circulating among local politicos. While few believe the race is that close, myself included, the memo provides hard evidence for the growing feeling the race may be slipping away from Ms. Innamorato.
Few will dispute that Mr. Rockey, the 58-year-old retired bank executive, is a more credible administrator of a billion-dollar county government than Ms. Innamorato, the 38-year-old short-time state representative. Whether that matters has always been the question.
The appeal of progressive candidates in the Pittsburgh region has never been that they have impressive resumes or are competent administrators. It’s been that they’re perceived to be personally authentic and morally correct. It’s been that they’re on the right side of history.
This week raised the dangerous question: What if they’re not?
Sara Innamorato made national news in 2018, along with now-U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, when she unseated an established Democratic state legislator as an unapologetic member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Her DSA sympathies remained a core part of her public political identity, even as she established herself in more mainstream Democratic politics.
Until this week. On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh DSA chapter released one of the most pro-Palestinian statements of any local in the country, excusing last Saturday’s Hamas terror attacks as Israel’s predictable comeuppance. And two days earlier, both Ms. Lee and Ms. Innamorato were conspicuous no-shows at a Jewish Community Center solidarity vigil.
The county executive hopeful was faced with a choice: Ignore the growing suspicions about her lack of sympathy for Israeli and Jewish terror victims, or denounce the organization that launched her political career. She chose the latter.
It was the right move, politically and morally. It also signaled her willingness to break with the left as part of embracing the responsibilities of countywide executive office, which will be essential to success in that role.
But the choice will still prove costly. First, she attracted predictably vicious scorn on her left flank. At a deeper level, however, the episode highlighted that the commitments of the actually-existing progressive movement don’t always lead to morally satisfying conclusions. And it raises the question of why she ever associated herself with the DSA to begin with.
At the same time, cutting ties with her past also threatens another pillar of the progressives’ appeal: their apparent consistency and authenticity. Publicly renouncing a now-inconvenient relationship is exactly what a regular politician would do, but part of the point of the young progressives is that they aren’t regular politicians. This moment, more than any other so far, shattered that illusion.
Fittingly, the polling firm Cygnal — which has a rare “A” rating from the analytics website FiveThirtyEight — was conducting its research as this drama played out, on October 9 and 10. The polling memo prepared for Save Allegheny County, a pro-Rockey super PAC, indicates a 45% to 44% race in favor of Ms. Innamorato, despite the two-to-one registration advantage for Democrats.
Most alarmingly for Ms. Innamorato, the poll has her opponent pulling about 25% support among Democrats, exactly the figure understood to be Mr. Rockey’s target.
There are numerous reasons to discount this result, beginning with the fact it’s very convenient for the organization that commissioned the poll. You’d also be hard-pressed to find a close observer of the race who believes it’s a dead heat, at least right now.
But there’s one very good reason to take it seriously, or at least to believe the real margin is in the low single digits: Ms. Innamorato is acting like it’s close. She’s playing frantic defense on DSA/Palestine, and is said to be seeking more traditional media audiences, specifically via radio, that her campaign had previously spurned as unnecessary.
Cultivating a sense of inevitability is a very effective way to keep your own party’s voters in line, and potential donors and endorsers away from your opponent. But it’s also risky: Once that sense is lost, there’s no getting it back, and often there’s no backup plan.
So you’re saying there’s a chance
It’s hardly a secret that Pittsburgh’s traditional political class, across party lines, is generally cool (at best) on the idea of Sara Innamorato as county executive. Whether they choose to act on that feeling may determine the outcome of the race.
It would be too much to say there’s as strong a groundswell of support for Joe Rockey in the Duquesne Club set as there was for Republican Jim Roddey in 1999. Mr. Roddey had a much more established profile in the political scene; faced an opponent, Cyril Wecht, who collected enemies like beanie babies; and operated in a less partisan environment than today, with dozens more moderate-to-conservative Democratic elected officials in play.
There’s also the looming threat that an Innamorato administration will freeze out people and institutions who pick the wrong horse, as has happened down Grant Street.
This week, however, may convince people with big names and wallets that supporting Mr. Rockey isn’t a waste. Will he win? I’ll still need at least a three-to-one payout to make that bet. Can he win? Yes, definitely.
But he won’t without a little more momentum from Pittsburghers whose names and reputations confer respectability. This would give fence-sitting voters permission to take Mr. Rockey seriously — and to ignore the coming attack ads.
Sara Innamorato has stumbled, and the run of play is now with Joe Rockey. It will be up to the quiet Rockey supporters, and Innamorato skeptics, in business and politics to determine whether this is a blip, or a turning point.