Criminal Justice Reforms, Progressive Victories, and Other Takeaways From a Historic 2021 Pittsburgh Primary Election

Peduto, left, defeated by Gainey.

By Ryan Deto
Pittsburgh City Paper

History was made on May 18, 2021. Ed Gainey secured the Democratic nomination for Pittsburgh mayor, almost certain to become the city’s firstever Black mayor. He ran on progressive policies, and to the left of incumbent Mayor Bill Peduto on policing. He focused his campaign on racial and economic inequalities, promising to do more to address these glaring issues in the Steel City.

While this moment is truly historic for Pittsburgh — a city and region that are overwhelmingly white, and have many documented instances of racism against Black people — there are also several other impressive electoral wins that deserve recognition.

Criminal justice reforms

Pittsburgh voters overwhelmingly passed a ban on no-knock warrants for Pittsburgh Police officers. “Yes” on the ban secured more than 81% of the vote. This initiative was inspired by Breonna Taylor, who was shot five times and killed by police officers after police entered her apartment on a noknock warrant.

Allegheny County voters also approved a ballot initiative that would limit the use of solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail. A “yes” on that question received 69% of the vote.

Additionally, out of nine open seats for Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, voters selected five candidates who were endorsed by a coalition of criminaljustice reform groups. Common Pleas Judges are responsible for overseeing trials for criminal, civil, and family cases and delivering sentencing.

The coalition said back in March that electing these candidates would help move reforms like reducing the use of cash bail, increasing diversionary programs and alternatives to carceral punishment, and other mechanisms to combat mass incarceration and racial and other demographic disparities in the system.

There were also victories at the Magisterial District Judge level. The Magisterial District Judge court is directly below Common Pleas and is responsible for assigning bail conditions, deciding eviction cases, and is a defendant’s first introduction to the state’s criminal judicial system. In Lawrenceville, candidate Xander Orenstein narrowly defeated incumbent Anthony Ceoffe on a platform of being more compassionate in eviction cases and limiting cash bail. Orenstein, if they were to win the general election, would become the state’s first nonbinary magistrate judge.

Jehosha Wright also won his race for Magisterial District Judge in the North Side, after receiving the backing of some criminal justice reformminded politicians.

Progressive victories over incumbents

On top of celebrating Gainey’s victory, which many progressive advocates are boosting, there were a series of other wins in smaller races that portend more momentum for progressives in Pittsburgh.

In Mount Oliver, JoAnna Taylor ousted Mount Oliver Mayor Frank Bernardini, a conservative Democratic incumbent who was seen last year with Democratic Mount Oliver council member Nick Viglione, who was sporting a MAGA hat at a Allegheny County Democratic Committee meeting. State Rep. Jessica Benham (DSouth Side) also congratulated Lisa Pietrusza for winning a spot on Mount Oliver Council, and Jamie Piotrowski for winning her election for Pittsburgh Public Schools board member.

“I am so thrilled about the progressive movement we are building in South Pittsburgh JoAnna, Jamie, & Lisa represent the hard organizing work we are doing in areas that don’t get much progressive political attention,” tweeted Benham on May 19.

In Sharpsburg, progressive candidate Brittany Reno defeated councilor Joe Simbari in the borough’s mayoral race. Simbari was one of four councilors who initially opposed a LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinance for the town. And at least two council candidates who were endorsed by an LGBTQ group won seats on the borough’s council.

Abigail Gardner owns Scottie Public Affairs consultant group and has advised progressive candidates in the past. She says that this election is another sign that progressives are becoming attractive replacements to more typical conservative Democrats in the region.

“In these smaller municipalities, there is a ton of progressive energy and candidates with the ability to knock doors and win,” said Gardner. “I think there is more than enough data points from across the county, that any long term incumbent might be vulnerable to challengers and new voices are very successful.”

There were also some progressive win in McKees Rocks, West View, and elsewhere, but not all progressive candidates came up victorious. Bethani Cameron lost her race for Pittsburgh City Council, and Steve Singer lost his race for Allegheny County Council. Both ran to the left of incumbents who are more conservative.

Gardner says that some progressive losses show that not all districts are moving to the left, and that they still prefer conservative politicians, whether Democrat or Republicans. For instance, County Councilor Bob Macey (DWest Mifflin) held on in his Mon Valley district, which was actually carried by Donald Trump in 2020. And Pittsburgh City Councilor Anthony Coghill (DBeechview) represents arguably the city’s most conservative district in the South Hills.

Black women perform well

Apart from Gainey making history as a Black man winning the Democratic nomination for Pittsburgh mayor, Black women across Allegheny County performed extremely well this election cycle.

Black women won three of the nine open spots on the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, which are elected countywide. Women, both white and Black, were the top five vote getters for Common Pleas elections. Out of the nine seats available, only two white men were elected to a body that has historically been composed of white men.

Leah Williams Duncan won her Magisterial District Judge race and will become the county’s first Black woman Magisterial District Judge.

“Municipal races and judicial races, that show the strength of women and people of color, that were always the base of the Democratic party, they are flexing their muscle,” says Gardner. “And are showing how to better represent the face of the voters.

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