A Bernie Sanders Progressive Could Be the Next Leader of One of America’s Largest Counties

A Bernie Sanders Progressive Could Be the Next Leader of One of America’s Largest Counties

A Bernie Sanders Progressive Could Be the Next Leader of One of America’s Largest Counties

Sara Innamorato, a progressive running with an economic, social, and racial justice agenda, is leading the race for Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County executive.

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Bernie Sanders started his career in elected office as the mayor of the largest city in Vermont. Though he eventually became a member of the US House, a US senator and, finally, a presidential contender whose 2016 and 2020 campaigns transformed debates about economic inequality in America, Sanders has always recognized that, while big policy decisions are made at the federal level and in the nation’s statehouses, the implementation of those policies takes place primarily at the local level. That’s one of the reasons Sanders has gone out of his way to make endorsements of progressives running in mayoral races and contests for county executive posts across the country.

In late March, Sanders flew to Chicago to rally thousands of activists in support of progressive Brandon Johnson’s uphill bid for mayor of that city. Johnson won, and was sworn in on Monday during a boisterous inaugural celebration that heard him declare, “We can lead Chicago to a new era together. We can build a better, stronger, safer Chicago. We just have to look deep into the soul of Chicago. Can I get a witness?”

But Sanders was already focused on a pair of contests in Pennsylvania. A good deal of attention was paid to the senator’s appearance with US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), in Philadelphia Sunday at a major rally for Helen Gym, a labor-backed candidate who is a top contender in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for mayor of America’s sixth-largest city. But Sanders has made an equally important endorsement in a hotly contested Democratic primary for the top post in a densely populated county on the other side of Pennsylvania.

Announcing his support for Pennsylvania state Representative Sara Innamorato in the race for Allegheny County executive, Sanders noted, “Sara has been a consistent advocate for affordable housing, clean air and water, and to raise wages.”

If she is elected as the top official in a county with a population of more than 1.2 million and 130 municipalities, including Pittsburgh, Innamorato argues that she can address all those issues. Indeed, she says, “With the power of the County Executive’s Office, we can ensure that the moneys and programs in our County get to the people who have been left behind and neglected by decades of government disinvestment.”

That’s been a theme of Innamorato’s campaign from the start. Elected to the Pennsylvania state House in 2018, along with another candidate backed by Democratic Socialists of America, now-US Representative. Summer Lee, Innamorato has emerged as one of the most outspoken and effective progressives in the legislature. But, she says, she wants to have a bigger impact. “We’ve worked really hard at the state House to advance racial, economic, and environmental justice initiatives,” the legislator explains. “But when it comes down to deploying them and making sure that the moneys and the programs get to the people who have been left behind, that really comes down to having control of the county exec’s office and the departments that are associated with it—because it’s a $3 billion budget. So it’s a lot of potential to make a lot of good in our community.”

If Innamorato wins the top job—and the latest polling puts her in the lead—she will be able to have a direct impact on fights that have been central to her public service: making housing affordable, improving air quality, reforming policing, and strengthening protections for working people and the unions that represent them. That’s one of the reasons she has earned endorsements not just from Sanders but also from Lee and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey, as well as dozens of local elected officials. She’s also backed by key labor groups in the region, including locals affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, the American Federation of Teachers, and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. The Pennsylvania Working Families Party is also a big backer of his campaign.

Those endorsements count for a lot in a county that has historically seen as a center of the labor movement, and that has a long tradition of voting Democratic in November elections.

As she has emerged as a front-runner, however, Innamorato has taken hits from supporters of her main rivals: Pittsburgh City Controller Michael Lamb and Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein. A Weinstein attack ad borrows a page from the Republican playbook and claims that “voters should fear Sara Innamorato”—whom the ad identifies as “Socialist Sara“—warning, “We can’t allow the failed progressive agenda that’s destroying our city to destroy our county.” A Lamb ad attacks her for the campaign support she’s received from unions.

For her part, Innamorato is staying focused on her progressive agenda and leaning into her endorsements, especially the one from Sanders. “Bernie’s campaign was really the first presidential campaign that I got involved in, in 2016. I really admired his consistency and his boldness to talk about issues that really speak to the needs and the hearts and the minds of the majority of Americans,” she says. “I’m just really proud to have his endorsement and to stand with him, yet again, in this pursuit of building a better world.”

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