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Zappala defends record as independent challenger divides old party loyalties
Voters across Allegheny County are being asked to "skip the straight ticket" and cast ballots on Tuesday for independent candidates.
Countywide, the highest-profile race is for Allegheny County district attorney, where independent Lisa Middleman is challenging five-term incumbent Stephen Zappala Jr.
No federal or statewide offices are on the ballot this year, but voters also are being asked whether the state constitution should be amended to add a so-called "victim's rights" clause known as "Marsy's Law."
The race for Allegheny County District Attorney has caused rifts in the local Democratic party, where longtime incumbent Zappala, 62, is being challenged by former public defender and defense attorney Middleman, 57.
Zappala, who first took office in 1998, won the Democratic primary in May when he defeated Turahn Jenkins. It was Zappala's first primary challenge in 20 years.
Zappala, who was crossfiled, also won the Republican primary.
Following Zappala's victory, Middleman, who had worked for Jenkins in the primary, jumped into the race as an independent.
Middleman, 57, is running as a progressive and claims that Zappala has prioritized arrests of low-level drug dealers over prosecutions of white-collar criminals and police officers accused of wrongdoing.
She accuses Zappala's office of "over-charging" defendants unnecessarily in an attempt to coerce them into pleading guilty to a lesser crime.
Middleman is calling for increased police accountability, a white-collar crimes unit, and fighting what she calls discriminatory policing against Black residents and other minorities, including the LGBTQ community.
If elected, she vows to end the practice of cash bail, which Middleman argues results in a high percentage of low-income people who are arrested for minor crimes being unable to afford bond while they await trial.
Middleman also wants the DA's office to begin compiling data on racial disparities in arrests, bail, charges filed by prosecutors and sentencing.
Zappala has defended his record, saying that the total population in the Allegheny County Jail has actually decreased over the past 10 years, as drug offenders are increasingly routed into substance-abuse treatment programs, rather than incarceration.
His says his office uses 11 different diversionary programs to keep people with drug and alcohol problems and mental health issues out of the criminal justice system.
Zappala says his office has greatly reduced requests for cash bail and that he has petitioned the state Supreme Court to reform rules on bond to "keep low-income defendants and their families out of life-altering debt."
Under his administration, Zappala says the DA's office has worked to hold police departments accountable by encouraging all of the county's law-enforcement officers to adopt the use of body cameras and says civil rights are important to him.
"I chose a career in public service because I strongly believe in the fight for equality and justice for all, whenever and wherever those rights are disregarded or violated," he says.
The race has caused divided loyalties among Democrats. Zappala, a longtime Democrat, is the endorsed Democratic candidate who has the official support of party leaders.
But he's also picked up support from former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, and Zappala was criticized after his son was spotted at a rally for President Trump.
Middleman has the support of many more liberal Democrats, including Bethany Hallam, who is running for one of two "at-large" seats on Allegheny County Council.
Allegheny County Chief Executive
Allegheny County voters also will be deciding whether to replace Democratic incumbent Rich Fitzgerald as the county's chief executive with Republican challenger Matt Drozd.
Drozd served two terms as a Republican county councilman from Ross Twp. in Pittsburgh's North Hills. Fitzgerald, of Pittsburgh, is seeking his third term as county executive.
Allegheny County Controller
Also on the county ballot is the office of controller, where Brooke Nadonley, a Republican from Pittsburgh's Mt. Washington neighborhood, is challenging Democratic incumbent Chelsa Wagner.
Nadonley ran a successful write-in campaign in May to capture the Republican primary.
Originally published November 04, 2019.