CMU hosts Allegheny County Executive candidates for Democratic forum
On Saturday, Feb. 18 Carnegie Mellon hosted the seven Democrats running for Allegheny County Executive shared their platforms. Since 2012, the position has been held by three-term County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The forum was moderated by Pittsburgh City Democratic Committee chair Leann Younger, Allegheny County Democratic Committee member Heidi Nortman, and WPXI anchor Lisa Sylvester. The primary election, which will likely determine the general election winner, is on May 16.
The candidates were Allegheny County Council member Olivia “Liv” Bennet, former Allegheny County Council member Dave Fawcett, Pennsylvania General Assembly member Sara Innamorato, Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb, Allegheny County Department of Human Services project manager Erin McClelland, VendSpin CEO Will Parker, and Allegheny county Treasurer John Weinstein.
Fawcett promised a “multi-pronged approach” to invest in housing and reevaluate what constitutes “good housing.” He said the definition includes access to transportation and clean air. He also discussed his vision for a “Countywide Riverfront Park,” introducing new trails along the rivers.
Lamb said communities must be affordable, walkable, and have opportunities for every age group, including older residents who may want to downsize. He said the City of Pittsburgh is “the worst neighbor… and landlord to have.” He proposed an Office of Municipal Assistance to work with community groups on affordable housing.
Parker emphasized that “affordable housing isn’t always good housing,” and advocated for a pilot program that “allows people to reclaim property that may have been lost” or previously owned by their family. He lauded the URA’s pilot, OwnPGH Homeownership Program, which has provided grants of up to $88,000 for residents to buy their first house.
Bennett said that as a public housing resident, she understands the gap between affordable and livable housing. She credited ERAP, the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program, for doing a good job supporting residents during the pandemic. “When that ended, renters were then kind of stuck as to where to find those types of resources to be able to avoid eviction. So I would like to find some resources to start that program back up,” Bennet said. She also gave a shout out to Innamorato for helping secure ERAP funding.
“Every single person in this county deserves a safe, stable, and affordable place to call home. That is my North Star,” Innamorato said. “I have lead on this issue as a state representative because I know what it’s like to lose housing stability. I lost mine as a teenager.” She encouraged opening more shelters like Second Avenue Commons, a low-barrier shelter that welcomes unhoused people as well as their partners and pets. She said there are 32 units available but 100 are needed. She also voiced support for the URA’s OwnPGH program increases in affordable and high-density units. That could pair with collaboration with Pittsburgh Regional Transit, so that these units “are right along transit lines that get people from where they live to where they work.”
Weinstein emphasized the importance of economic and job development. “That’s really the true role of the County Executive: to be the marketing cheerleader for Western Pennsylvania,” he said.
Allegheny County Jail
Reports have found that the county’s jail has failed food, safety, and health care standards. Candidates were asked how they planned to address this.
Lamb said that, as someone who worked in the criminal justice system and defended Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) inmates, he would prioritize reforming the jail. He wants the region’s jail to be known as a place of “opportunity for people who’ve made mistakes.” He said he would visit, implement new leadership, and ensure healthy meals and work opportunities after release were provided to inmates. Lamb said staffing shortages have allowed for more fighting at the jail and proposed addressing this with his plan to make community college free. “That’s going to give us another group of people that we can help train to do this work, focus on public safety and other issues.”
Innamorato described the ACJ as a “black cloud over our region” responsible for “human rights violations.” She said the ACJ needs new leadership and that she would appoint formerly incarcerated people and experts in trauma-informed care to the Jail Oversight Board. Innamorato said that requiring jail staff to work excessive overtime is unsafe, “both for workers and residents of Allegheny County Jail.” She also outlined plans to buff up the Department of Human Services so that “every person going through that system is connected with a social worker, opportunities for housing, and other resources.”
“To be blunt,” Parker said, “jail is jail. It’s not a hotel.” He advocated for a new warden and expanded prevention programs to lower return rates and initial convictions.
Weinstein agreed that jail isn’t a hotel and noted that the ACJ has a “serious drug problem.” He said the warden “should only be in charge of prisoners and guards,” and that administrative responsibilities should be relegated to a new position, a jail director. He also said ACJ should “separate nonviolent offenders from violent offenders.”
McClelland identified a “zero-harm environment” as the most important way to improve ACJ conditions.
Fawcett said his criminal justice work as a lawyer has made ACJ reform a top priority. He recounted bringing lawsuits against ACJ, including a case when he represented “pregnant females who were not getting proper nutritional care and being placed into […] solitary confinement.” Fawcett said he has been to ACJ many times and that it needs more holistic support, envisioning an addiction center right next to it and increased mental health care.
According to the moderators, only 48 percent of Allegheny County residents have easy access to Pittsburgh Regional Transit (PRT). They asked candidates’ plans for increasing accessibility.
Innamorato said that rising housing prices push people out of job centers, and that Allegheny County must expand PRT routes.
Weinstein voiced support for PRT’s promise to be completely electric by 2030. Weinstein added that he only sees a few people in buses Downtown and would investigate where new routes are needed most.
