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Pittsburgh Moving Left


There’s been a lot of really positive politics out of Pittsburgh and its surroundings lately. Of course that’s where John Fetterman got his start, as mayor of the very rough deindustrialized town of Braddock. But there’s lots of local wins too that deserve our attention. NBC News provides some of that attention.

In May, progressive state Rep. Sara Innamorato — who started her rise by defeating a Democratic state legislator from the left in a 2018 primary — won a hotly contested Democratic race for county executive, the top county-wide office. The same day, Matt Dugan, a public defender running on a criminal justice reform platform, defeated longtime District Attorney Stephen Zappala, who had been in power for nearly a quarter-century. 

Those were the latest in a growing line of victories — which include a U.S. House win last year by Summer Lee, who, like Innamorato, previously won a state House seat by defeating a Democratic incumbent, and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s defeat of then-Mayor Bill Peduto in a 2021 primary, among others. Plus, Sen. John Fetterman, elected last fall as an unabashed progressive, first rose to prominence as mayor of Braddock, a former steel town about 8 miles from downtown Pittsburgh.

The reasons for the progressive takeover up and down the ballot are numerous: A changing economy that has shifted from steel production and heavy industry to education, health care and tech; a plurality of younger voters that has become a force at the ballot box; a local political establishment that wasn’t organized enough to fend off an uprising in both city wards and suburban enclaves; and the election of former President Donald Trump, which accelerated the advance of the movement.

And though some believe unique region-specific factors have aided to the left’s rise in a way that would be difficult to replicate elsewhere, Allegheny County progressives say their path to power offers a roadmap for how left-wing activists can expand their coalition outside of the nation’s biggest cities. 

“People are so shocked that that can come from Pittsburgh,” said Lee, the first Black woman elected to Congress from the Keystone State and to the state House from western Pennsylvania, “because they’re still thinking about the Pittsburgh of old, a particular type of manufacturing, of steel, of Blue Dog Dems, of white men of a moderate politics.”

“I think that the story around Pittsburgh is intentionally downplayed,” Lee added. “Because people want you to think that the only place that you can win on the progressive message is in an AOC-district.”

While you don’t want to overgeneralize from specific places–the favorite hobby of the pundit, whether in the New York Times or on Twitter–there’s a lot to be said for motivating a base of younger voters. Remember, this is area that did not just produce Fetterman but also Conor Lamb, who would have been Younger Manchin in the Senate. And he was absolutely crushed in that senate primary because Fetterman came across as just a regular guy who was pissed about politics. And then of course there was Fetterman’s utter evisceration of Dr. Oz in the general, despite the stroke. That can work in a lot of places. The authenticity (whatever that actually means) matters a lot more than the political positions in many cases. And the upshot of that then is that there little reason to keep tracking to the center-right in many places because it doesn’t necessarily work any better than tracking to the left. That could be true in northern Virginia–again, not all places are the same. But in a city such as Pittsburgh, which has a huge history of labor, a lot of deindustrialization but also has pretty intact ethnic neighborhoods like nowhere else I’ve seen in this country, a young hip vibe that attracts people from around the region and the country, a lot of racial inequality, and great pride in its history, this combination clearly can work and is working.

I also Twitter know Innamorato and she’s been great on there for years.

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