With two weeks to go before their special election face-off on April 11, the two candidates seeking to replace state Rep. Jeff Habay have sought to run relatively low-key campaigns. Were it not for some personal revelations, they might have succeeded completely.
The 30th district encompasses Shaler, O'Hara, Hampton, Fox Chapel and parts of Ross. The contest to represent it has perhaps been most notable because of rumors that the Democrat, Shawn Flaherty, fathered a child out of wedlock. In an unusual twist, Flaherty pre-empted possible political damage by telling Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Dennis Roddy that the rumors were true. In a sympathetic March 12 piece about Flaherty's past, Roddy decried a political system "in which it is less desirable to defeat candidates than to frighten them away" with campaign dirt.
Flaherty's rival, Republican Mike Dolan, responded with a March 19 letter to the paper, faulting Roddy and Flaherty for the "unsubstantiated accusation that my campaign planned to use" those rumors. "I believe that we need to get rid of this personal mudslinging," Dolan asserted.
As it turns out, Dolan himself had two 90-day driver's-license suspensions for underage alcohol -- one incident involving a fake ID -- prior to 2000.
Neither Dolan nor his campaign manager, Mary Larcinese, would comment on the matter. But court filings and state Bureau of Driver Licensing records show the 26-year-old political novice was convicted of an "underage alcohol offense" on Sept. 4, 1997, in Centre County. His license was suspended for 90 days for violating state laws "relating to purchase, consumption, possession or transportation of liquor or malt or brewed beverages." Dolan's license was restored on Jan. 1, 1998, only to be suspended for another 90 days on March 31, 1999, for "carrying a false identification card" while "engaged in the unlawful sale, importation, manufacture or transportation or having unlawful possession of liquor, alcohol or malt or brewed beverages."
In October 1999, Dolan appealed his suspension in Common Pleas Court, which ruled in his favor the following February. But the state got that ruling reversed on appeal in October 2000. Dolan's agreement to enter a Youthful Offenders program for first offenders, the state argued, made such suspensions automatic under state law.
Both candidates are hoping to benefit from the distaste that Habay has left in his wake. The Shaler Republican, who vacated his seat in February, still casts a long shadow over the district: He was recently convicted of violating state ethics rules, and still faces a 21-count indictment, which includes charges of fraud and witness intimidation, pending a trial.
"The unknown factor is how the voters will respond to the trauma" of the Habay indictment, said Joe Mistick, a Democrat and veteran political consultant who teaches at Duquesne Law School. (Mistick was interviewed prior to disclosures about Dolan's driving record.)
Flaherty, 46, is the boy of "Nobody's Boy": local political legend Pete Flaherty, who as Pittsburgh mayor boasted of his independence. The younger Flaherty is a Fox Chapel attorney, trying to parlay his legal work in county property assessment appeals into a platform for tax reforms.
Dolan, 26, the O'Hara scion of bankers who founded Federated Investments, says his corporate experience running the Voyager Jet Center, a business aircraft company operating out of Allegheny County Airport, is evidence he can usher in a more pro-business climate in Pennsylvania.
Democrats have a slight edge in voter registration in the district, but the seat has long been held by Republicans, and has an independent streak. As many as 10 percent of registered voters don't declare a party affiliation.
"This is a very independent voting district," says Shaler Manager Tim Rogers. "People really look at the candidates."
Despite lots of door-knocking and leafleting, plus a recent student-organized debate at Hampton High School, the question remains whether voters will care enough to vote in large numbers. The special election in March for Pittsburgh City Council's District 3 seat had a turnout of less than 20 percent. With this House race barely one month before the regular May primaries, Democrats and Republicans suspect few voters may show up at the polls.
To put it bluntly, Mistick concluded about the state of this contest: "It's not even a facsimile of democracy."
Marty Levine contributed to this report.