Welcome to our May 16, 2023 primary guide, Pittsburgh! Your ballot this election will look different depending on your party affiliation (or lack thereof) because of our closed primary system. Ballotpedia’s Sample Ballot Tool is a good way to see what yours will look like. City Paper and WESA already have election guides ready for more depth on each race, and each of the candidate’s names below will link directly to their campaign websites or policy platforms when possible. We’ve tried to list candidates in the order in which they’ll appear. Away we go!
🗳️ State judicial races
A death, a promotion and retirements mean there are several vacancies for statewide seats on the bench. The Supreme, Commonwealth and Superior Courts issue some of Pennsylvania’s most important rulings, including recent decisions on partisan gerrymandering and school funding.
PA Supreme Court: With Chief Justice Max Baer’s passing last October, voters will have a chance to pick a new justice for the state’s highest court of appeals. The court will retain a liberal majority regardless of this election. On the Democratic side, Deborah A. Kunselman, a judge with 17 years of experience on the bench, is facing off against fellow Superior Court judge Dan McCaffery, an Army vet and former Philly DA. GOP voters will get to pick between Commonwealth Court judge and former private lawyer Patricia McCullough and Carolyn Carluccio, a long-serving Montgomery County common pleas judge.
PA Commonwealth Court: Republican Kevin Brobson departed the state’s intermediate civil court of appeal for the state Supreme Court last year. Vying for the GOP nomination are Megan Martin, a lawyer with experience in all three branches of government, and civil rights attorney Josh Prince. Democrats will get to choose between attorney and Bar Association governor Bryan Neft and Philadelphia judge Matt Wolf, who also serves in the PA Army National Guard.
PA Superior Court: There are two seats up for grabs on the state’s intermediate criminal court. Democrats have their pick of three candidates, with children’s advocate and civil litigator Jill Beck, judge and Army vet Pat Dugan and common pleas judge Timika Lane all seeking a seat. Commonwealth attorney Maria Battista and Westmoreland common pleas judge Harry Smail are the Republican choices.
🗳️ Allegheny County
Countywide elections have been a hot topic this spring, especially the hotly contested race to succeed county executive Rich Fitzgerald. Early polling favored sitting treasurer John Weinstein, but progressive candidates have made inroads. Due to the local political landscape, most of the contested elections here pertain only to Democrats, with Republicans fielding few countywide candidates outside of executive office seeker Joe Rockey, longtime Ohio Township executive.
County Controller: Progressive Darwin Leuba is challenging incumbent Democrat Corey O’Connor from the left. O’Connor got the job by appointment after Chelsa Wagner’s departure for a seat on the county bench. Leuba is a 24-year-old Yale grad and O’Hara Township auditor, while O’Connor is a former Pittsburgh city councilor with a raft of local endorsements.
Council representative at large: There are two at-large seats up for a vote this year. Incumbent Sam DeMarco is the sole Republican, while incumbent Democrat Bethany Hallam has a challenge from the center in Joanna Doven. The latter has relentlessly attacked Hallam on everything from her past struggles with opioid addiction to her record in office (with mixed results), while Hallam has come under scrutiny for alleged ethics violations involving executive candidate Weinstein.
County District Attorney: Democrat Matt Dugan is challenging incumbent DA Stephen Zappala from the left. Dugan alleges that Zappala, who has held the office since 1998, has been absent in the face of rising crime and unwilling to fix a flawed system. Zappala has run a quiet campaign — however, his past record of opposition to criminal justice reform has previously drawn support from the center and right, with local Republicans suggesting him as a write-in candidate.
County Executive: The marquee election this spring, the executive contest is a six-way tussle among local heavyweights and political upstarts, namely former Pittsburgh school board president Theresa Colaizzi, attorney Dave Fawcett, PA Rep. Sara Innamorato, former Pittsburgh controller Michael Lamb, businessman Will Parker and incumbent treasurer John Weinstein. Weinstein has the largest war chest, but his opponents Fawcett, Innamorato and Lamb have raised more grassroots dollars. The race is awash in $3.6 million — nearly twice the amount of money as 2011’s contested primary — with several candidates spending big bucks on advertising. Whoever wins will face the aforementioned Rockey in the November general election.
County Treasurer: Pension actuary and educator Erica Brusselars is facing Pittsburgh city councilor Anthony Coghill in this Democrat-only contest. Brusselars is campaigning for modernization and greater transparency, while Coghill’s campaign has focused on his business acumen and management of Pittsburgh’s sports authority and convention center.
