Turahn Jenkins quit his job to run for Allegheny County District Attorney against longtime incumbent Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
He formally launched his campaign July 2 at a rain-soaked Hill District gathering where, as a longtime public defender and prosecutor, he spoke intimately about the need for criminal justice reforms.
It was just weeks after a white police officer fatally gunned down a black unarmed teen in East Pittsburgh, and Jenkins’ bid to become the first African-American DA in Allegheny County history gave protesters and anxious community members a new focal point.
But then it all threatened to go off the rails.
Days into the campaign came reports of Jenkins’ membership at an anti-gay Wilkinsburg church. Soon after that came word of a private meeting between him and representatives of the local LGBTQ community in which Jenkins reportedly said he believes homosexuality is a sin.
Progressive groups and activists that had eagerly embraced his campaign were suddenly calling for its termination. The Steel City Stonewall Democrats, an influential LGBTQ political organization, issued a July 8 statement calling on Jenkins to withdraw and asking others to pull their endorsements of him. State Representatives-elect Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee obliged. Jenkins did not.
That same day, Jenkins posted a message to Facebook saying he remained committed to “TREATING PEOPLE LIKE PEOPLE” and to listening to LGBTQ community concerns. In another Facebook post two days later, he vowed to “continue the fight for equal justice, eliminating cash bail and ending mass incarceration for ALL citizens of Allegheny County.”
For a month, nothing followed. The campaign’s social media accounts went quiet. Jenkins went quiet, too — requests for interviews were unanswered.
But the campaign never ended, and Jenkins has continued to quietly court voters and funders.
In making the case for his candidacy, Jenkins pointed to police-community relations he said have only worsened under Zappala, a 20-year incumbent.
Erin McClelland, spokesperson for Zappala’s 2019 re-election campaign, pushed back in an email to The Incline, saying, “Since [Zappala] first took office, complaints against police have decreased by 90 percent,” citing the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association’s Executive Board.
McClelland added, “[Zappala’s] efforts to increase police accountability began in his first term with police car cameras and continue to this day. Just two months ago, he opened a warrant office in McKeesport to support and train the local police in the Mon Valley. This facility gives officers and residents 24/7 access to lawyers from the District Attorney’s office, ensuring police are following proper procedure, and people with substance abuse and mental health issues are immediately diverted to treatment and not jail.”
But Jenkins insists change is needed in the office, where he served as an assistant district attorney for three years beginning in 2006. His social media accounts resumed posting Aug. 10 and since then have been used to publish a steady stream of invites to fundraising events and meet-and-greets with the candidate across the city.
After weeks of attempting to set up an interview with Jenkins to no avail, we approached him at one such event, an Oct. 25 meet-and-greet at The Rivers Club, Downtown. The event listing included donation levels of “$1,000 – Gold • $500 – Silver • $250 – Bronze • $100 Friend.”
Attendees mingled and posed for pictures with the candidate who moved restlessly about the room. Between laps around the space, he spoke with The Incline. Our conversation follows here, edited for clarity and length.
Q: What would you do differently if you could launch the campaign over again?
A: “Based upon what happened, I don’t know that the outcome would be any different. I don’t. For one, I think that people outside that room never heard my side of the story, and I never had a chance to explain my comments, which is unfortunate because that was just two minutes of a much larger conversation, but that’s what was reported. Again, I would just tell people to look at my record. It would be one thing if there are allegations that I treated people unfairly, but that wasn’t the case. I stand on my record and have a reputation I’ve spent my entire career developing and I want to protect it. […]”
Q: What have you heard from the LGBTQ community since then?
A: “After that incident unfolded, there was a lot of support still within that community, and they’ve actually reached out, and I’ve had an ongoing dialogue with several members of that community, in fact, and some work closely with my campaign.”
Q: Would you be comfortable telling me who those individuals are?
A: “No, I don’t want to do that, because some of them would rather not be out front, they would rather support me from the shadows.”
Q: Do you think being homosexual or transgender is a sin?
A: “Look, I grew up in the church all my life. There are a lot of things the Bible says that are sins. That has nothing to do with how I would dispatch my duty as the district attorney of Allegheny County. It never has and it never will. I would never discriminate against anybody whether it was based on who their partner was, what their religion was, what the color of their skin was, where they lived, how much money’s in their pocket. I’m all about justice for everybody, and I’ve spent my entire career fighting for other people, and many of those people had nothing in common with me. But that didn’t change anything, because I believe in treating people like people and fighting for people, because if I were in a situation or I was in a jam, I would want somebody to fight for me, period.”
