In the weeks leading up to Allegheny County’s municipal primary elections in May, the ACLU of Pennsylvania partnered with a number of community groups for a candidate forum intended to give the public an opportunity to hear from District Attorney Stephen Zappala and challenger Turahn Jenkins.
The event was an opportunity for Mr. Zappala and Mr. Jenkins to share their respective visions for how best to reform criminal law in Allegheny County, from the use of cash bail to prosecuting police violence to making the DA’s office more transparent to the public.
Mr. Jenkins attended the event. Mr. Zappala did not.
Asked by local media why he did not attend the forum and meet with voters, Zappala singled out the ACLU of Pennsylvania, saying, “I’m not interested in talking politics with the ACLU or socialists.” Mr. Zappala went on to say that he would only be interested in debating his challenger in a “legitimate forum,” like one organized by the League of Women Voters.
Six months later, with Election Day less than a month away and with Mr. Zappala facing another challenger, Lisa Middleman, the ACLU of Pennsylvania has again teamed up with community groups to host a candidate forum and give the public a chance to hear from both Mr. Zappala and Ms. Middleman. The group leading the organization of this forum? The League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh.
Alongside Pittsburgh UNITED, the Black Political Empowerment Project, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania, each candidate was given ample time to consider the invitation to meet with voters. As of today, Ms. Middleman has confirmed that she will attend the forum. Mr. Zappala has made clear that he has no intention of doing so.
It’s unclear why Mr. Zappala has such antipathy for engaging with his constituents. But we have a few guesses.
Perhaps Mr. Zappala still has no answer for why his office didn’t call a use of force expert in the murder trial of Officer Michael Rosfeld, who was ultimately acquitted in the killing of Antwon Rose II.
Maybe Mr. Zappala is nervous that he will have to defend the fact that 81% of the population of Allegheny County Jail has not been convicted of any crime. Mr. Zappala has made assurances that he is committed to reducing the use of cash bail and pretrial detention, yet his solutions consistently miss the mark.
Mr. Zappala may also want to avoid conversations about why the population of Allegheny County Jail is 60% Black, even as the population of Allegheny County is only 13.4% Black.
Or, it’s possible that Mr. Zappala was well-aware that a news story was about to break regarding his office’s incarceration of four innocent teenagers for over a year for a crime that there was clear evidence that they did not commit. When pressed by reporters as to who was to blame, Zappala said that the wrongful detention was “… my responsibility, I guess.”
Mr. Zappala positions himself as a criminal justice reformer committed to reducing incarceration in Allegheny County. His record demonstrates otherwise.
We are disappointed that Mr. Zappala has again declined to participate in a debate regarding his record, despite promising to do so should the League of Women Voters organize that debate. A healthy democracy depends on open and transparent discussion of the issues facing the community which a candidate hopes to represent.
It is not Mr. Zappala’s prerogative to pick and choose when he deigns to interact with voters. It’s his job and the job of any elected official. At the very least, Mr. Zappala owes his constituents an honest, public accounting of his office’s record.
By again refusing to attend a public forum ahead of Election Day, Mr. Zappala is robbing voters of that opportunity while injuring the democratic institutions of Allegheny County.
Danitra Sherman is the campaigns director at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
Tim Stevens is the chairman and CEO of the Black Political Empowerment Project.