Why Mayor Kenney’s Endorsement of Steve Zappala Matters

Stephen Zappala is Johnny Doc's candidate in the Attorney General's race.

L: Steve Zappala R: Jim Kenney | Photos by Matt Rourke/AP and Jeff Fusco

L: Steve Zappala R: Jim Kenney | Photos by Matt Rourke/AP and Jeff Fusco

This news had political insiders buzzing on Friday: Mayor Jim Kenney announced that he is backing Allegheny County District Attorney Steve Zappala in the Attorney General’s race.

“Steve’s record of taking illegal guns off the street, combating violence against women, and fighting wrongful convictions and bias in the justice system makes him the clear choice,” Kenney said in a statement. “Steve has also protected our tax dollars by convicting politicians when they have crossed the line.”

Also on Friday, Zappala campaign released an advertisement that features Kenney and state Sen. Tony Williams, who ran against each other in last year’s mayoral primary.

“When we ran for mayor, we didn’t agree on everything,” Williams says in the ad.

“I’ll say,” Kenney jokes.

“Now, we agree on some really important things,” Williams continues, going on to say that (surprise!) they agree that Zappala should be Attorney General.

Kenney’s endorsement of Zappala is noteworthy for a few different reasons. John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, the all-powerful leader of the city’s building trades, is backing Zappala in the A.G.’s race. Doc, of course, decisively supported Kenney in the mayor’s race. So this endorsement will be interpreted by some as a partial repayment of Kenney’s political debt to Dougherty, and a sign that their alliance continues to be strong (or, put another way, that Doc has a lot of sway over the mayor).

It’s also intriguing that Kenney is breaking with Council President Darrell Clarke, who, along with eight other Council members, has endorsed Montgomery County Commission Chairman Josh Shapiro for Attorney General — particularly since Kenney is in the midst of trying to persuade Council to approve a soda tax in order to fund expanded pre-K and some of his other campaign promises. The tax is being strongly opposed by the well-funded soda industry.

Zappala himself has won the endorsement of a handful of Council members, including Doc ally Bobby Henon, as well as the United Ward Leaders of Color.

Zappala has also attracted controversy in Philadelphia: A number of African-American pastors and community leaders here held a press conference last month to decry one of his TV ads that featured images of Sandra Bland and Walter Scott. “We are sensitive about the images of black suffering — the Black Lives Matter movement has been very profound — and we think images of people being shot in South Carolina and in Texas should really be [the] third rail in a political ad,” said Rev. Marshall Mitchell.

A spokesman for Zappala’s campaign said in responses that, “because of [Zappala’s] leadership and unbending commitment to fairness and equal justice, Pittsburgh has not experienced the kinds of community upheaval that resulted in other cities from Chicago to Ferguson, Missouri, to Miami Gardens, Florida.”

Follow @hollyotterbein on Twitter.