Republican Joe Rockey, a candidate for Allegheny County executive, began his Oct. 11 Coffee and Conversations forum, hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, discussing Israel’s war with Hamas terrorists.
Rockey noted that he attended the pro-Israel rally held at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, organized by the Federation on Oct. 8.
“To see the direct connection, the number of people who have someone in their family who is either defending Israel right now, or being called up to defend Israel, was really a powerful thing for me to see,” he said.
He stressed his support for Israel’s defense and its rooting out of terrorism.
The candidate, a 58-year-old Ohio Township resident and a retired chief risk officer at PNC Financial Services, joined Laura Cherner, director of Federation’s Community Relations Council, for a conversation that touched on many topics of interest in the race to replace County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Picking up on the theme of antisemitism, Cherner asked Rockey how, as county executive, he could address white supremacy and extremism.
“Hate is unacceptable,” Rockey said.
Cherner then questioned the candidate about how to best maintain the vitality of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods. Rockey noted that population decline and crime are two critical areas that the next county executive will have to confront. He said he has a five-point plan to address public safety.
The safety of those working Downtown or in neighborhoods like the South Side, he said, affects the county’s businesses.
“Our goal,” he said, “is to create Allegheny County as the safest, largest large municipality in the country. And that is what we will work to do.”
Rockey said he planned to increase the county’s police force by 10% because many municipalities are unable to do so.
If elected, Rockey said he would create a “jobs renaissance” to stop population decline in the county, pointing to his six-point plan, which can be found on his website, voterockey.com.
“People’s children and grandchildren have left this county to go to Charlotte or Tampa or Atlanta to get a job because they couldn’t get a job in this county,” he said. “That’s what we need to change.”
Noting that recently there have been unexplained deaths in the county jail, Cherner asked Rockey what he would do to address flaws in the criminal justice system.
The candidate noted that 16 people died over the last 30 months in the county jail and said that the county must create a detailed plan to address the problem, including increasing medical and mental health services.
“The reality is the mental health crisis begins before criminality or homelessness,” he said. “We need to, as a county, bring the mental health resources to bear across the entire county. We need to leverage the two large health systems in this county and hold them accountable to have the right level of resources available so that when someone is having a mental health challenge, they get the help before they end up in a homeless situation, or before they actually do criminal activity.”
Asked about his six-point plan for job growth, Rockey noted that since the pandemic began, there’s been a massive on-shoring process in the U.S., but that Allegheny County hasn’t taken part in much of it.
President Joe Biden, Rockey said, has done a great job supporting industries to help the country succeed, but that Allegheny County has not been a large enough part of that initiative. He said that $125 billion from the $1 trillion Inflation Reduction Act was dedicated to green jobs, but only one local project, in Turtle Creek, was given a loan to create 600 jobs.
“That’s great,” he said. “I’m happy for it. That is way too little for Allegheny County.”
Asked about infrastructure, Rockey noted that Allegheny County was only responsible for six bridges that have been rated as poor, but he acknowledged that infrastructure is a central issue for companies considering moving into the region.
“So, we will improve infrastructure,” he said. “We will leverage the federal government’s infrastructure bill and we will fight for infrastructure dollars to make Allegheny County’s infrastructure better so we can bring more business here.”
Cherner asked the county executive candidate about his long-standing position of not reassessing property values in the county.
Reassessments most negatively affect those on fixed incomes and those who are financially challenged, he said, adding that he would fix the problems inherent in the property tax system, which have led to a backlog of appeals.
“We’ve got to get ourselves to a point where two houses on the same street are properly valued equally, as opposed to one being valued because it happened to be sold six years ago at a different rate than the one next to it,” he said.
Throughout the nearly hour-long conversation, the candidate stressed that he is a centrist who understands the landscape and needs of Allegheny County.
One topic not included in the conversation was the recent back-and-forth between Rockey and Democratic opponent Sara Innamorato concerning her previous affiliation with the Democratic Socialists of America. She belonged to the group in 2018 when she ran for, and won, her state house seat.
Rockey called out the national DSA and its local chapters on X (formerly Twitter) for recent tweets about Israel that did not mention the terrorist group Hamas. He also highlighted Innamorato’s connection to the group.
On Oct. 10, the Pittsburgh DSA chapter tweeted its “full and unequivocal support for the Palestinian struggle for freedom.”
It also issued a statement calling for the “end of all U.S. military aid to Israel,” saying “the conflict can only end if the apartheid regime is lifted from the river to the sea.”
By the time Rockey sat down with Cherner, Innamorato had denounced the group’s statements on X, saying that antisemitism was unacceptable and that Israel had the right to defend itself. She also said that she hadn’t been a member of the group since 2019.
Innamorato will sit down with Cherner on Oct. 24 at 5:30 p.m. for a Coffee and Conversation session. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.