Q: Do you understand why some people in the local LGBTQ community might be apprehensive now about the prospect of Turahn Jenkins being their district attorney?
A: “I mean everybody’s entitled to feel the way they are. I would encourage them to actually engage me and get to know me as a candidate, ask around about me. I think my body of work speaks for itself. […] This is a learning process. They’re learning from me, and I’m learning from them. I’m learning from everybody, because Allegheny County is over one million people, and with one million people, you have a lot of issues, so I’m trying to learn everybody’s issues so I can be the best district attorney in Allegheny County.”
Q: Are you sensitive to concerns about policing as it’s applied to LGBTQ individuals and law enforcement discrimination against LGBTQ individuals, LGBTQ people of color, and disproportionate levels of violence and misconduct directed at them by police?
A: “Absolutely. Absolutely. The statistics don’t lie. That’s true. That’s legit.”
[In his Aug. 10 campaign Facebook post, Jenkins wrote: “The District Attorney should conduct LGBTQ cultural awareness training for all staff and encourage local law enforcement agencies and corrections officials to do the same.”]
Q: So where do you go from here?
A: “I have a major fundraiser coming up on Nov. 13, essentially re-introducing myself to Allegheny County, because the last launch was in July, and a lot has happened between July and November. […] I learned some very valuable lessons by coming out the gate when I did. I’ve used the time to try to regroup and assess things, and I’m headed in the right direction with a lot of quiet momentum, a lot of supporters. […]”
[This fundraiser has been rescheduled for Dec. 11 due to “unforeseen scheduling conflicts,” according to Jenkins’ campaign.]
Q: You launched your campaign soon after the police killing of 17-year-old Antwon Rose II in East Pittsburgh in June. What do you think could or should have been done differently by Zappala with regard to that case and the charging of Officer Michael Rosfeld?
[Jenkins declined to answer, saying if elected, his comments could represent a conflict of interest. But he did discuss his thoughts about larger themes.]
A: “There were issues with the criminal justice system before Antwon Rose. The issues that we speak on have been plaguing the system for as long as I’ve been practicing. If you talk to anyone that’s practiced criminal defense in Allegheny County, it’s like we all raise the same issues in terms of people being overcharged, mass incarceration, police officer accountability — this isn’t anything new.”
Q: You would be the first African-American DA in Allegheny County. Have you thought about the significance of that?
A: “I’m not even thinking about that. I’m thinking about my son who’s 6-years-old, and in another 10 years, he’s going to be a teenager. He’s gonna be driving. He’s gonna be out in the community. I’m not always going to be there for my son, and I think about things like that. […] I’m thinking about my son, [supporter Frank Walker’s] children, your children if you have any, because the way things are going now it’s not good for anybody, nobody’s safe. My dad is 76-years-old, a Vietnam veteran, and it’s like some of the stories he told me growing up, it hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed.”
Q: What makes you suited for the role of DA?
A: “I’ve been a social worker, prosecutor, sole practitioner and law professor, and now I’m back in private practice. I’ve been on both sides of the aisle. I understand the issues. I know where the problems are. I know what we can do better. We need to be better stewards of the resources that that office already has, and we need to be more innovative in how we treat people because we’re not doing it right now. It’s like we’re stagnant.”
Q: What police reform measures would you support as DA?
A: “As a DA you really don’t have any control over police practices. You can obviously influence them. DAs do have a lot of sway, but at the end of the day those conversations need to be with police and law enforcement. One of the problems is I don’t think they do a thorough enough job of vetting officers when they’re hired.” [He begins to mention Rosfeld but stops.] “But yeah, I think they need to do a better job of vetting officers. I also think they need to do a better job of communicating to other departments when one officer leaves and goes to another.”
Q: How do you bridge the divide between communities of color and police as a law enforcement official?
A: “It’s needed because that divide — the longer things go the way they’re going, the more explosive the relationship between law enforcement and the community is going to be. So as a district attorney, you have to be able to sit down with people on both sides, whether you’re dealing with people in the community or dealing with law enforcement, because we can’t continue to go down the road of us versus them because it’s dangerous for everybody involved. It’s dangerous for law enforcement and it’s dangerous for the community. So we have to come together. That’s the only way we succeed. Right now we’re divided. And the decisions that come out of that office only further create the divide.”