The Associated Press May 16, 2011, 8:47AM ET

Pa. gov factor, Marcellus shape Allegheny Co. race

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett can't run for Allegheny County executive, but his shadow looms large over the Tuesday primaries that will determine who gets a chance to succeed the man Corbett beat to become governor: Dan Onorato.

In the Republican primary, Corbett is endorsing D. Raja, a computer software entrepreneur and commissioner in the upscale Pittsburgh suburb of Mount Lebanon, over former county councilman and county solicitor, Chuck McCullough. Meanwhile, Rich Fitzgerald, another former county councilman and the party-endorsed candidate in the Democratic primary, is trying mightily to suggest that his opponent, county Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty, is Corbettesque -- a stretch given Flaherty's Democratic pedigree. His father, Jim, and uncle, Pete, were Democratic county commissioners and power brokers, with Pete also serving as mayor of Pittsburgh.

"There's a Democrat versus a Republican in the Democratic primary," quipped Fitzgerald, who has also labeled Flaherty's plans to partner with drilling firms to develop Marcellus gas wells on county lands "Republican economics" in TV attack ads.

Fitzgerald's tactics prove that "Republican" remains a political dirty word to some in Allegheny County, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 2-to-1. But the mixed political legacy of outgoing incumbent Onorato may be changing that.

Onorato's unsuccessful run for governor nonetheless raised awareness of his relatively new office, which holds sway over more Pennsylvanians than any other elected executive except the governor and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Onorato, 50, is only the county's second elected executive since a new home rule charter abolished the county's three-commissioner form of government.

But Onorato's failure to carry the county during his loss to Corbett, who hails from the Pittsburgh suburb of Shaler Township, has given Republicans hope of recapturing the office. Jim Roddey, a prominent Republican businessman who took a lead in the home rule conversion, was elected as the county's first executive in 1999 and served one term before losing to Onorato in 2003.

Raja believes the county's "slow decline" over the last decade is another reason Tuesday's Republican nominee could win in November.

The county-owned Pittsburgh International Airport once had more than 600 daily departures but now offers about a quarter that many. The Port Authority of Allegheny County is struggling with budget deficits and has repeatedly cut mass transit service in recent years -- despite an unpopular drink tax Onorato forced on restaurant and bar owners to bolster transit funding.

"It's the same question like (former President Ronald) Reagan asked: Are you better off than you were four or eight years ago?" Raja said. "And, if the answer is no, you need to change."

Raja started his 300-employee custom software business, CEI, alone in his spare bedroom in 1992.

"Allegheny County gave me the opportunity to be successful and yet I don't see the same opportunity now," said Raja, 45, a married father of two who earned computer science and MBA degrees at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

That's why he believes making the county friendly to start-up companies and the resulting job growth are the key to fixing the other problems, he said.

Raja's opponent, McCullough, would seem to have the deck stacked against him. But the enigmatic attorney has a knack for drawing headlines, despite being outspent about $245,000 to $3,000, according to the candidates' final pre-election expense reports, one of which notes $3.21 McCullough spent for a Starbucks coffee sipped during a staff meeting.

But more serious than McCullough's financial deficit may be the arms-length treatment he's getting from his own party. Corbett, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, and other heavyweights are backing Raja, in part because McCullough, 56, could be a convicted felon by the time the November general election rolls around.

McCullough faces trial in September on charges he misspent $200,000 from the estate of an elderly dementia patient he represented. McCullough notes that companion accusations were dismissed in an Orphan's Court lawsuit, and said, "I've cleared my name once and obviously I'll clear my name again."

And, despite that baggage, Duquesne University law professor and long-time analyst of the Pittsburgh political scene Joseph Sabino Mistick said, "I don't think McCullough's out of the race."

McCullough is hard to quantify because he refuses PAC donations, won't solicit political endorsements and doesn't campaign conventionally.

"I think you should try to get people to understand your vision rather than go around chasing other people to speak for you," McCullough said.

Instead, the former at-large county council member draws attention for his highly publicized stances on regional hot-button issues, like representing a citizens group that tried unsuccessfully to stop the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center from closing a hospital in the dirt-poor suburb of Braddock.

McCullough was elected to the county council in 2007 and helped roll back the drink tax from 10 percent to 7 percent, and is seen by his supporters as someone unafraid to take a stand.

"They don't seem to be troubled by any of his travails," Mistick said. "He puts his name on the ballot, he sort of moseys around, and people vote for him."

Still, Mistick doesn't expect the Republican primary winner -- whoever it is -- to be the county's next executive. He said Roddey's election was an aberration brought about by the switch to home rule government and believes the voter registration advantage enjoyed by Democrats is too much to overcome barring a landscape-changing issue.

Fitzgerald, 52, a married father of eight who runs his own energy efficiency firm, and Flaherty, 49, have made developing Marcellus shale wells on county-owned lands, including the 8,900-acre Pittsburgh International Airport, a key issue. Fitzgerald has spent more than $1 million, and Flaherty more than $700,000, on a campaign dominated by attack ads that focus on their opposing plans.

Flaherty wants to form public-private partnerships with drillers, something that would require more of an investment up front by the county -- and which McCullough argues is illegal -- that Flaherty says will generate billions in long-term revenue as opposed to hundreds of millions under Fitzgerald's plan. Fitzgerald favors leasing drilling rights to the companies in return for an upfront payment and a smaller percentage of the back-end proceeds and has criticized Flaherty for being too "cozy" with drilling interests.

Flaherty countered by leaking a January e-mail Fitzgerald sent to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, soliciting campaign donations from drillers in blunt terms and glibly writing off any Republican challengers.

"The next Chief Executive of Allegheny County will either be me or Mark Flaherty," the e-mail said. "If you want the leader of this region to be someone who is clueless about natural gas and your industry, continue to sit on your hands (and) that is exactly what will happen."

"Because if you don't (contribute) I will be gone in a few months, and the voices you hear won't be your friends," the e-mail said.


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