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Elections: HosPAC takes credit for Frazier defeat

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They were celebrating at Jerry's 1888 Tavern on the North Side the day after the April 22 primary. Round One was over, and HosPAC -- a newly formed political group representing the hospitality industry -- was declaring victory.

The day before, former county councilor Brenda Frazier had finished last in a tight three-way Democratic primary for a state House seat. Members of HosPAC had targeted Frazier for supporting last year's 10 percent tax on poured drinks, and they were interpreting her loss as a sign that the public supported their cause.

"Word got out," HosPAC chairman John Graf says. "Were we responsible for that? Yeah, I'll take credit for this."

HosPAC produced fliers, created a blog, and bought radio and billboard ads to derail Frazier's political ambitions in House District 21, which includes several east Pittsburgh neighborhoods and some suburban areas to the north. But since Frazier lost in a squeaker, it's impossible to gauge the extent of HosPAC's influence on the race.

Former Pittsburgh Police chief Dom Costa won the Democratic primary with 4,940 votes -- just barely enough to defeat former city councilor Len Bodack at 4,703. Frazier received 4,595 votes.

"I don't know that [HosPAC's campaign] had that much of an effect," Frazier surmises. "I think Mr. Costa has a great deal of name recognition, especially in the north [suburbs] and in Morningside. I think maybe he was an alternative to either Mr. Bodack or me."

Some observers say Frazier may even have been helped by the campaign. Putting the bull's-eye on a candidate, after all, means giving them a lot of extra attention.

Arguably, "The ads enhanced her name recognition," says Joe Mistick, a Duquesne University law professor and Democratic Party insider. While there are "two schools of thought" on whether HosPAC's campaign hurt Frazier, Mistick adds, "Some people from other campaigns think that that actually helped her."

Indeed, Costa says, before HosPAC's attacks, "when I was door-knocking in the North Hills, not that many people knew who Brenda Frazier was. Matter of fact, a couple people thought there were three men running. I noticed a difference afterwards.

"Personally, I don't believe it did [hurt Frazier]," Costa adds. "It was really a non-issue with the people I talked to."

Costa was the only candidate in the primary who hasn't held elected office. He raised the least money and solicited the fewest endorsements. "We went against two big, well-organized groups, and we won," he says. "I knew going into the race I'd be the underdog."

But he's hardly an unknown: On the same day that Costa won his primary, distant cousins state Rep. Paul Costa and state Sen. Jay Costa Jr. were busy winning uncontested re-election campaigns of their own.

Since no Republican ran in the primary, Costa should be able to waltz into Harrisburg -- though he is eyeing the possibility of an independent emerging.

"You don't want to sound presumptuous," he says.

In the immediate future, he's meeting with political leaders from north of the Allegheny River. Given that all three Democratic candidates were city-based, shoring up his suburban support is a natural first step.

Costa says he'd also like to meet with current District 21 Rep. Lisa Bennington to get up to speed on the bills she will have pending when he takes over. (Bennington chose not to seek re-election after her first term in office.)

At the top of Costa's list of priorities is property-tax reform and improving the business climate.

"I want to look at true property-tax reform, something that's within reach," he says. "If we make it more appetizing to come here, as far as tax breaks, more business will come into the state."

HosPAC, too, is exploring options for the future.

"Our idea is to sustain this," Graf says, adding, "We don't want to be a one-issue organization. There's going to be other issues out there."

Currently, the organization is researching the possibilities for an anti-drink-tax referendum, which HosPAC wants to put on the November ballot. A push for the approximately 24,000 required signatures would begin in mid-June, Graf says.

Frazier was the only politician that HosPAC opposed in this election, but Graf promises every county councilor who supported the tax can expect similar treatment when they next run for office.

And county Chief Executive Dan Onorato -- who is widely rumored to be preparing a gubernatorial campaign in 2010 -- is by no means immune.

"He can expect this issue to dog him for the rest of his political career," Graf says.

But Mistick doubts Onorato needs to spend too much time looking over his shoulder: "This campaign really should give Onorato no concern because look -- each of them almost won."

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