Government
12:00 pm
Mon November 7, 2011

County Executive Race Centers on Job Creation

The two candidates running for the Allegheny County Executive's office have certainly slung mud at one another in recent weeks, but their priorities actually appear to be very similar.

Both Democrat Rich Fitzgerald and Republican D. Raja hope to fill the seat soon to be vacated by Democrat Dan Onorato, who's held the office for eight years. Both said they'd focus their efforts primarily on job creation, if elected.

Fitzgerald and Raja have attacked each others' records as well, in a race that has become increasingly heated as it draws to a close.

Raja is the CEO and founder of a Mount Lebanon information technology business that employs about 100 people. He has also served as a commissioner for that municipality. Raja moved to Allegheny County from India when he became a student at the University of Pittsburgh.

Fitzgerald has been the President of Allegheny County Council for the past eight years, and served as a Council Member for four years prior. He's also the owner and founder of a local water treatment company. Fitzgerald attended Carnegie Mellon University.

Marcellus Shale

Raja and Fitzgerald each support the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry as a way to create jobs, not only at well-sites, but also in satellite industries like steel and technology production.

Fitzgerald said that when considering shale drilling on county-owned land, he would first vet contracts through County Council before holding community meetings.

"For example, let's say it would occur at the airport. We would go to Findlay Township or Moon Township, hold public hearings, so the public would fully understand what the benefits would be, as far as money coming in that we could use to lower property tax, but then what the drawbacks would be, whether it be the truck traffic, the noise, the dust," said Fitzgerald.

On the other side, Raja said his top priority would be to ensure that no safety issues or environmental problems arise from shale drilling on county land.

"But I would go one step further," said Raja. "I would have the shale companies put up money in escrow. That way, if there are any issues — water, air, any of those — we would immediately use those monies to address those issues. And if there are no issues, let's say at the end of fifteen years, they get to get the money back."

Both candidates believe municipalities should not be able to draft ordinances that forbid shale gas extraction.

Public Transit

Fitzgerald was one of several public officials who pushed for the county's "drink tax," a 7 percent levy on poured alcoholic beverages, the proceeds of which support the Port Authority of Allegheny County.

But Raja said he'll abolish the drink tax in his first budget, if he's elected, arguing that a levy solely on the hospitality industry is not the right way to fund public transit. Raja said his opponent is unwilling to face the "real issues" that plague the Port Authority.

"The Port Authority has a cost problem," said Raja. "They pay $143 million in salaries [and] $130 million in benefits. That's not sustainable. You can't pay 90 percent as benefits. Everywhere else is about 30-35 percent. So, I would look to see if every new employee coming in would come in under a different, 401k type of a plan."

Raja said he'd also lobby the state for more aid, rather than "kick the can down the road," as he claims his opponent has done.

Fitzgerald said he would rather try to reshape public transit in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

"I want to regionalize transit to make sure that we provide transportation to the job centers of Downtown Pittsburgh and Oakland, the airport, and other areas," said Fitzgerald.

Under Fitzgerald's plan, each county's public transit agency would combine to create one comprehensive entity that would receive the "lion's share" of its funding from the state — similar to the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). The idea to combine more counties' public transit agencies originated in Governor Tom Corbett's Transportation Funding Advisory Committee report, published this summer.

Fitzgerald also defended his role in the creation of the drink tax, saying it was the only viable way to fund the Port Authority at a time of state cutbacks.

Campaign Negativity

As scads of television ads can attest, the race for County Executive has become a bit malignant in its final weeks. Fitzgerald has drawn attention to lawsuits filed by Raja's company against former employees. The Democrat has also taken a 'he-started-it' stance.

"My opponent decided to hire Mark Harris and Mike DeVanney, two of the sleaziest political operatives who are out there, and we knew this campaign would probably go where it went," said Fitzgerald. "We were not going to go negative; Mr. Raja decided to go there. We let him go negative on radio and on TV for about four days, and then we decided to hit back."

For his part, Raja said any negativity from his campaign was based on the facts of Fitzgerald's record, including repeated attacks on the drink tax and the county's loss of population and jobs. The Republican added that he thinks it was inappropriate for his opponent to insult his campaign consultants at a recent debate.

"The race is between me and Rich," said Raja, "and for him to pull my campaign staff into the mix, and call them 'sleazy' and 'Bernie Madoff' — it's just not the right temperament. That's not what you'd expect from a County Executive or a CEO."

Closing Arguments

Raja acknowledged that he's not a traditional candidate in Allegheny County, alluding both to his Indian heritage and to the difficulties of running as a Republican in a heavily Democratic county. But the GOP contender said he has the experience needed to retain college students and create jobs.

"I myself went to both Pitt and CMU, [my business] was a startup, and I know what we need to do to keep these startups and these students here," said Raja. "And then there's other aspects of jobs, like back office jobs and responsibly addressing the Marcellus Shale, looking to see if those kinds of jobs can be regained in our region."

The Republican said he'd create an 'innovation zone' at the airport, using revenues from shale drilling there to create business-friendly policies. He said he'd also like to the combine services of the county's smaller municipalities in order to save money.

On the other side, Fitzgerald focused much of his campaign on property taxes, saying he'd hold them steady if he's elected. The Democrat said one of his first moves as County Executive would be to lobby for statewide property reassessment reform.

"I want us to be like every other state in the nation, where they do it statewide," said Fitzgerald. "We cannot have a 67 county-by-county individual system that would put Allegheny County at a competitive disadvantage, and it would hurt every taxpayer by bringing a backdoor tax increase."

A poll from the CMU-based group Civic Science had Fitzgerald leading Raja by a double-digit margin just five days before the polls open. The November 3 survey showed that the Democrat had 48 percent of the vote; the Republican had 30 percent of the 19,000 polled; and 22 percent of likely voters remained undecided. Allegheny County Democrats have a more than two-to-one voter registration advantage over Republicans.