BY: ADAM SMELTZ
A day after state Rep. Sara Innamorato emerged as his Democratic opponent, the Republican nominee for Allegheny County executive debuted his campaign message for the general election, presenting himself as “a centrist who is focused on the middle.”
“A centrist can win in Allegheny County,” Joe Rockey, a former PNC executive, said Wednesday during a Downtown news conference. “I tell people that the only ‘R’ in this race is ‘Rockey,’ and I mean that. I show up here as I am coming to represent every citizen in Allegheny County. I’m not coming with a partisan view.”
The Democratic-leaning county last had a Republican executive about 20 years ago, after the current local government structure was first put into place. But Tuesday’s primary election results extended a series of progressive victories in Western Pennsylvania Democratic politics over the last several years, with Ms. Innamorato leading the ticket. And Republicans hope those same progressives will turn off swing voters in November.
Ms. Innamorato, 37, was widely seen as the most liberal of six candidates in the Democratic primary for executive and won with about 38% of the vote. Mr. Rockey, 59, a first-time candidate for elected office, ran unopposed for the GOP nomination — allowing him to avoid the kind of primary-season rightward lurch that can sometimes hobble Republican nominees in November.
Mr. Rockey said Wednesday that Ms. Innamorato, a third-term lawmaker from Lawrenceville, doesn’t have his history of working “executive to executive” to encourage companies to come to Allegheny County. His PNC career included selling employers on doing business in Western Pennsylvania — work he would continue as executive, he said.
“If you don’t have jobs, your population will naturally decline,” said Mr. Rockey, of Ohio Township. “If you have job growth in Allegheny County, you will retain the children who are leaving our county, and you will bring others into the county looking for those jobs.”
The county lost more than 50,000 jobs over the past five years, according to a report released in April.
Mr. Rockey also contrasted himself with Ms. Innamorato on energy policy. She has said she would support a local ban on hydraulic fracturing, the natural gas drilling technique known as fracking. Mr. Rockey called natural gas a vehicle for job creation.
And he identified himself as “an ideal candidate” for the building trades unions who backed one of Ms. Innamorato’s primary opponents, “because I am about growth.” He said his campaign has been in communication with those unions, which supported County Treasurer John Weinstein’s unsuccessful campaign.
Still, Darrin Kelly, president of the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, said in a statement late Tuesday that the labor group shares “many core values” with Ms. Innamorato.
“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 she shares that commitment,” Mr. Kelly said.
Ms. Innamorato’s campaign declined to comment Wednesday. In an email to supporters, Innamorato campaign manager Kacy McGill said Mr. Rockey “is already falling back on the same sexist tropes that we saw used against us in the primary.”
The Innamorato campaign, the email said, won Tuesday “by engaging our friends, family and neighbors where they are at and talking about real issues that matter to our communities: building a green and just economy of the future, ensuring housing for all, expanding mental healthcare, investing in our young people and holding corporate actors accountable when they harm their workers or pollute our air.”
Precinct-level results in the Democratic primary for Allegheny County executive
Ms. Innamorato’s challenge in November will be appealing to a broader electorate than her progressive base, said Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Harrisburg-based GOP consultant. Republicans could highlight what some call her “extremist views,” he said.
Ms. Innamorato said in an interview last week on KDKA radio that she emphasizes “old-school” Democratic values. But her primary opponents would have had broader appeal to general election voters, Mr. Nicholas said.
“If there will be a chance for a Republican upset,” he said, “Innamorato was the candidate you want to run against.”