Cries of celebration echoed around the industrial interior of The Foundry on the North Shore as chief public defender Matt Dugan walked up to his own watch party with 55% of the county’s votes for district attorney in the Democratic primary.
With nearly all precincts reporting, Dugan held to an 11% lead over incumbent county District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr., with 92,399 votes to Zappala’s 73,584.
Dugan told the Union Progress he was at a loss for words when notified of his victory.
“It’s humbling,” he said. “I’ve worked in this justice system for so long, and I’ve represented thousands of folks, and I’ve dedicated my career to attempting to reform this system. And I knew that reform would really only come when we had a change in leadership at the district attorney’s office.”
He called the win consistent with what he’s seen on the campaign trail.
“Voters were really embracing our calls for reform, our calls for safely and responsibly diverting low-level folks out of the criminal justice system, so we can focus on the prosecution of violent crime when it does occur,” he said.
It’s possible that Tuesday’s primary was only the first of two times that Dugan and Zappala will face off at the ballot box, thanks to nearly 12,000 Republicans writing in a candidate for district attorney. County officials will tally those results over the next week or two and, if Zappala were to have a majority, he could choose to accept or decline the party’s endorsement.
Dugan said he thinks voters understood that they were not likely to get anything different with a seventh term from Zappala, and was less focused on what a potential November rematch could look like.
“I think with seeing the uptick in crime over the last three years … and not hearing anything different, folks were ready to do something different, and I think we offer sensible and responsible reform, and folks just really latched on to it,” he said.
Dugan said he plans to bring transparency and open dialogue back to the DA’s office, along with relationships and partnerships in the community.
Zappala has served since 1998 as Allegheny County’s district attorney, after he was appointed to replace Robert Colville, who left to become a judge on the Court of Common Pleas.
In the years that followed, Zappala, of Fox Chapel, has held onto the DA position, continuing to win election after election. In 2019, Zappala saw victory over challenger Turahn Jenkins, a former chief deputy director for the county’s public defender’s office, with 59% of the vote.
The district attorney serves for four years and is responsible for prosecuting both local ordinances and state law violations in the county. As Allegheny County’s chief law enforcement officer, the DA also decides which cases are brought to court or dismissed.
Dugan’s career in the public defender’s office spans 16 years since he began as a trial attorney in 2007. In 2020, he became chief public defender after moving upward through the office. Dugan, of Moon, picked up endorsements from the county Democratic Party, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and elected officials including Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and U.S. Rep. Summer Lee.
Zappala received endorsements from the Allegheny-Fayette Central Labor Council, Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council and various other union locals.
The new kid
Dugan pointed to the work he’s done as chief public defender, such as launching Project Reset, which provides expungements to former clients for free. Since moving into a managerial role, he has noticed “a lot of systemwide work” needs to be done. After seeing what a well-run and well-resourced campaign could do in 2019, Dugan wanted to be involved in the conversation of who could beat and potentially unseat Zappala.
Dugan said he plans on using the connections he’s made in the public defender’s office, if elected DA.
“I know that any reform that we bring to the district attorney’s office is going to have to have the buy-in of police and the county executive and the mayor and lawmakers in Harrisburg,” he said. “I’ve been describing an all-hands-on-deck exercise to really get the criminal justice system to where we need it to be, it’s just building on those existing partnerships that I have in the PD’S office.”
With crime on the rise, both locally and nationally, voters are looking to the DA’s office to address the issue and appropriately prosecute perpetrators.
Dugan said voters showed Tuesday that they aren’t happy with how Zappala’s office is handling the situation.
“They’re not hearing anything other than the arrest, prosecute, punish model,” he said. “Folks really get behind the idea of connecting low-level nonviolent folks to services to treatment opportunities, and giving them the opportunity to resolve these matters outside of the criminal justice system without the lifelong burden or scar of a criminal record.”
Zappala’s office is “not any good” at prosecuting violent crime when it actually does happen, according to Dugan, because resources are used to move thousands of nonviolent crimes through the system.
Partnerships and strategies to prevent violent crime by disrupting the cycle were at the forefront of Dugan’s campaign. Though he promised to prosecute violent crime aggressively and competently, Dugan said he also wants to invest in neighborhoods and in violence prevention programs to think differently about the purpose and scope of the criminal justice system.
According to Dugan, there’s been an appetite for reform since 2019 within the county. He mentioned wins notched by younger, more progressive politicians such as Lee, Gainey and state Reps. Sara Innamorato, Emily Kinkead and Jessica Benham.
“I think the Democratic electorate is ready for change and ready to move things forward,” Dugan said.
The old guard
However, Zappala’s campaign has criticized Dugan’s lax attitude toward prosecuting crime.
“It’s one thing to give somebody a second chance, but should they get a third chance, a fourth chance?” Mike Mikus, spokesperson for Zappala, told the Union Progress.
“We have seen district attorneys who share Matt Dugan’s philosophy where they’ve taken office. We’ve seen increases in crime, especially in violent crime. We’ve seen prosecutions go down, and that’s why it’s so important that you have somebody like Steve Zappala as district attorney — somebody who believes in reform and giving people second chances but understands that there needs to be a balance and that his top priority should be to keep people safe.”
Mikus said Zappala has continuously won reelection because the DA understands that the process of fighting crime continues to evolve, whether it’s securing funding for body cameras and convincing police departments to use such cameras or installing cameras throughout the county to help police apprehend those who have committed crimes.
“The reason he’s been elected time and time again is because voters see him as somebody who’s compassionate when it comes to reforming the system, but at the same time, he’s very serious and innovative in terms of tackling crime,” Mikus said.
What voters said
Zappala’s more than two decades in office seemed to split voters. While some recognize and trust the name, others believe it’s time for someone new.
John Arch, a Democrat who works as a lawyer, hoped Zappala would beat Dugan.
“I’ve known Steve Zappala for many years,” Arch said. He was, however, “disappointed” in some of Zappala’s campaign advertisements, particularly the “bad mouth” of conservatives and anti-abortion people.
Arch took issue with Dugan’s progressive leanings and the donations Dugan’s campaign received from liberal mega-donor George Soros.
“His opponent is funded by George Soros, and I like that much less. The far-left wing is screwing up the country,” Arch said.
Upper St. Clair’s Lori Cherup said, “I believe Steve Zappala knows what he’s doing,” and that his staff does, too. “I don’t think Dugan starting over again is going to help the situation.”
In Moon, Sandra Gould said Zappala is “too set in his ways” and “doesn’t make any changes.”
For Pati Blaney, of Squirrel Hill, Dugan would be a welcome change from Zappala. Blaney said she blames Zappala for heading a criminal justice system that mistreats young people of color in the county.
“They’re criminalizing the youth,” Blaney said. “They’re programming them from being young teens that somebody is against them, somebody is going to get them.”
Union Progress writer Bob Batz Jr., Andrew Goldstein and Harrison Hamm contributed reporting.
Hannah is a reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Email her firstname.lastname@example.org.