THE EDITORIAL BOARD
The Pittsburgh region faces a political choice more stark than it has in many years, and perhaps many decades. Allegheny County can choose to be inward- and backward-looking, satisfied with stagnation and timid in the face of a highly competitive marketplace for jobs and growth. Or it can choose to reach beyond its borders, to seize opportunities and to finally defeat the spirit of decline.
Joe Rockey represents moving forward. He is the clear choice to lead the Pittsburgh region as the fourth Allegheny County Executive.
Solidity vs. inconsistency
Mr. Rockey, 58, an executive who retired as the chief risk officer at PNC Bank, is a newcomer to politics, but has shown a keen understanding of the issues facing the county. On the debate stage, he has looked significantly more prepared to step into the office, the third most powerful elected position in the state, than former state representative Sara Innamorato, 38.
Importantly, Mr. Rockey has demonstrated that his views on policy are not constrained by ideological purity. On the Allegheny County Jail and the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, for instance, Mr. Rockey has emphasized both that these facilities are necessary and that they fulfill their purposes best when people there are treated with dignity. That means a comprehensive study of all jail operations; aggressive efforts to recruit a full complement of corrections officers; and working toward bringing Shuman back under competent county management as soon as possible.
Ms. Innamorato, on the other hand, seems to be caught between her more radical past positions and the necessity to appeal to a broader electorate.
The result has been platitudes about going to the root of criminal behavior while shifting her policy positions toward pragmatic reform as opposed to radical transformation. This is a welcome change, but voters should wonder which Sara Innamorato they’re going to get: the Democratic Socialists of America activist who was committed to the abolition of all incarceration, or the mellower version tailored to this broader electorate.
Experience vs. intentions
Strategic ambiguity has been a consistent feature of Ms. Innamorato’s campaign, on issues from juvenile justice to property reassessments to her own political views and history. It’s hard to know what she really thinks, or plans to do. This does not inspire confidence in her ability to direct a 6,000-employee bureaucracy with a billion-dollar budget — especially when faced with an increasingly ideological and confrontational County Council.
Take arguably the county’s most important responsibility: social services. Ms. Innamorato speaks passionately about issues such as mental health and homelessness, but she has little experience with the bureaucratic complexities of delivering social services. And where she does have experience — as vice chair of the Allegheny County Housing Association board — she doesn’t have much to show for it.
It’s only necessary to view the disaster in City Hall to see how far mere intentions go.
Ms. Innamorato and Mr. Rockey agree, rightly, on the necessity of low-barrier shelters and public-private partnerships, such as Second Avenue Commons. But it was Mr. Rockey who actually participated in its creation while at PNC. Further, Mr. Rockey has served on the boards of multiple charitable organizations that work with the county’s Department of Human Services: Despite being a political neophyte, he has significant experience in this crucial aspect of county government.
Voters can only hope Ms. Innamorato would learn on the job. While corporate experience doesn’t correlate perfectly with government, voters can be confident Mr. Rockey is ready to lead.
Moving forward vs. looking backward
But most of all, Mr. Rockey’s campaign is forward- and outward-looking. He emphasizes the importance of going out and selling Allegheny County to businesses, including a pledge to court 100 corporations to locate in the county. And his policies, such as streamlining permitting and expanding employment training in collaboration with unions and business, are oriented toward outreach and growth.
Ms. Innamorato’s campaign, on the other hand, is inward-looking. She emphasizes what’s wrong with Allegheny County while offering only vague promises to fix those faults. Meanwhile, all of Ms. Innamorato’s social justice promises, from “housing for all” (which comes directly from the DSA platform) to “restorative justice,” require resources that can only come from a growing tax base — or, more likely, raising taxes.
There is no evidence Ms. Innamorato is prepared to meet the challenge of competing in the national market for jobs and investment, and good evidence she will shrink from it: Her allies in city government and County Council are publicly contemptuous of economic development through private enterprise.
Mr. Rockey, on the other hand, would bring a welcome return to bipartisan government in Allegheny County, last experienced under the popular moderate Jim Roddey. Especially as the local Democratic Party has lurched to the left, Mr. Rockey’s practical centrism will ensure local government is not captured by a single ideological faction.
A clear choice
The 2010s were the most optimistic decade in southwestern Pennsylvania since at least the 1950s. Pittsburgh finally had an identity that wasn’t based entirely in the past: tech, education, energy, medicine, the future. Decline had petered out — Allegheny County’s population increased for the first time in generations — and new growth was on the horizon.
Then the COVID pandemic, as it did everywhere, smothered this optimism. Social upheavals turned our attention to what was wrong with Pittsburgh — an essential reckoning, but one that can also stifle real solutions. As the county’s population began to decline once again, the feeling returned that Pittsburgh is a place doomed to stagnation, at best.
Joe Rockey is the candidate more likely to restore not just economic growth, but the spirit of optimism that has slipped through our fingers.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette endorses Joe Rockey for Allegheny County Executive.