🗳️ County council districts
County districts 2, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11 and 13 will appear on ballots in and around the ’Burgh this spring. However, only two of those contests feature a contested election between Democratic candidates, and District 13 features a unique contest between an incumbent Independent and a Democratic challenger (sorry, registered Republicans; there’s not a whole lot for you to pick from here). If you don’t see your district listed below, check out Allegheny County’s sample ballot tool to see what your choices will be. There are also dozens of school board elections, including in places like Pine-Richland and Norwin that have seen board meetings turn into ugly culture-war battles.
District 10 (Hill District, East End): Incumbent Democrat DeWitt Walton has represented this urban council district since 2016, but he now faces challenges from mental health professional Eric S. Smith and chef Carlos Thomas. All three have campaigned on improving air quality and heightening scrutiny of the Allegheny County Jail.
District 11 (Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Hazelwood): Incumbent Democrat Paul Klein has represented District 11 since 2016 and brings a background as a law professor and reformer. He faces a challenge from the left in Dennis McDermott, a canvasser and public affairs graduate whose focus is on transit equity, environmental justice and police reform.
District 13 (Central Pittsburgh): District 13 covers much of the heart of Pittsburgh including Downtown, Lawrenceville and several Southside and Northside neighborhoods. While David Bonaroti is technically the sole Democrat in the running for the seat, incumbent Liv Bennett remains in the contest as an Independent after dropping her bid for county executive.
🗳️ City of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh City Controller: This role plays an important role in the city’s financial health. With Michael Lamb vacating the seat to pursue his bid for county executive, city employee Mark DePasquale, deputy city controller Rachael Heisler and former interim county controller Tracy Royston are seeking to replace him. The three-way contest has focused heavily on transparency and taxing large nonprofits.
There are several contested city council seats this primary. If you’re unsure exactly where your home falls in the Pittsburgh’s wards and county districts, take a moment to check out the city’s interactive map.
In City Council District 1 (North Side), Incumbent Democrat Bobby Wilson has a challenge from the center in Steve Oberst. Though both cite affordable housing and violence in the district as key issues, Oberst favors solving the problem by hiring more police, while Wilson has focused more on youth programming and police alternatives.
In District 5 (Squirrel Hill, Hazelwood, Greenfield): Incumbent progressive Barb Warwick, a transit advocate, won the special election to fill this seat late last year after Corey O’Connor left to pursue the county controller role. She now faces a challenge from fellow progressive Lita Brillman, who has experience in voter advocacy and municipal governance.
In District 7 (Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Highland Park), Jordan Botta is challenging incumbent Deb Gross. Gross has represented the district since 2016 and touts inclusionary zoning as a major victory, while Botta brings experience in tech and LGBTQ+ advocacy. The two favor similar policy solutions.
Lastly, District 9 (East End) is a two-way contest between broker Khadijah Harris and local activist and political fixture Khari Mosley. The two Democrats face off in a bid to succeed two-term councilor Rev. Ricky Burgess.
Other City of Pittsburgh elections include nominations for Pittsburgh Public Schools’ board of directors — the one contested race is between longtime educator Ron Sofo and incumbent director Devon Taliaferro, who’s backed by a host of local progressives.
🗳️ Other races
Among the contests we simply don’t have the space to cover are the county’s many magisterial judge races. You can check the county’s list of May 2023 candidates for a full list of who’s running in your district. Meanwhile, if you live outside Allegheny County, Beaver, Butler, Washington, Westmoreland and other neighboring counties have elections you should vote in. Remember, while Presidential elections get most of the attention, local primaries often determine who has a say in your daily life here in the Steel City!
An important note: election deniers are now seeking office in droves. Among the office-seekers are those who hope to become county commissioners — and thus gain control over local elections. No fewer than 45 county commissioner candidates across PA have expressed skepticism or open denial that 2020’s results were legitimate. This includes four candidates in Butler, two candidates in Washington and one candidate each in Beaver and Westmoreland counties.
We can’t both have a functioning republic and a vast cohort of voters who only believe election results when their favored candidates win. Imagine if every losing team threw a hissy fit on the field and set fire to their locker room? This is all to say, we’re not out of the woods yet on the dangers to our democracy. One way to ensure our system survives (or even improves!) is to pay attention to who’s running and to cast an informed vote in every contest you can — ideally for candidates who respect the process.