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May 16 Elections: Key Races In the Keystone State

Fighting the Frackers and Coal Barons

It is Election Day in the Keystone State. Voters in the pivotal swing state of Pennsylvania are casting ballots for a number of local offices that have profound implications for the climate. Hill Heat takes a look in this continuation of our series on 2023 elections.

Philadelphia Mayor

The crowded race to lead America’s sixth largest city is wide open, and could plausibly be won by five candidates. One is former Councilmember Cherelle Parker, who has drawn a ton of support from labor organizations and elected officials. Former city controller Rebecca Rhynhart is another popular establishment pick, and she is supported by her former boss Michael Nutter as well as several other previous mayors. Then there are a pair of rich guys: Jeff Brown owns the supermarket chain ShopRite, wants you to think that the Obamas have endorsed him, and has generated controversy from offensive debate comments and alleged Super PAC coordination aimed at building a new stadium for Philly’s NBA team. Meanwhile, “condo king” Allan Domb has spent $10 million of his own money on ads promoting tough talk on crime.

Progressive favorite Helen Gym

But far and away the progressive favorite is former Councilmember Helen Gym. Gym won national recognition for organizing against school privatization, and has deftly navigated public safety issues during a campaign where that has been a major theme. In recent days, she has appeared alongside Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) to discuss her plans for a Green New Deal for Philadelphia, including a proposal to invest heavily in the modernization of school facilities. Gym has been endorsed by national and local Green New Deal champions from Sanders and AOC to state senator Nikil Saval,1 and also by climate organizations including the Sunrise Movement and Sierra Club.

It has becomes clear Gym has a legitimate shot at winning, so forces have mobilized to stop her. Billionaire Jeff Yass, the tax-evading founder of a complex financial firm that specializes in high-frequency trading and cryptocurrency, has been secretly funding a PAC to attack her. Yass is one of the biggest donors to the Club for Growth, an influential electoral outfit responsible for accelerating Republican extremism.2

Allegheny County Executive

Allegheny County, surrounding Pittsburgh, holds 1.2 million Pennsylvanians and manages a $3 billion budget. After 12 years in office, outgoing Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald had his first veto overridden only last year when he tried to block a fracking ban from going into effect.

State Rep. Sara Innamorato rallies against petrochemical subsidy legislation in 2020.

The candidate most likely to reflect change from Fitzgerald’s position and exercise vigilance over fracking in this county is state representative Sara Innamorato. After winning election in 2018 over a conservative Democrat and member of a Pittsburgh political dynasty, Innamorato led efforts to regulate fracking and repeal exemptions from wastewater management laws that the oil and gas industry has enjoyed for decades. For that work, Innamorato has won support from Lead Locally, Sunrise Movement Pittsburgh, Conservation Voters PA, Food and Water Action, and Jane Fonda’s Climate PAC. She is also endorsed by several elected officials, including Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Rep. Summer Lee, her two most well-known allies in the progressive renaissance that has taken place in Pittsburgh over the past few cycles.

Though she trailed in the money race and initial polls, Innamorato utilized a very detailed “red box” to guide independent expenditures about which messages would be effective.3 Outside support has indeed come in from the Working Families Party, helping Innamoroto secure a polling lead. This has led to a complete meltdown from Innamoroto’s opponents, County Treasurer John Weinstein and City Controller Michael Lamb. Weinstein has released an attack ad warning that “Socialist Sara” will “destroy our country.”

Weinstein’s single biggest donor is a western PA coal magnate named James Clifford Forrest III. Rosebud has escaped accountability for a damaging 2014 chemical spill, in part through Forrest’s considerable political activity, which included a $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural committee, and a smattering of campaign money to congressional Republicans throughout central Appalachia. Forrest does not give exclusively to Republicans, however, as he has also given repeatedly to the BlueDog PAC and to right-wing Democrats such as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-Coal).

Lamb has received substantial financial backing from Stephen Frobouck, a fracking executive who paid for an expensive flight so that former Pennsylvania state house speaker Mike Turzai, an industry-friendly politician committed to extending fracking’s presence in Pennsylvania, could tour a plant that Frobouck claimed is “turning pollution into gold.”

PA-HD 163 special election

The 2022 elections were the first Pennsylvania legislative elections in decades to take place using fairly drawn maps, and Democrats unexpectedly picked up a one-seat majority in the state House.4 In February, after months of delay, Democrat Joanna McClinton became the first Black woman to serve as speaker. The 2024 elections are expected to be competitive, and Democrats will attempt to win the state senate and secure a trifecta in Pennsylvania, one of only two states nationally where control over the legislative chambers is currently divided.

Democrats will need to hold the state house first, though. The resignation of Democratic representative Michael Zabel has triggered a special election for the 163rd district, a nominally Dem-leaning seat based in Delaware County. The Republicans are running military veteran Katie Ford, while the Democratic candidate is Upper Darby teacher and former congressional staffer Heather Boyd. Democratic governor Josh Shapiro has cut an ad for Boyd, and money from both parties is flooding in to try to influence this race for control of the state house.

The last time that Democrats controlled the state house, there was a failed attempt to at least enact a tax on fracking pollution during the waning days of Ed Rendell’s governorship. After Republicans solidified control of both chambers following the 2010 elections, the fracking industry dominated the legislature, including passage last year of a cap on the bonds that oil and gas companies have to pay to drill wells in Pennsylvania. Unless that cap is lifted, Pennsylvania may miss out on millions of dollars in federal well-plugging funds that were approved through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. (The $25 million that Pennsylvania has received so far is wholly inadequate to address the scope of the problem: hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells leaking methane pollution throughout the state.)

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A Look Past Pennsylvania

A few other races of interest to climate hawks:

  • As we wrote last week, Republicans in Kentucky will choose their nominee to go up against governor Andy Beshear, a popular incumbent, but a Democrat in Kentucky nonetheless. The major contenders are Attorney General and Mitch McConnell loyalist Daniel Cameron; coal billionaire and former Trump Ambassador Kelly Craft; and Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.

  • There are also mayoral elections in Jacksonville, Florida, where Sierra Club-endorsed Democrat Donna Deegan is looking to end the city’s status as the largest in America with a Republican mayor.

  • In Colorado Springs, Climate Cabinet-endorsed religious and business leader Yemi Mobolade is facing a mayoral runoff against Republican Councilmember Wayne Williams.

Be sure to check out the full preview of today’s races from Daily Kos Elections, and Hill Heat’s preview of today’s Congressional hearings.

Hearings on the Hill:

1 As highlighted on the Left Anchor podcast, Saval was able to work with a Republican-controlled legislature last year to win $125 million for his Whole Home Repairs program, which will provide grants for housing weatherization.

3 A “red box” is campaign jargon for publishing opposition research and messaging guidance that you want outside groups to deploy against your opponent(s). Its use by progressives has been debated. It was used successfully by corporate interests to propel Rep. Shontel Brown over progressive Nina Turner, but it was also used by the left to help Rep. Jamaal Bowman defeat incumbent Eliot Engel.

4 Though the legislative maps used in 2022 were drawn by a bipartisan commission with an independent chair, a key factor in making Pennsylvania’s congressional maps more competitive than the ones used after the 2011 gerrymandering was Democrats winning a majority on the state Supreme Court. There are also elections today for PA Supreme Court.

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