Salena Zito: The Rockey road to the county executive’s office


Twenty-four years ago, the people of Allegheny County went to the voting booth and cast their ballot for a single county executive — a dramatic change in governing after having a three-commissioner system for over 200 years. In that election and the years since, voters have selected three pragmatic and moderate leaders: Republican Jim Roddey, followed by Democrats Dan Onorato and Rich Fitzgerald.

All three had their challenges: assessments, eliminating the row offices, a pandemic. Yet three recognized that holding the region’s most powerful elected office carried the responsibility of good governing, and not so much little activism or partisan stridency.

That might all change come November when voters will decide between Democrat Sara Innamorato — a former state representative, grassroots activist and frequent UPMC protestor whose politics are rooted in the Democratic Socialist Party — and Republican Joe Rockey, a retired chief risk officer at PNC Financial Services.

Democrats enjoy a 2-to-1 registration advantage in the county, and so some people are already measuring the drapes on Grant Street for Ms. Innamorato.

But Democrats close to county government are of two minds: They are encouraged by Ms. Innamorato’s behind-the-scenes willingness to understand how county government works, but remain concerned that she will be drawn back to her activist roots by the SEIU, Mayor Ed Gainey and Rep. Summer Lee — protesting the very business leaders and institutions she needs to work with to develop the region’s economy.

Mr. Rockey more clearly has the qualifications and temperament to follow in the pragmatic footsteps of the other three county executives.

“Donald Trump is what’s wrong — in many ways — with politics, which is it’s incredibly divisive, which is why I don’t support him,” Mr. Rockey said.

Mr. Rockey has seen too much to be easily bamboozled.

Born on DeFoe Street behind Perry High School, he was one of six children in an economically fragile home. “I’m a kid who grew up on the North Side. My father got sick when I was five; we used food stamps for my youth,” he said. His mother supported the family as best she could with a part-time minimum wage job. There was no family car.

“There were times in my life when we didn’t even have a television in our house,” he said, “so when the Steelers played Super Bowl X, I had to go to my grandmother’s to be able to watch it, so I could come back in at the lunch table at Nativity and be able to talk about it like everybody else.”

That success story — from poor kid on the North Side to PNC executive — might help him chip away at Ms. Innamorato’s partisan advantage.

Mr. Rockey said his track record as a senior executive at PNC, managing organizational structures often larger than the county government itself, helps qualify him to do the job. “My history is that of a problem solver, someone who was placed in situations where change was necessary, where problems needed to be addressed.”

If he is elected he said he would not go into the job with a clean sweep of agency heads or their departments, especially ones that are working well. “Throughout my career as a change leader and an individual who was focused on improving things, I have not done that by changing the people,” he said.

“In many parts of the county, we have really strong leaders. The Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis is a perfect example of that. Christina is an exceptional leader, and it would be my pleasure to work with her and have her continue the bright future she has created for the county airport and the entire area that she manages,” he said.

Mr. Rockey said the biggest issues facing the county going forward are creating jobs that attract young people, reversing population decline, combatting crime and relieving homelessness.

“When I say jobs, we’ve lost 50,000 jobs here in the last five years, and job loss directly relates to our decline in population. We’re one of the oldest communities in the country, but if we had jobs for young people, we wouldn’t be,” he said.

Last month, Mr. Rockey picked up the endorsement of one the region’s most powerful labor groups: the Pennsylvania District Council of the Laborers International Union of North America, which represents over 7,000 workers, of which 1,000 work for county government itself.

“Joe Rockey is without question the person for the job,” said Phil Ameris, who serves as the president of the Western Pennsylvania District Council.“We must elect a candidate who is qualified, has the knowledge on how to move Allegheny County forward and who understands that … extreme political views will only cause division.”

Mr. Rockey said he was pleased to have Mr. Amaris and his team backing him, and hopes to earn additional endorsements: “We’re working with the other trades. Nothing is finalized at this point, but we’re working with the other trades.”

As for crime, Mr. Rockey said no one should discount the crime problem in the region, and that the perception of insecurity affects how people feel about visited, shopping and doing business here.

“Under any scenario, there is too much crime … and not just in the city of Pittsburgh, but throughout the entire county. It’s unacceptable for us to brush over that by saying, ‘Oh yeah, but we’re doing better than last year,’” he said.

Mr. Rockey is also familiar with the realities and challenges of homelessness and homeless encampments in Allegheny County. He sits on the board of the Little Sisters of the Poor and St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, which serves 60 men every evening on Bedford Avenue at the base of the Hill District.

His interest in addressing homelessness goes back to his C-suite days. He was the executive lead on the building of Second Avenue Commons, a low-barrier year-round facility for the homeless, and he and his wife Diana regularly feed the homeless at the Red Door on the Boulevard of the Allies.

“The homeless situation in Allegheny County is unacceptable for many reasons,” he said. “These are individuals who deserve compassion and care, and we should be taking the time and doing the right things to improve their lives and give them a brighter future.”

Mr. Rockey said it is unacceptable to assign the homeless issue to the City of Pittsburgh: “The reality is the vast majority of the support for the homeless comes from the Health and Human Services Department, which is an Allegheny County level function.”

He said he knows Innamorato will try to tie him to Donald Trump, or to portray him as someone who will take reproductive rights away from women — and he is having none of that.

Trump-style divisiveness is more likely to hurt the area than help. Mr. Rockey commends all three of the prior county executives — including the two Democrats — as leaders who have governed as centrists and were able to manage the breadth of this diverse county. “I’m very much a centrist and believe that the middle is actually the true majority here in Allegheny County,” he said.

“The reason I am running is to bring the county together, growing the future of the county, addressing crime and homelessness within the county, and really getting us back to where we need to be, which is a growing, vibrant economy,” he said. “It’s really that simple.”