Chief public defender, Matt Dugan, takes on Stephen Zappala for Allegheny County district attorney

Zappala, who overcame a progressive challenge in 2019, has served as DA since 1998.

Matt Dugan at a campaign kickoff rally at Young Brothers Bar in Woods Run, Jan. 19, 2023. Photo by Brian Conway.

Allegheny County’s Chief Public Defender is hoping to jump from the defense team to the prosecution.

Matt Dugan, who has worked in the county’s public defender’s office for more than 15 years, will challenge District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. in the Democratic primary this spring.

“We must be able to use the office of the district attorney to think about prevention,” said the candidate. “And when we must prosecute violent crime, we must do so efficiently, effectively and aggressively.”

Dugan, who was appointed chief public defender in January, 2020, looks to disrupt Zappala’s bid for a seventh term as Allegheny County district attorney. 

At a Thursday campaign kickoff rally in Woods Run, Dugan emphasized that the majority of crimes in the criminal justice system are low-level, nonviolent offenses, and a belief that earlier access to diversion programs can reduce recidivism and be a more effective and humane alternative to incarceration.

“If we’re able to divert these low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system, then that gives us the ability to be sharp and focused and divert resources to the prosecution of violent crime.”

Dugan’s rhetoric differed from remarks made by the incumbent, who announced his reelection at a Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council holiday event December 16, 2022.

“In this time, in this place, our home is threatened by a culture of chaos, crime, and wrongheaded political agendas that would destroy what we’ve worked so hard to build,” said Zappala, in remarks reported by WTAE, the Tribune-Review and others.

“We’re facing a political agenda that foments racial and class division that empowers criminals.”

Zappala, of Fox Chapel, bested progressive candidate, Turahn Jenkins, in the 2019 Democratic primary, before going on to defeat independent candidate Lisa Middleman in the general election by a roughly 14-point margin.

Dugan lives in Moon Township with his wife and three sons, and formerly served on the Moon Area School District board. Dugan works as adjunct professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, and is a graduate of Duquesne Law. 

Last week, on social media, Dugan criticized a traffic stop for a secondary traffic violation, which Pittsburgh Police have renewed despite a city ordinance against them.

While no one has declared for the Republican primary, according to WTAE, Zappala is considering being a write-in on the Republican ballot, as he was four years ago, potentially giving him another avenue to reach the general election should Dugan prevail on the Democratic side.

The primary election is scheduled for Tuesday, May 16.

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He is a 2x 2023 Western PA Press Club Golden Quill award winner, in feature and business reporting. And a 3x finalist in the investigative reporting category.

He is a 2018 first prize winner in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for reporting on lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water.

In 2022 and 2021, he was awarded a grant from The Gumshoe Group to support his investigative reporting.