"The best fucking thing to happen to me was to lose the election, " said Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht, reflecting on his County Executive race loss four years ago, in contrast to the 15-point butt-whoopin' Controller Dan Onorato put on Jim Roddey to put county government back in Democratic hands.
But despite Cyril's relief that he's not "stuck over in that fucking thankless job with no money from the state and the feds" and has time to write books and be on the Scott Peterson defense team and all sorts of cool stuff, he is still very bitter toward a member of Roddey's campaign team. That would be Kent "Sharkboy" Gates, Roddey's campaign manager four years ago and again this time around.
"This is a man who truly thrives on being nasty," says Wecht of Gates. The good doctor said Sharkboy spread vicious rumors about him last time around, and it still sticks in the Coroner's craw. "Strong campaigning is one thing, but this is a man who truly, truly relishes being a rotten s.o.b.," says Wecht.
"He reminds me of nothing more than some little kid who's always looking to get somebody in trouble, to even inflict physical harm if they can and somehow try to wiggle his way out of it and then lying and excusing and rationalizing, this is that kind of a kid, now grown up."
Sharkboy defends his hatchet-man reputation as a good thing. He points out that political campaigns can get nasty and if someone must be despised, better he than the candidate. "There's no question I have an edge and am an intense person, but that can be an advantage at times too," he says.
Talk-show host Lynn Cullen recalls having a drink with Sharkboy and yours truly after a TV talk-show appearance. "He makes my skin crawl," says Cullen, who recalled Gates licking his chops at tying Rendell to Hillary Clinton in the upcoming election, and preparing to head down to Florida to help with G.O.P. efforts in the still-unfolding theft of the 2000 election. "I thought, these are the kind of slimeballs that are stealing the election," Cullen adds. "He seemed like an evil little twit."
"I guess she hasn't gotten over the fact that Bush won the Presidency," Gates responds. The 33-year-old campaign whiz kid does emit classic young-Republican vibes, although he is a pro-choice moderate and not part of the true-believer-religious-nutbag-can't-stand-homos-Santorum-Hart wing of the party.
The anti-Sharkboy animosity seems to revolve around the zeal with which Gates trashes his opponents in public and private. He managed successful campaigns for Senator Arlen Specter, County Executive Roddey, and Attorney General Mike Fisher, before losing with Fisher to Ed Rendell and now losing with Roddey to Onorato.
Does that spell doom in political circles?
Sharkboy likes to point out that James Carville lost three races in a row before winning the Pennsylvania Governor's race with Bob Casey Sr. Nobody runs the table as a political campaign manager. But Gates' tactics are also rubbing some Republicans the wrong way.
Republican State Rep. John Maher of Upper St. Clair was offended when he was trying to capture an open state Senate seat and Gates checked up on his military record. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Dennis Roddy revealed the intra-party warfare in a recent column.
But Sharkboy and Maher's dislike for one another dates back at least another four years. Shortly after the 1999 County Executive election, I witnessed Maher screaming at Sharkboy at the bar in the Downtown restaurant The Carlton. What for? As I recall, for about an hour. The allegation had something to do with Sharkboy's alleged disloyalty to a Maher ally.
Whatever was behind it, the incident illustrates what a lightning rod Gates has become in both Republican and Democratic circles, and raises the question of whether his notoriety could be a liability in future campaigns he might run. Or perhaps it's just a lot of inside-baseball that only political junkies care about, and the best thing you can have on your side is a nasty little Sharkboy ready to do what it takes to win.
In the Woody Allen classic Annie Hall, Woody's character says relationships are like sharks ... if they stop moving forward, they die. If Sharkboy's critics are correct, Woody's classic line is appropriate: "I think what we have here is a dead shark."