The district attorney of Allegheny County (which includes Pittsburgh) has faced no challenger since his first election in 1999. Stephen Zappala has coasted unopposed in both the Democratic primary and the general election in four consecutive re-election bids.

That will soon change: The county’s chief deputy public defender, Turahn Jenkins, announced in early July that he will challenge Zappala in the 2019 Democratic primary.

Jenkins’s announcement came less than a month after the shooting of Antwon Rose II by Officer Michael Rosfeld, which sparked local protests. Zappala charged Rosfeld with criminal homicide in late June. Local activists have long protested Zappala’s handling of cases involving police officers, for instance these cases of abused Black students in a Pittsburgh high school. In a detailed analysis published in June, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found that Zappala brought no charge in 18 of 22 police homicide cases over his two-decade tenure.

Jenkins’s bid also comes at a time of potential upheaval in Pittsburgh’s Democratic politics. Two prominent local lawmakers were ousted in May by Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, who were backed by the Democratic Socialists of America. Innamorato and Lee were among the hosts of Jenkins’s campaign-launching event, as were members of Pittsburgh-based organizations like the Alliance for Police Accountability.

Jenkins is running as an advocate for reforming the criminal justice system. “I’m running for District Attorney because I’m tired of sitting on the sidelines and watching as our criminal justice system destroys people’s lives, then doesn’t give them the tools or support they need to put them back together,” he said. In his first candidate interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he talked of the need for changes that curb incarceration. “In essence, the rich and guilty go free, and the poor and innocent go to jail,” he said in reference to the use of cash bail, which keeps people incarcerated before trial if they are unable to pay. Jenkins also faulted the practice of overcharging defendants as a bargaining tool. The election takes place in May 2019.

published on Jul. 7, 2018 | Daniel Nichanian