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Zappala holds off Middleman in Allegheny County District Attorney race

  • An-Li Herring/WESA
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, at his victory party Tuesday night.

 Lucy Perkins / WESA

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, at his victory party Tuesday night.

(Pittsburgh) — Democrat Stephen Zappala will remain Allegheny County District Attorney after winning a comfortable victory against Independent Lisa Middleman in Tuesday’s election.

By 11 p.m., Zappala appeared poised to post a roughly 10-point victory in the first competitive race he has faced in years.

Speaking to supporters gathered at Cupka’s II on Pittsburgh’s South Side around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, Zappala acknowledged the race had been contentious. “I represent 1.25 million people … and it’s not easy,” he said. “People are going to disagree.”

But after fending off a challenge from his left, Zappala touted his record as a reformer who had made progressive changes to the criminal justice sytsem. “We changed how we handled bail, we changed incarceration … and I’m very proud of that,” he said.

He struck similar notes throughout the campaign. The Democrat touted his 21 years of experience as district attorney while also emphasizing his openness to reforms such as “diversionary programs” meant to link low-level offenders with drug and mental health treatment and community support. The incumbent also highlighted steps he has taken to reduce the use of cash bail.

He prevailed in his party’s primary in May and had the backing of organized labor. He also staged a successful write-in campaign to appear on the Republican ticket Tuesday. That strategy helped clinch the victory for him. His vote totals were boosted by straight-party votes cast by voters in both parties: Such votes made up slightly more than a quarter of all ballots cast.

Middleman, meanwhile, cast herself as the progressive alternative, advocating more sweeping proposals to eliminate monetary bail completely and to decriminalize low-level offenses.

She enjoyed the support of a well-organized corps of grassroots organizers that has propelled other progressives into local office in recent years: Her campaign marshaled an aggressive ground game, and campaign finance records show that by Tuesday, it had outraised Zappala by more than $65,000.

Campaign finance records show Middleman brought in more than $288,000 since June, compared to about $222,000 for Zappala during the same period. She did it with over $20,000 in help from UNITE, a political committee established by state Rep. Summer Lee. And despite Zappala’s advantage with labor, Middleman enjoyed the backing of the healthcare workers union, SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania.

She had hoped to join a group of progressives who, in recent years, have been elected district attorney in major jurisdictions, including Philadelphia. Locally, she was bidding to be the latest in a series of progressive insurgents to challenge long-established Democrats with familiar names but little recent history of facing a challenger. (Lee herself, for one, bested a member of the noted Costa political dynasty last year.)

“Don’t take this as a race,” Middleman told supporters at Savoy in the Strip District shortly after 10 p.m. Tuesday night. “Take this as a stepping stone.”

During the campaign, the challenger had to contend with accusations that she had removed black jurors when she represented a teenager charged with hate crimes 27 years ago. Still, she remained mostly on the offensive.

Last month, for example, she blasted Zappala for his handling of a 2017 case in which four local teens were each jailed for up to 15 months despite alibi evidence that proved their innocence. She had previously criticized the district attorney’s office for accepting money from insurance companies to prosecute insurance fraud cases against those companies’ customers. Zappala defended the arrangement as enabling his administration to hold people who abuse the insurance system accountable.

Still, Middleman faced a number of obstacles this fall. She had just over four months to make her case to voters, having entered the race as an independent in late June, after Democrat Turahn Jenkins lost to Zappala in the spring primary.

“She snuck into this race and we dealt with it,” Zappala told reporters after his victory speech.

Lucy Perkins contributed reporting.

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