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Cherepko Faces Two Challengers for Re-Election

Campaign for Democratic nomination has included intrigue, social-media controversy

By Tom Leturgey
The Tube City Almanac
May 14, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News, Politics & Elections

The race for mayor of McKeesport has a great deal of intrigue, as voters will report to polling places in just a few days.

In many races throughout Allegheny County, including the race for mayor of McKeesport, there are no official Republican challengers. Barring a successful write-in campaign during November’s election, the winner of the primary will be sworn in as mayor.

McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko, 46, has been in office since 2012 and is hoping to secure the Democratic nomination on Tuesday. The Penn State University graduate was a fifth-grade teacher in the district before becoming an elected official. He touts his “Working Together for a Better McKeesport” as a successful motto.

In this year’s Democratic primary he faces two challengers who both emphasize their “outsider” status, Joe Lopretto, 58, a retired McKeesport police officer, and Corry Sanders, 52, a church deacon, barber and business owner.

All three candidates received an questionnaire with identical questions. In addition, reporter Tom Leturgey called Lopretto and Sanders on May 2 and May 12, and sent questionnaires to Sanders and Lopretto via their official Facebook pages.

Lopretto and Sanders did not respond to Leturgey’s phone messages or Facebook messages, though both have been using Facebook to share their campaign statements and positions.

McKeesport has about 17,700 residents as of the 2020 census.

Michael Cherepko: Mayor calls himself ‘fully invested’ in city’s recovery

In his last re-election in November 2019, Cherepko defeated independent Fawn Walker-Montgomery by roughly 65 to 35 percent.

Supporters have credited Cherepko for a number of positive accomplishments during his time in office, including demolition of hundreds of vacant houses, and creation of a six-year neighborhood partnership program, dubbed “McKeesport Rising,” with the Pennsylvania Department of Community Economic & Development to remove blight and stabilize neighborhoods.

The blight removal has also included the McKeesport Downtown business district, and the razing of the former G.C. Murphy Co. office and vacant storefronts.

Supporters also have credited Cherepko for his leadership following the fatal shooting of McKeesport police Officer Sean Sluganski on Feb. 6. In an open letter to residents, Cherepko wrote: “Officer Sluganski loved our community, too. His family knew McKeesport is a special place because of how Sean spoke about all of us. He loved serving this City and being a part of our community. 

“Your incredible support allowed the Sluganski family to see firsthand just how special our community is,” the mayor continued. “The members of the Sluganski family are now honorary McKeesporters, by their own description. They have McKeesport in their hearts, just as we have them in ours.”

In his responses to Tube City Almanac’s questions, Cherepko said, “I am fully invested in the McKeesport Rising initiative and the logic that brought it to light.”

“Over the past five years, the McKeesport Rising project has allowed my administration to improve the quality of life for all McKeesporters — utilizing various revenue sources and opportunities to carry out improvements in infrastructure, neighborhood preservation, public safety, and economic development. It is a multi-faceted plan that approaches community development through these areas.

“We are preserving neighborhoods through demolition and home improvement, improving infrastructure through paving, advancing public safety through technology and outreach, recruiting local businesses, and increasing recreational opportunities,” Cherepko said.

He continued: “Through the public works and police departments, we made equipment purchases, including vehicles, machines, and advanced technology. Through community development, demolition contracts have allowed for the removal of more than 400 blighted structures, and nearly 300 more were placed under contract in 2022. This translates to better living conditions that have boosted the sense of morale throughout McKeesport’s 12 wards, and the improvements aren’t limited to neighborhoods.”

The “McKeesport Rising” project has included a partnership with a non-profit organization, Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, to renovate owner-occupied homes for low-income residents. According to its website, RTP has completed 3,500 home repairs in 24 Allegheny County communities, including McKeesport.

During Cherepko’s time in office, Allegheny County Regional Asset District — or RAD — money has been increased for Renziehausen Park, and some $2.3 million from PennDOT has been secured to re-route the Great Allegheny Passage bike trail and renovate the Lysle Boulevard parking garage.

“Progress can be seen throughout our business districts and in our parks,” Cherepko said. “We are in the process of reviving neighborhood playgrounds and making significant improvements to Renziehausen Park’s many amenities. This year, crews have been working on the Lions Bandshell, Jimmy Long Field, dek hockey courts, and stormwater drainage along the walking trails and throughout the park.”

Cherepko also worked with Lt. Gov. Austin Davis — who was then a state representative — and state Sen. Jim Brewster to help rescue the LaRosa Boys & Girls Club. The mayor also has attended the crime-prevention community meetings hosted by the McKeesport unit of the NAACP.

“I have been working tirelessly with the McKeesport Police Department, the NAACP, and field experts in regional law enforcement agencies, the Healthy Village Learning Institute, the University of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Department of Human Services, and more in effort to curb society’s addiction to crime and violence,” he said.

