Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Insurgent candidates across Pennsylvania are rattling establishment Democrats

The races are being watched closely by party officials and operatives in both camps who wonder whether third-party candidates have enough grassroots support to overcome inherent disadvantages in a two-party system.

Lisa Middleman, an Allegheny County public defender, pictured in October. She is running against Stephen A. Zappala Jr. for District Attorney.
Lisa Middleman, an Allegheny County public defender, pictured in October. She is running against Stephen A. Zappala Jr. for District Attorney.Read morePittsburgh Post-Gazette

In Scranton, a former Obama campaign staffer is running for mayor as an independent against a Democratic Party machine that has been plagued by corruption scandals.

In Allegheny County, the longtime Democratic district attorney — a household name in Western Pennsylvania politics — is facing his first competitive election in years as a public defender runs as an independent.

And in Philadelphia, progressive third-party candidates are waging a serious bid to claim City Council seats, potentially endangering Republicans and even Democrats.

Across Pennsylvania, insurgent progressive candidates are rattling the Democratic establishment in areas that have long been party strongholds, reflecting a broader national dynamic demonstrated in the rise of liberal politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who beat an entrenched machine-backed congressman in Queens last year.

The races are being watched closely by officials and operatives in both parties who wonder whether third-party candidates have enough support to overcome inherent disadvantages in a two-party system.

“The Democratic electorate is not as progressive as they are, as a whole. But, because these groups are so well-organized, they are able to punch above their weight, so to speak,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic consultant, referring to the insurgents.

Some of the outsiders are offering bold policy proposals that are now part of the national political discourse, such as tackling mass incarceration and embracing a so-called Green New Deal to combat climate change. Others vow to change what they call an entrenched culture of corruption and cronyism, but otherwise focus on meat-and-potatoes issues like infrastructure.

Not all of the newcomers are favored to win, but the fact that they’re even running competitive general-election campaigns is evidence of discontent with the party establishment.

The results in Tuesday’s elections may leave clues about the party’s direction, just months before the first votes are cast in the Democratic presidential primary. One of the big questions Tuesday is whether Democrats can take control of county government in suburban areas such as Delaware County, which Republicans have run for generations. In these areas, Democratic elected officials tend to be more moderate than the activist left.

The political dynamic now facing Democrats is reminiscent of the rise of the tea party a decade ago, which pushed the mainstream Republican Party to the right, said T.J. Rooney, a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “We’re starting to see that to a degree,” he said.

It didn’t happen overnight. Progressives were energized by Larry Krasner’s upset win in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s race in 2017, as the longtime defense attorney beat former prosecutors on a reform platform. And insurgents have been running against high-profile elected officials in the Pittsburgh area for multiple election cycles — and racking up wins.

Lisa Middleman, a public defender running as an independent for Allegheny County district attorney, is pushing a reform platform similar to Krasner’s. She is challenging incumbent Democrat Stephen Zappala Jr., who won a competitive Democratic primary and also ran a successful write-in campaign to win the GOP nomination.

That means Zappala — who’s held the office for two decades and is the son of a former state Supreme Court justice — will get votes from anyone who selects a straight-party ticket.

Zappala has the backing of the Democratic Party and organized labor. He hasn’t faced a competitive race until now, and observers say he’s run a lackluster campaign. Zappala has also drawn criticism for his handling of a case involving the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old black teenager named Antwon Rose II by a white police officer in 2018.

Middleman vows to end cash bail, halt prosecution for possession of marijuana, and hold police officers accountable. “Our district attorney is locking up people who struggle with mental illness and addiction, instead of the truly violent criminals that plague our streets,” she says in a campaign ad.

She’s getting a boost from other successful insurgent progressives like State Reps. Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato, who defeated two veteran Pittsburgh-area Democrats in state House primary elections last year. Along with State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler of South Philly — who also beat a machine-backed candidate — Lee and Innamorato were endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America.

“I do believe we are the folks who are able to really excite and expand the electorate," Lee, who beat a 20-year incumbent, said in an interview. "That’s what our power is: bringing in people who for a really long time have felt disillusioned from politics.”

In January, Lee launched a new political action committee, UNITE, focused on building political power in marginalized communities by teaching political newcomers the fundamentals of campaigning, offering support staff, and helping raise money.

Three local candidates won primary elections in May with UNITE’s support, including a 29-year-old who knocked off the 77-year-old Allegheny County Council president.

Lee’s group has contributed more than $20,000 to Middleman’s campaign, which has matched Zappala’s fund-raising.

Zappala says he’s focused on keeping residents safe and protecting children, senior citizens, and victims of domestic violence. He also says he’s fought to keep nonviolent offenders out of jail.

Three hundred miles away in Scranton, the local Democratic Party is battling multiple independents, including former registered Democrats, in a seven-candidate race. The city called a special election after the mayor resigned and pleaded guilty in July to felony bribery and conspiracy.

One of the independents, Paige Cognetti, an adviser to the state auditor general who served in the Treasury Department in the Obama administration, says she refused to seek the Democratic nomination because she didn’t trust the party.

Her informal campaign slogan, she says, is “Paige against the machine” — a riff on the band Rage Against the Machine.

In a TV ad, she pledges to “take on business as usual” and warns, “The same old boys club is trying to pick our next mayor.”

Cognetti, 39, would be the first woman elected mayor in Scranton, the former industrial Northeastern Pennsylvania city long associated with popular Democrats like Joe Biden, who grew up there, and the Casey family. Cognetti picked up the coveted endorsement of former Republican Lt. Gov. William Scranton, whose family gave the city its name.

Cognetti, who grew up in Oregon, got involved in politics after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and worked on a Scranton-area congressional campaign in 2006. There, she met her future husband. She worked at Treasury for a few years, got an M.B.A. at Harvard, worked on Wall Street, and moved to Scranton. She was appointed to the school board and later joined the state Auditor General’s Office.

The local Democratic Party lost a lawsuit seeking to keep off the ballot Cognetti and other independent candidates who had switched their party registrations to unaffiliated for the election.

A rival independent mayoral candidate, City Councilman Kyle Donahue, is airing a TV ad that attacks Cognetti for being a new Scrantonian, working for a “massive New York City bank,” and getting campaign cash from “wealthy Washington, D.C., friends.”

If the Allegheny and Scranton races represent direct challenges to the Democratic establishment, the third-party candidacies in Philadelphia are a bit different.

Kendra Brooks and Nicolas O’Rourke are running for at-large City Council seats on the Working Families Party ticket. They’re pushing a liberal agenda such as a city minimum wage of $15 an hour.

They say they want to win the two at-large seats reserved for the minority party, which for decades has been the Republicans. Brooks, a community organizer in Nicetown, has raised a record amount of money for a third-party Council candidate, outpacing the GOP at-large field.

But the Working Families candidates could instead endanger the Democratic slate by drawing support from liberal voters.

City Democratic Chairman Bob Brady says the committee may expel party officials who have endorsed the WFP candidates in violation of party bylaws. Allegheny County Democrats have sent a similar message.

It’s possible the outsiders will fall short. Lee, the state representative, emphasized the considerable hurdles they face: “Don’t for a second doubt the strength of this movement if for some reason we don’t win on Tuesday.”