County executive candidates promise environmental justice, expanded language service and mental health funding to Allegheny’s Asian communities

By: Hannah Wyman

The day before Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, four Allegheny County executive candidates promised to stand against discrimination or hate while in office during a forum held at the Philippine Center of Pittsburgh in West Mifflin.

The Republican candidate, retired PNC executive Joe Rockey, and three Democratic hopefuls — former Pittsburgh school board member Theresa Sciulli Colaizzi, state Rep. Sara Innamorato and county Treasurer John Weinstein — were asked a series of questions drawn from API Platform for PA developed by the AAPI PA Power Caucus, which hosted Sunday afternoon’s forum. 

A chair reserved for Pittsburgh city Controller Michael Lamb sat empty on the stage as he had RSVPed to the event but failed to attend. The other Democratic candidates — attorney and former county councilor Dave Fawcett and entrepreneur Will Parker — were also not in attendance.

Ballots will be cast on May 16, taking the county one step closer to a new county executive. The position is currently held by Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat who is in his third and final term due to term limits. 

On Sunday, candidates spoke on issues important to the AAPI community such as language accessibility, voting security, environmental justice and mental health resources to a crowd of about three dozen Asian Americans and allies. 

Lani Mears, president of the Filipino American Association of Pittsburgh, shared that a report on immigrants and refugees in Allegheny County in 2013 indicates a 52% growth of the foreign-born population from Asia between 2000 to 2010. Other national data reflects that Asians are the fastest-growing population of undocumented immigrants with nearly 1.5 million Asian undocumented immigrants in the United States today. 

Mears posed questions about welcoming undocumented immigrants into the county and ensuring the right people will be working on related initiatives for the candidates.

All candidates agreed that their respective staff would be diverse and filled with those who had the proper skill set to do the job. 

“When you’re working with the AAPI community, there’s dozens and dozens of languages that need to be available for individuals so that they know how to access their government that they’re paying taxes into,” Innamorato said. “It’s working with all of our county departments to ensure that we get language access resources out into the community through organizations.”

Rockey spoke of matching the services of entities such as Catholic Charities once in office.

“The best thing for us to do is to improve employment so that immigrants who come here are documented or otherwise have a future and have an opportunity going forward,” he said. “I’ve seen firsthand what Catholic Charities does for immigrants who come into Allegheny County. They’ve set up services, they’ve offered support for the day-to-day needs of immigrants who show up in our county, again, no question of whether they’re documented or not documented.”

Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance Pittsburgh chapter president Sabrina Liu pointed to an AAPI PA Caucus survey taken last year that found 69% of the respondents stated that they agree that the government should shift resources allocated for police departments to health and human services, including mental health responders, workforce development and nonviolent alternatives. 

Rockey, Colaizzi and Weinstein all expressed that defunding the police is not the answer.

“The premise that we defund one part of the county to fund another, I don’t believe it’s the right place to begin, but I absolutely believe we need to fund mental health services,” Rockey said. “We need to fund the support for mental health services as early as possible with simple and easy access so that individuals can get issues addressed quickly, privately and in a manner that prevents them from becoming lifelong challenges that they will carry with them.”

Weinstein said the county has an obligation to assist and “step right in.”

“That’s a responsibility of the county, and we will be the conduit to work with our nonprofit organizations, with UPMC, with Highmark and all the other hospital organizations in this region to supply mental health treatment where it’s lacking, and the county will use our Department of Human Services as well to help facilitate that,” he said.

Mears asked the candidates how they would mitigate the challenges of air and water quality while alleviating the disproportionate burden that AAPI and other communities of color face.

“We need to hold these people accountable,” Colaizzi said. “If they’re given specific guidelines that they’re supposed to operate under then I expect them to operate under [them]. … I don’t know if we can blame [air quality] on the buses and the cars because now we have scooters, we have bikes. What is causing the problem? We need to identify what causes the problem before you can even try to resolve it.”

Innamorato also talked about regulating air quality and setting air quality standards in addition to investing in the Health Department’s air quality division. 

“The role of the county executive, it starts with the people that we are appointing to the Board of Health and the air pollution control committee,” she said. “Those need to be people who have a public health background, who will understand climate change science and those who, most importantly, are from the impacted communities and from environmental justice communities so that they have a seat at the table when it comes to strengthening our regulations and ensuring that enforcement occurs.”

Following Liu’s question about protecting the AAPI workforce and expanding the rights of those in industries difficult or even impossible to unionize, such as restaurants and health care, all four attendees said they were dedicated to protecting unions and workers’ rights. 

Colaizzi used her time on the school board when she settled 19 union contracts as an example of her dedication. 

“Every union should be in every business as far as I’m concerned because that’s what guarantees that employees get treated good and then the employer is then forced to do that, but the union then has to step up to the plate, so it’s a two-edged sword, and if anybody can walk this one, it’s me,” she said.

Both Weinstein and Innamorato mentioned their endorsements, Weinstein’s from Allegheny County Labor Council endorsement and Innamorato’s from from SEIU Healthcare, teachers at Community College of Allegheny County and Pittsburgh Public Schools.

“We have built a coalition that centers workers in our campaign, and that’s how I plan on governing,” she said. “We have the opportunity to do a better job and enforcement at the county; we have a lot of great ordinances on the books that protect workers and are supposed to pay people a prevailing wage.”

Rockey spoke of his father, who fell ill when Rockey was 5, and how their family was supported by the United Auto Workers. 

“I will do what’s in my power to support all the unions that work inside of Allegheny County government and to those organizations around the county who are looking to create better lives for the people who work in all those distances and so that leadership is what is necessary, and I’m standing with and beside folks from a firsthand knowledge of what the union did for my family.”

All candidates agreed that language accessibility could be greatly improved within the county.

“This is retail government for people to be able to use the services that we provide; it has to be done on a retail level,” Weinstein said. “The county could do this through an app. We have no app right now that we could utilize. We need to create an app, and there will be an app next year that you can download on your phone, you put it in whatever language that you speak …. It’s not just about calling an 800 number. You can actually look on your phone, and it will translate for you through the county app.”

Weinstein also spoke about connecting with schools in the county to provide more language opportunities and expand services. Although the county cannot mandate anything for these schools, Weinstein said he has the connections with school board presidents and superintendents to have such conversations. 

One audience question noted the rise of hate and violence against the AAPI community since the pandemic and subsequent anti-Asian rhetoric.

All speakers said they would lead with a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to discrimination and hate within the county. 

Colaizzi referenced her Italian heritage and first-generation identity and said she would lead with empathy and inclusion in the office. 

“I’m first-generation Italian so if anybody gets it, it’s me,” she said. “As a woman, I’ve been put down. As an Italian, I’ve been put down. … I have been put down so many times, especially as a politician, but guess what? I got back up, and I’ll fight for your nationality as well. Whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. I’ve been there, done that and I’ll do it again.”

In a news release, Mears called the county executive the most powerful elected candidate in the region.

“It’s critical that our diverse Asian Pacific Islander communities hear directly from the candidate who will oversee the systems that impact our everyday lives,” she said.

Asian American votes spiked to unprecedented levels in 2020 and 2022, and Pennsylvania had the highest vote-by-mail sign-up rate of any racial-ethnic community in Pennsylvania, and the second highest mail-in-ballot return rate, Kim Huynh of API PA said.

“Every voter deserves the chance to have their voice heard and their ballot counted, and speaking a language other than English shouldn’t exclude you from contributing to democracy,” Liu said in a statement. 

A video of the entire forum can be found here.