Breaking a promise: DA Zappala should debate his challenger

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Opinions 0 month ago

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. should check his dictionary for the definition of a promise.

The DA had said that he would debate his challenger in the upcoming general election for another four-year term in office, then he doubled back on that promise, refusing to show once the date was set for the debate with Lisa Middleman, a part-time county public defender.

Mr. Zappala likely realizes what many other incumbent officeholders know: There is little political advantage to be gained for an incumbent from a public debate with an underdog challenger and lots potentially to lose. By virtue of incumbency, there is extraordinary power: name recognition, prior experience, a tested political network, the insider status.

But Mr. Zappala gave his word. In an interview before the May primary election, he said he would gladly participate in a debate in a legitimate forum.

Such a forum was held Oct. 14, hosted by the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the League of Women Voters. It doesn’t get more legitimate than that.

On Sept. 30, his campaign posted on social media that his “schedule is full.” He would not attend. He was busy. When a representative of the League of Women Voters said he could pick alternate dates in October, his campaign did not accept the offer.

Even worse, Mr. Zappala’s campaign — led by his son, Stevey — embarrassed itself further by trying to cast shade on the event sponsors. A statement from the campaign noted Mr. Zappala’s disappointment with the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, the Black Political Empowerment Project and Pittsburgh United for not addressing certain comments made 27 years ago by Ms. Middleman during a court session. The candidate is running in the general election as an independent.

Ms. Middleman, during that criminal trial three decades ago, was inartful and insensitive as she spoke to an accusation that she was purposely excluding African American women during jury selection. Her statement described her reluctance to empanel “fat women” on a jury — “big, fat, fat piggy people” — because they may be jealous that she is thin. (Ms. Middleman has said recently she regrets what amounted to a hyperbolic and wry comment intended to counter the accusation that she was racially biased during jury selection.)

The Zappala campaign statement called Ms. Middleman’s comments “unconscionable” and noted Mr. Zappala has “no desire to share a stage with anyone who espouses those kind of beliefs.”

This is a ridiculous excuse for breaking a previous commitment and a transparent effort to shower Ms. Middleman with old dirt. Voters can decide in November whether Ms. Middleman’s supposed contempt for overweight people should disqualify her from the job as the county’s top prosecutor.

Mr. Zappala is in the power position. He will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot as both the Democratic and the Republican nominee, having won the Democratic primary election and having secured the Republican nomination by virtue of write-ins. He has two decades of experience. He has the power of incumbency.

If for no other reason than enlightened self-interest, Mr. Zappala should reconsider a debate with Ms. Middleman. Otherwise, he appears to be an undependable promise-breaker, fearful of a dark horse challenger.

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