A little less than eight weeks before voters choose a successor to Dan Onorato as Allegheny County Chief Executive, the two candidates squared off in a forum Thursday evening at Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) school.
D. Raja, a Mount Lebanon businessman, easily beat out Chuck McCullough, a former county councilman, for the Republican nomination in the May primary. After that victory, Raja noted his journey to Pittsburgh 25 years ago as a student, and how he embodies the spirit of the region, and doesn't want to see it decline due to nepotism or a lack of jobs and amenities, such as public transportation.
Fitzgerald defeated County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty in May to win the Democratic nomination. As required by the county home rule charter, Flaherty resigned from county council to run for the chief executive post.
At Thursday's forum the two candidates clashed over three major issues: African American poverty, Fitzgerald seeking campaign contributions from Marcellus Shale companies, and mass transit.
Raja told the audience that the increasing African American poverty rate in Allegheny County is due to the current leadership and his opponent. "What would you say to the person in charge for the past 12 years and is president of the council for the past eight years? You got to take responsibility for this," said Raja. "Our state right now is purely a result of my opponent running the county this way."
Fitzgerald agreed that "two Pittsburghs" have been allowed to develop. "We have seen the majority of the community be able to move forward over the last five or six years, but the African American community had fallen behind." Fitzgerald said he has always worked with the African American communities on economic and racial issues and would continue to do so as county executive.
D. Raja also criticized Fitzgerald for emails he sent earlier in the campaign to Marcellus Shale companies asking for contributions. "You should see the 'Shale Shakedown' emails sent. Its called shaleshakedown.com," said Raja. "Look at the email where he threatens people for money."
Fitzgerald defended the actions of his campaign and said the emails where harmless. "That's an absolute falsehood! I never threatened anybody," said Fitzgerald. "We sent a request for people early in the campaign indicating that this is an industry that I understood. That they have an engineer from CMU who understood their industry, that they wanted to support, and was asking them for funds. Just like my opponent does everyday on the phone."
The candidates also argued over what should be done with the Allegheny County Port Authority. Fitzgerald pushed for a regional transit system where many southwestern Pennsylvania counties would merge their services, while Raja insisted that PAT could be fixed with the help of private companies taking over routes that PAT lost to service cuts.
Raja and Fitzgerald are trying to become Allegheny County's third chief executive, following Republican Jim Roddey and Democrat Dan Onorato.