McClelland was disappointed in the county’s “unbelievable transportation cuts,” which made many of her neighbors “stop using it altogether” because they didn’t think it would come when they needed it. That mindset lowered visible demand, McClelland said, which lowered the number of buses coming to the area. Yet she said people still need access, they just don’t know how to navigate the system. She recommended increasing bus lines and making the system more user-friendly.
Fawcett said that to be “the most beautiful place in the world,” Pittsburgh must be “a beacon of sustainability.” That includes creating a Department of Environmental Enforcement to uphold clean air and water laws. “Penalties and fines for polluters have been insufficient,” Fawcett noted, adding that more had to be done to keep these companies clean.
Innamorato emphasized residents’ “constitutional right to clean air and clean water.” She wants to “hold big polluters accountable” without encouraging a “pay-to-pollute model.” Pollution from Mon Valley was one of Innamorato’s biggest concerns, but she said the region could reinvent itself to include “the greenest steel manufacturing facility in the world.” Innamorato also discussed how good air quality intersects with lower energy use and affordable housing.
Lamb acknowledged that the impacts of poor air quality disproportionately affect kids of color. He promised to hold large corporations accountable and that “remedying this situation creates good jobs.” Those jobs could be staffed by graduates from Lamb’s free community college proposal, he said.
Bennett said the county needs to reevaluate its process and relationship with the Allegheny Health Department, adding that fines haven’t prevented large corporations from polluting.
Weinstein addressed a different concern. “With my relationships with the business community, I’ve talked to people in the tech industry, and they have a hard time recruiting people to come to Pittsburgh, because of the air quality,” he observed. He also discussed the importance of indoor air quality. Weinstein said clean air in schools and other public spaces is critical and can be implemented with infrastructure repairs.
“I believe in taking care of the people and taking care of the planet,” Parker said. “It’s not only gasses that we’re inhaling, it’s racism that we’re inhaling. It’s systemic barriers that we’re inhaling, it’s jealousy that we’re inhaling, and as a Black man, it feels as if sometimes I can’t breathe out there.”
All candidates said they would not support an expansion of fracking.
Shuman Juvenile Detention Center
The Shuman Juvenile Detention Center lost its license and closed its doors in 2021. Candidates were asked if they’d support its reopening, what that process would look like, and if private organizations should be involved.
“You can do juvenile justice without having children get hurt,” McClelland said. She noted that the county’s choice to shut down the center was a mistake and could have been an opportunity to conduct an overhaul of the space and its standards. On privatization, McClelland was firm: “I will never, ever, ever stand to see anything privatized; it takes power from the people.”
Lamb — and all other candidates — agreed that there should be no privatization when it comes to the detention center. “Private means profit, and we’re not going to profit off of kids’ misfortune,” he said. Fawcett agreed.
Bennett noted that without the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center, there isn’t a place to send minors. “Juveniles who have been placed on electronic monitoring … have not adhered to that. Some of them are actually removing electronic monitoring and going out because they know that there’s no place to put them.” Bennett said this place needs to be humane and rehabilitative.
Parker denounced the prospect of reopening the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. He said it would invite a quota targeting kids of color. Instead, he wants to increase recreational opportunities. “Pittsburgh has no skating rink,” he said as an example. “We have to work on getting recreation for our children.”
Weinstein supported reopening the detention center. He said it needs a renovation, new leadership, and a plan to “make it an educational resource center” where “they’re going to be taught about right and wrong.” He added that “something is definitely wrong with a 14-year-old boy that shot a 17-year-old at Carrick just a couple of days ago.” Williams said instead of being at Shuman, the boy “took his own ankle bracelet off, went outside and shot another teenager.” The teen wore his ankle bracelet during the shooting, although there have been instances of other teens removing them.
Supporting Unhoused People
Bennett and Innamorato advocated for more facilities like Second Avenue Commons and more resources to find and expand affordable housing. Innamorato emphasized a “preventative approach,” including quality schools and youth programs.
“We don’t have good operational integrity,” McClelland said of her work at the Department of Human Services. “We’re being investigated by the Department of Justice for racial discrimination because of an [AI system] we put in place — that was ridiculous, by the way — but we put it in there because of an overburdened system, and it was discriminating against people of color in CYF screenings.” According to McClelland, the county pays too much money hiring outside firms to tell them they’re in the wrong instead of putting that money toward improving the system itself.
Parker said the county should invest in more shelters and mental health treatment.
Lamb promised to increase funding for low-barrier housing and added that his community college plan would provide a supervised case worker certificate. “People who are already out in the community, doing great social but but don’t have the credentials, a caseworker can get that certificate,” he said.
Moderator Heidi Norman asked candidates what their “big, audacious goal as County Executive” would be. “Your legacy, your impact in the region 20, 30, 50 years in the future.” This is what candidates said:
Weinstein: Revitalizing the region.
Parker: Diversity, the economy, and technology.
McClelland: A zero-harm environment.
Lamb: Free community college for every high school graduate of Allegheny County.
Innamorato: Ensuring none of our neighbors are left behind.
Fawcett: Increasing jobs that are being outsourced and improving sustainability.
Bennett: Equality and equity.