The two candidates for Allegheny County Controller frame the race as a contest between competing visions of the office and its role in local government.
Bob Howard (R-Marshall) touts his 34 years as an accountant and controller at PPG Industries, and his accounting degree from Penn State, as qualifications for what he says is a highly technical job that requires specialized education and experience.
Chelsa Wagner (D-Brookline) lacks those credentials but boasts others: not least, the name recognition she enjoys as a three-term state representative, and as a member of a well established Pittsburgh political family. Wagner also holds a University of Pittsburgh law degree and B.A. in public policy from the University of Chicago.
Wagner dismisses the idea that training in finance is critical to the work of a county controller. "The current controllers for both the City and the County are not accountants," she said. "Very few of the folks who have held this position have been accountants." Far more important, in Wagner's view, is the ability to make policy with the big picture in view while understanding the ins and outs of complex contract agreements — which her legal background qualifies her to review. "The controller needs to be more than just a bean-counter," Wagner said.
That emphasis on what Wagner calls the "visioning aspect" of the job may be what Howard has in mind when he paints his opponent as a political climber with ambitions beyond the Controller's office. "A truly qualified candidate must be able and willing to be independent regardless of who wins the Chief Executive position and who might be on county council," said Howard. "I am not embarking on a political career in Allegheny County. I will not be doing the job while lining up allies for my next political endeavor, or allies for my uncle's political endeavors."
Wagner, the niece of State Auditor General Jack Wagner and daughter of 19th ward Democratic chairman Pete Wagner, takes issue with the idea that family connections or career aspirations would affect her independent judgment. Wagner cites her service in Harrisburg, where she cast one of only two votes by Democrats against former Gov. Ed Rendell's budget in 2010, and other votes that she says went against the interests of her campaign contributors. "If the fact that I am younger is a problem, then perhaps he should just say that," Wagner said.
On the issues
Asked to talk about the greatest challenges and opportunities facing Allegheny County in the coming months, the candidates give nearly identical answers.
Both say the county is overreliant on one-time revenue sources and needs to address long-term budgetary problems to remain solvent. Both point to the upcoming merger of City and County financial reporting systems as a critical juncture. Howard says his experience administering large corporate mergers qualifies him to oversee the transition, while Wagner looks to future cost savings that might be attained by bringing other municipalities into the system.