Meet Lisa Middleman, Independent Challenger for District Attorney


Lisa Middleman | Photo credit: Lisa Middleman campaign via the Pittsburgh City Paper

Jonah Woolley, Politics Writer

The last few years have been a time of success for progressives across the United States. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign saw countless progressive ideas considered by everyday Americans, then 2018 saw many politicians supporting those ideas elected to Congress.

In 2019, progressives continued to win, but this time on the local level. In Pittsburgh and Allegheny Country, many long-term, moderate incumbents like City Councilwoman Darlene Harris and County Council President John DeFazio were unseated by progressive primary challengers.

However, there were some incumbents who survived the primaries, the most notable of which was Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala.

Zappala rose to infamy following the acquittal of Michael Rosfeld, the East Pittsburgh police officer who shot Antwon Rose Jr. Many people found ways in which Zappala mishandled the prosecution of Rosfeld, including not bringing in an expert witness to testify on police use of force, and not trying the case himself.

After Rosfeld was acquitted, many people held Zappala directly responsible for it, and during protests in response to the verdict, many people were heard chanting, “Stephen Zappala’s got to go.”

Not long after the acquittal, a criminal defense attorney named Turahn Jenkins stepped forward to challenge Zappala in the Democratic primary for DA. Jenkins offered himself as an alternative to Zappala, saying he would offer a progressive vision for the county and would push for serious reforms to the criminal justice system.

He had strong grassroots support, but his campaign was held back by low voter enthusiasm and a scandal. Influenced by his ties to a deeply conservative church, Jenkins was reported calling homosexuality a sin, and despite later retracting the statement and apologizing, the comment didn’t sit well with a lot of people.

Zappala ended up winning the primary with 59% of the vote, and given no candidate even ran for the Republican nomination, the general election was uncontested, and it looked like he had a clear shot at another term as DA. 

However, a new challenger has now emerged. Her name is Lisa Middleman. She’s a public defender on death penalty cases, and she’s running as an independent in the general election against Zappala.

While in many cases, independents don’t make much of a mark, Middleman has been different. She’s gotten a lot of attention and support from the general public, and it’s hard to go a block in Pittsburgh without seeing one of her lawn signs. She’s offering another chance for voters to unseat Stephen Zappala, and she is worth taking seriously given how much traction she’s gotten.

Like Jenkins, Middleman is a very progressive candidate. She advocates for strong sentencing reform, the decriminalization of marijuana, the creation of a conviction integrity unit, and limiting the cooperation of Allegheny County with ICE. 

She also has some policies that seem like direct responses to those of Stephen Zappala. Her platform on police accountability, a clear nod to Antwon Rose, is very clear and thorough, including advocating for a countywide cititzen’s police review board, creating a unit within the DA’s office to investigate and prosecute police misconduct, and releasing all police discipline records to the public.

Middleman has said she’s running to give voters a chance to oust an incumbent who seems far past his expiration date. Zappala has been in office since 1998, meaning he’s been there for 21 years, and in that time, he’s faced no serious challengers. According to her, this makes him disconnected from the people and unable to address their concerns, as he’s never had to actually talk to them.

Middleman has criticized Zappala for not being ambitious enough in his actions as DA. While he’s tried to address some problems within the criminal justice system, she’s argued, rarely have his efforts been enough.

Take diversionary programs, for example. These are opportunities for low-level defendants where they can complete a certain program, and once they’ve completed it, their conviction is expunged and they can go back into society. Zappala has created 11 different diversionary programs, and Middleman has found a number of flaws in each of them, including that they haven’t been implemented on a large enough scale and are only available to a limited set of defendants. 

The same applies for cash bail. On his website, Zappala claims to be critical of cash bail, but he’s also advocated for keeping it in extreme cases. Middleman has said that Zappala has been too moderate; she’s pushed to eliminate cash bail entirely due to its disproportionate effect on low-income defendants.

Now that we know about Middleman, the question now is how she stacks up against Zappala and if she would be a better DA.

Middleman does have a clear, progressive message and has many good ideas for how to reform the criminal justice system, but she also doesn’t have a record to look at. We have no way of knowing if she’s just making promises, or if she’ll actually implement the plans she’s released.

Zappala is an old incumbent, and many voters feel like he should be replaced after being in office for so long, but we also can’t forget his many accomplishments as DA.

Zappala started using warrant offices, which are offices that review cases and must approve them before defendants can be charged. It adds another level to the vetting of cases, and warrant offices have decreased the county jail population by 10% since they were implemented.

Zappala’s also done a lot to help vulnerable populations. He made Protection from Abuse orders,  which are court orders obtained by domestic abuse victims to get them away from their abusers, easier to get, and he increased the usage of technology to help the police enforce them. He also formed Domestic Violence, Child Abuse and Elder Abuse Units in the DA’s office to investigate and prosecute crimes against more sensitive victims. 

It’s undeniable that Zappala has done a lot to make the criminal justice system in Allegheny County more equitable and more effective, but he also has his flaws. 

Zappala has continued many dubious practices of the DA’s office during his tenure. For example, he’s done nothing to address long-term supervised release of defendants, which is where defendants are released but continually supervised by officers or other forms of monitoring. This can create a de facto life sentence, as the stigma of a conviction hangs with the defendant until the release ends and keeps them from many housing and job opportunities.

In Allegheny County, 1 in 34 adults are under supervised release, 36% higher than the national average, and the average probation terms here are 30 months for misdemeanors and 60 months for felonies, also much higher than the average. This is a problem that Zappala could’ve addressed in his 21 years in office, but the problem remains unchanged.

Zappala has also displayed very questionable behavior on the campaign trail. While being challenged by Turahn Jenkins, Zappala refused to debate him or go to forums to interact with voters. He even refused to fill out the same candidate surveys as Jenkins, preventing voters from being able to compare the two on policy.

This made it seem like he really didn’t care about voters or listening to the people, and it gives credibility to Middleman’s claim that Zappala is out of touch.

So while Middleman hasn’t yet been tested by being in the DA’s office, she does seem like the stronger candidate when you consider all of the mistakes and controversies that have colored Zappala’s time in office.

Now, we must ask, does Middleman actually have a chance against Zappala?

Middleman is an independent, which will make things far harder. Because the 2019 election is only for local offices, many Pittsburgh-area voters are uneducated about the candidates and will vote solely for Democrats, because they know that they’re more likely to agree with them than anyone else.

For this reason, Middleman’s campaign slogan has been “Skip the straight ticket” as a sign to voters that, even though she’s an independent, she’s a better option than the Democratic nominee.

Middleman has seen a lot of campaign success as well. Her campaign kickoff on August 1 saw 250 attendees, and at the event, she announced that of the 4,000 signatures required for her to get on the ballot, she’d attained 11,000. 

These results, while early and not necessarily conclusive, show there is strong support for Middleman, and although she doesn’t have a straight shot to beat Zappala, she certainly has a chance.