Joe Lopretto: Candidate says city needs a ‘change’

Joe Lopretto, 58, is a 16-year member of the McKeesport Area School Board and a retired police lieutenant who is running for mayor. Much of his campaign of “change” is operated via social media.

Lopretto also has been campaigning at major intersections in the city, including through the use of a mobile billboard truck.

Lopretto did not return phone calls seeking comment on May 2 or May 12. The identical questionnaire offered to Cherepko was offered to Lopretto via Facebook Messenger.

Lopretto is also a candidate for McKeesport Area School Board.

In messages posted on Facebook, Lopretto says that McKeesport needs new leadership, and he has been critical of those who have been in office for a long time.

As a police officer, Lopretto says he was involved in programs benefiting children, such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) and the Junior Police Academy. He also participated in a Senior Police Academy for senior citizens in the city. He says his experience in law enforcement is what would make him more effective in fighting crime in McKeesport.

He told the Mon Valley Independent: “If you want a safer community, then elect someone who has a policing background. I am the only candidate with that experience. And I’m the only candidate who has served the city for over 23 years.”

In a recent Facebook post, Lopretto wrote that he filed a right-to-know request seeking names and salaries for all city employees, but was rebuffed by the city solicitor and administrator.

He believes that city funds have been squandered in a variety of ways. Lopretto has criticized Cherepko’s use of a city-owned car and says that he would forgo city-financed vehicles and would drive his own to work.

He told the Mon Valley Independent, “I’ll make sure every street is paved. And I will save the taxpayers money from day one.”

Lopretto alleges that his campaign signs have been stolen by political enemies or damaged by city work crews. His social media posts show Lopretto out in the community at firefighter fundraisers and McKeesport school activities.

Lopretto calls himself empathetic and outspoken, and says he wants to work to make McKeesport more attractive to businesses and families.

Corry Sanders: Says his goal is ‘changing and improving my community’

Corry Sanders, 52, is a deacon, barber and business owner who graduated from McKeesport Area High School in 1989.

Sanders did not return phone messages left on May 2 and May 12. The identical questionnaire offered to Cherepko was also offered to Sanders via Facebook Messenger. The message was not answered.

Sanders, the only Black candidate in the race, says his years of working and raising a family in the community allows him to see McKeesport and its challenges in a different light. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, McKeesport is about 53 percent white, 38 percent Black or African American, and 6 percent mixed-race.

Sanders is popular and outspoken and in 2016 won a seat on McKeesport City Council, but an Allegheny County judge ruled that he was ineligible to serve due to a 1993 drug conviction.

Sanders continued to work in his barber shop and volunteer at his church. 

Following a successful appeal to the state pardon board and the efforts of then-Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and others, Sanders was pardoned by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019.

He told the Mon Valley Independent: “I am an active member and deacon at my church. I’m a husband of 17 years and father of five. I’m a barber by trade. I’ve served in many capacities within the field.”

He continued: “I am no stranger to my community. A lifelong resident of McKeesport, I have sat on different business boards throughout the years. Politics was never a goal, however. Changing and improving my community is.

Sanders said he has seen the city’s decline first hand. He told the Mon Valley Independent that his three primary areas of concern are “community development, building the police department and streamlining the city budget.”

He said he wants more governmental transparency, would like more accountability — including a citizens’ police review board — and to hire more police officers. Like Lopretto, he also wants to cut what he calls unnecessary spending.

In recent weeks, Sanders has posted at least two campaign videos on social media touting his community involvement, along with photos promoting his students graduating from barber school.

Cherepko and Sanders have had public disagreements. In September of last year, the two had a tense exchange during a McKeesport City Council meeting.

Cherepko was dismissive off Sanders’ inquiries, saying “people do not understand how government works” and argued that Sanders talked about issues “based on no facts whatsoever.” Sanders retorted, “I’m not the mayor — yet.” Cherepko asked a police officer to remove Sanders from the podium, but he was allowed to stay for the rest of the meeting.

Less than two weeks later, Sanders was arrested and charged by the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General on new narcotics charges, in connection with what then-Attorney General Josh Shapiro called a “major drug trafficking operation” that investigators allege was headed by Curtis M. Harper Jr., 52, of McKeesport.

Sanders is charged by the state attorney general’s office with two counts each of drug possession, possession with intent to deliver and delivery. Investigators allege that Sanders sold cocaine to a confidential informant on two separate occasions in November 2022.

According to court records, he was formally arraigned on the charges on April 18 and faces a pre-trial conference May 26 before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Alexander P. Bicket.

Sanders maintains his innocence and says that the charges are politically motivated.

Like Lopretto, Sanders also accuses political opponents of stealing or knocking down his campaign signs, including a banner on Eden Park Boulevard.

Tom Leturgey is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh and the editor of KSWA Digest, the online news and features home of the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance. He usually covers the City of Duquesne for Tube City Almanac and was asked to write this story because he does not know any of the candidates.

Leturgey’s work also appears in The Valley Mirror and other publications.

Originally published May 14, 2023.

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