How Democrats Came To Dominate And Strengthen The Role Of Allegheny County Council

May 1, 2017

On May 16th, Allegheny County primary voters will choose their party’s nominees to run for Allegheny County Council. Democrats, who have a two-to-one registration majority in the county, are expected to retain their majority during the general election this November. That leaves Republicans and some critics frustrated.

“It’s difficult for the minority party to have input,” said Dave Fawcett, who used to serve as an at-large member of the council. During his time on council, Fawcett was a Republican; he later became a Democrat.  “The only role then that the minority [party] can play is to raise objections or be dissenters.”

But even critics of county council believe that the system is far better than the government it replaced.

“We had the three commissioner system and that had been marked with cronyism and nepotism and wasn’t really functioning the way government should,” Fawcett said.

Allegheny County Council members meet on Feb. 6, 2017.
Credit Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

“[Previously], your three commissioners were your legislative and your executive body all rolled into one,” said Jim Roddey, a Republican who pushed to overhaul the system and later served as the first county executive.

The three-commissioner form of government is the norm in most Pennsylvania counties. It had been in use in Allegheny County for more than two centuries until a group known as Compact 21 began exploring other options for county government.

Compact 21 soon drafted a new home rule charter.

“We felt that it was very important to have a county council and that we should have districts and that each district should have a representative,” said Roddey.

A referendum was placed on the ballot; the contentious campaign that followed generally pitted the pro-reform Allegheny Conference against the Democratic Party and labor unions. In 1998, voters chose to adopt the home rule charter by a margin of just 564 votes out of nearly 211,000 cast.

In November 1999, during the first election for the new government, Democrat Cyril Wecht was expected to cruise to victory given his party’s voter registration edge. But, by less than one percent of the vote, Wecht lost to Roddey, the Republican nominee.

“The stars were aligned,” Roddey said.  “I had a little bit of an advantage because [the election was for] the first county executive, and I had a lot of ideas about the restructuring that appealed to everyone.”

A map details Allegheny County's 13 districts.
Credit Allegheny County

But Roddey was thwarted as he tried to implement some of those ideas, because voters placed 10 Democrats and 5 Republicans on the county council. That supermajority also provided the Democrats with the ability to pass legislation and override Roddey’s veto.

Wayne Fontana, who is now a state senator, was one of the original Democrats elected to council; he remembers putting in place the operating rules for the new government that were not originally dictated by the home rule charter.

“We created a council that I think had more oversight than the administrative code and the legislation really thought we would have,” Fontana said. “By the law [council was to be] a check and balance for the budget… but we set up committees for every aspect of county government.”

Those committees could hold hearings and bring attention to issues.

In the next two elections, the Republicans gained seats on the council, creating an 8-7 Democrat to Republican split. However, in 2003, Democrat Dan Onorato defeated Roddey. Since then, no Republican has held the chief executive’s office, and the Democrats have slowly regained seats. Today, they once again hold a 10-5 advantage.

Unlike in the Roddey days, though, a Democratic super majority on council gives County Executive Rich Fitzgerald a comfortable pad for passing legislation. That includes tax increases, which require a two-thirds majority vote under the home-rule charter.

Fontana admits that Fitzgerald is a powerful force in party politics, but he said that does not mean Fitzgerald can rule over council like an old political boss.

“He understands there is going to be push back based on your district,” said Fontana. “So it’s not like it would be a surprise for him if something like that happened and I’m sure it does happen. Maybe more in-behind-the-scenes than in public.”

Despite Democratic dominance of council, Allegheny County Republican party chair D. Raja is looking for votes. Raja expects to hold on to the two Republican-held seats up for election this year and pick up more in two key races.

“We’ve got two great candidates running right now. We certainly hope to at least to pick up one of those,” Raja said. “You saw what happened in the national elections. Pennsylvania went red.”

Raja is even optimistic that his party could re-gain the executive’s office down the road, despite the overwhelming voter registration advantage for the Democratic Party.

And even though the Democrats are firmly in control, Jim Roddey—who helped create the current form of government and served as the first executive—remains positive.

“County government is working very well,” Roddey said. “Not only is it working well, but it is working dramatically better than the old three commissioner system.”