Updated: 6:15 p.m.
Turahn Jenkins launched his campaign for Allegheny County district attorney amid calls for change at that office after a controversial police shooting. Now, the future of his bid is in doubt.
This comes after allegations, first made public by Sue Kerr of Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents, that Jenkins belongs to an anti-gay church and said in a private meeting with representatives from the LGBTQ community that he believes homosexuality is “sinful.”
Amid the fallout, Jenkins said he remained committed to affording all individuals equal protection under the law, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
“I will take the necessary steps of meeting with members of the LGBTQIA+ community,” he wrote in a Facebook post Sunday, “to learn more their important issues so I can continue to be the champion for all people.”
But the social media atonement didn’t stop Jenkins’ high-profile progressive supporters, Democrats Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, from condemning his campaign.
Innamorato explicitly pulled her support, writing on Facebook, “After spending the weekend gathering first-hand narratives from both individuals in the room where this conversation happened, other supporters, members of the community and Turahn himself – by taking that time to understand all sides through face-to-face conversations and phone calls – I’ve decided to rescind our support.”
Lee, who spoke at Jenkins’ campaign launch last week, did not directly address her endorsement, but wrote, “Let me be clear. I believe that there is none of us without all of us. It’s why I got into the work I’m in. I live by that. We built our campaign on that. And there is no question that this movement has got to be for all of us. I’m true to this.”
Attempts to reach Innamorato and Lee for additional comment were not immediately successful.
Both candidates upset longtime Democratic state House incumbents in May’s primary, and their victories were seen as confirmations of a leftward shift currently underway in the Democratic Party.
Jenkins was also endorsed by Leon Ford, the survivor of a police shooting in Pittsburgh in 2012 that left him paralyzed. Ford did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment today.
While there have been calls for Jenkins to drop out, he has given no indication he will. Messages left with a representative of Jenkins’ campaign were not immediately returned. Daniel Moraff, who was previously campaign manager for Mik Papas and Summer Lee and who handled media relations for Jenkins’ campaign launch event last week, told The Incline by email today that he is no longer affiliated with Jenkins’ candidacy. Moraff said he made the decision to step down in response to this controversy.
The end of the road?
Losing the support of progressive activists and leaders in Pittsburgh does not bode well for Jenkins’ fledgling campaign.
Sandi DiMola, associate professor of political science and chair of the Departments of Government and Management at Carlow University, said Jenkins “would need as much support from progressive Democrats as he could get in order to make a good showing in a county-wide race.”
To counter current DA Stephen Zappala’s support in portions of Allegheny County beyond Pittsburgh, Jenkins would need a large show of support from city progressives at the polls — a scenario that seems far less likely now with the retracted endorsements. Calls to replace Zappala were renewed after an East Pittsburgh police officer fatally shot 17-year-old Antwon Rose II in June. Rose was fleeing a traffic stop on foot when he was shot three times from behind.
The shooting prompted protests demanding police reform and accountability, and also rekindled criticism of Zappala, who some protesters feel hasn’t been tough enough in addressing cases and killings involving police officers. Zappala’s office has said they have and will continue to prosecute officers when and where the evidence supports it. The officer who shot Rose has been charged with criminal homicide and will be prosecuted by Zappala.
Jenkins was presented as a fresh-perspective candidate who promised a more responsive DA’s office, and one better focused on law enforcement issues affecting the county’s black community.
But members of the LGBTQ community and its allies now fear Jenkins’ support for marginalized and minority communities is narrower than expected — particularly in the context of progressive politics.
“This isn’t a good sign for Jenkins. His lack of challenge to the leaders of the church is especially disconcerting to some,” said Kristen Allen, a visiting assistant professor with the Department of Political Science at Duquesne University. “It seems as though people were willing to jump on the bandwagon of any challenger to Zappala, especially one with Jenkins’ background.”
Allen said progressive Democrats can’t be seen supporting a candidate who’s said that being gay or trans is a sin, and that their abrupt distancing from Jenkins’ campaign is to be expected. She said those who backed Jenkins out of the gate may also not have anticipated any complication in this area, given his Democratic affiliation.
“One of the reasons this may be so surprising for those who have supported him — including people such as Maria Montano — is because it’s so unusual to have self-proclaimed Democrats calling homosexuality and [being a transgender person] a sin,” Allen explained. “It may not be that the party or supporters worked too hastily… it may be that they made assumptions about certain issues that turned out to be false.”
And advocates are quick to point out that the LGBTQ community has its own own troubled history with law enforcement — and contemporary concerns as well — in stressing the need for law enforcement officials seen as sympathetic to this dynamic and their interests.
In Pittsburgh, Commander Eric Holmes told The Incline the city and its Bureau of Police are still working on building trust with the LGBTQ community. He said the city is training its officers and working with the Persad Center, Delta Foundation, and other LGBTQ advocacy groups to improve that relationship.
“Each officer recently took an online training program and had to watch a DOJ video [embedded below] as well as take a quiz. This is part of our ongoing training efforts,” Holmes added. “We will continue to teach diversity.”
Advocates, though, say there is more work to be done, and the Jenkins’ revelations have only highlighted their concerns.
Kerr, the Pittsburgh Lesbian Correspondents reporter, said that because this is a 2019 race, there’s still time for another candidate to declare a run for Zappala’s seat, and that progressives would be better suited to find that candidate than they would to try and salvage Jenkins’ campaign.
“It is entirely possible to find a candidate who can win the 2019 election with robust support from progressives and a genuine focus on seeking justice for all,” Kerr told The Incline by email. “That’s the goal. That’s the teachable moment for everyone.”
Kerr added, “What needs to be salvaged is the process of vetting candidates, especially when their religious affiliations are tied to fundamental beliefs that are not progressive and at odds with those espoused by the candidate. […] The threat of ‘religious liberty laws’ is not just about wedding cakes and florists. It is a challenge to local governments to fundamentally examine how they balance the separation of church and state, uphold the humanity and dignity of all persons, and create a community that allows individuals to practice their faith without doing harm to others.”
Meanwhile, Democratic lieutenant governor candidate John Fetterman has joined those expressing concern about Jenkins’ candidacy. Fetterman wrote on Facebook today, “I am very concerned with how this belief would cloud his judgement and hurt his ability to serve the citizens of Allegheny County properly, if he were elected as the next District Attorney.”
The Steel City Stonewall Democrats, a prominent and influential LGBT political group in Pittsburgh, also joined in calls for Jenkins to withdraw from the race.
“Our members will be watching closely to see who has the courage to truly walk the walk in this important moment,” read a statement from the group’s board of directors.
Correction: This article has been updated to include the proper terminology for transgender persons.