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Playing All the Right Angles

Sleazy Republicans have fewer people, but have grabbed more power

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Hard as it may be to believe, given the electric personalities and bold visions of Jim Roddey and his challenger, Democrat Dan Onorato, the Allegheny County Executive race is not Pennslyvania's most interesting this November.

 

That distinction goes to the mayoral race in Philadelphia, where the biggest issue of this election season has been the disclosure that the FBI has been bugging the offices of Democratic Mayor John Street, apparently as part of an ongoing corruption investigation. Coming as it did just a few weeks before the election contest between Street and Republican Sam Katz, the news has caused no end of speculation. Were the bugs an attempt by George Bush's Justice Department to provide the Katz campaign with dirt? Was this another Watergate?

 

For what it's worth, I doubt it. Why should right-wingers go to all that trouble? What's the point of using skullduggery to ferret out ugly truths when you can just make them up entirely, or distort the facts that are already available? And the state's conservatives are plenty skilled in that respect.

 

In recent weeks, for example:

 

* State Republicans have run a TV ad accusing local judicial candidate Alan Hertzberg of not paying child support to his first wife. Hertzberg, his ex-wife, and the court record itself all refute the ad's claims.

 

* An unknown group has blanketed the state with anonymous phone calls warning that Democrat Max Baer, a family-court judge hoping to be elected to the state Supreme Court, put a child into a foster home of a convicted child molester. The case is, naturally, more complicated than that: The molester's conviction was 40 years old, and the child in question was harmed only after being removed from the foster home. The case against the callers, by contrast, is pretty straightforward: Making political phone calls without identifying yourself is against the law. Democrats can always complain, though -- to the state's Republican attorney general, Mike Fisher.

 

-- As City Paper's Rich Lord reported last week, Republicans have established a secretive political-action fund to elect two Republicans to Allegheny County Council. Political insiders say that the Republicans have sizable sums to work with, but the fund has not filed financial disclosure forms, violating campaign finance laws.

 

-- The faltering campaign of Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey has attempted a last-ditch smear on challenger Dan Onorato: a mailing which among other things attempts to tie Onorato to an alleged drug dealer who worked for City Controller Tom Flaherty. "How is [Flaherty] going to guard your money if he can't even guard his own office?" the mailer asks. And Flaherty, the mailer warns, "will control both the County Executive and County Council if Onorato is elected." (No doubt that comes as news to voters who've seen Roddey TV ads which imply that Flaherty criticized Onorato -- the guy he supposedly controls -- when the latter was a city councilor.)

 

This is how politics has always been played, of course. And in this election cycle, Republican tactics may be backfiring. As this issue goes to press, Onorato appears likely to win the county executive race, in part because of voter disgust with Roddey's negative campaign. Similarly, Philly pundits have surmised that the bugs in Street's office may help him if voters may feel he's the subject of a political witch-hunt.

 

But it's clear that Republicans have played the game much better than the Dems -- to the point where even victories for Democrats like Ed Rendell can seem like defeats.

 

Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by about a half-million statewide, but you'd never know it by looking at our politicians. Both houses of the state legislature are presided over by Republican majorities, to Rendell's consternation. So are the state appeals courts. Both of Pennsylvania's U.S. senators are Republican. So are 12 out of its 19 representatives in the U.S. House, thanks largely to a Republican-drawn district map.

 

And in some respects, Republican influence will likely grow regardless of this year's elections. Thanks to the incompetence of the administration of Mayor Tom Murphy, Republicans may gain an important foothold even here in Pittsburgh. Almost all of the plans to bail the city out of a looming $80 million deficit include creating a five-member financial oversight board, two of whose representatives will be chosen by Republicans in the legislature.

 

And yet the partisan implications of all this have gone ignored. Dems don't seem to want to talk about partisan politics...even as the Republicans have been steadily kicking their ass along party lines for years. The county exec race is a good example: While Roddey runs against the Democrats -- even more than he runs against Onorato -- Onorato has been running away from them.

 

The supposedly liberal press hasn't been much help, either.

 

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's editorial page endorsed Roddey, for example, though it primly warned that since both candidates pledged not to engage in false or negative campaigning, "Our endorsement presumes adherence to the principles of the pledge, particularly in this final week when so many races turn bitter, nasty and personal." As if taking the paper up on a dare, the Roddey campaign promptly sent out its guilt-by-association Flaherty mailer. But the editorial board reaffirmed its Roddey endorsement on Nov. 2 anyway, making no mention of the pledge its endorsement supposedly hinged upon.

 

In fact, the P-G endorsed Republicans in seven out of nine contested races for county office. (As for the two Republicans the paper didn't endorse, both candidates said that if elected, they wouldn't give up their private-sector day jobs.) And the paper actually helped the Republicans smear Hertzberg. Noting Hertzberg has been a city councilor since 1994, the Post-Gazette panned his judicial bid, opining on Oct. 20 that council "bears as much responsibility for the financial woes of the city as Mayor Tom Murphy."

 

Pinning Murphy's mistakes on Hertzberg is an act of hypocrisy that would do any politician proud: Over the years the Post-Gazette has flogged Hertzberg for not doing the mayor's bidding on pet projects like Downtown retail. But that hasn't stopped Republicans from quoting the P-G editorial in yet another anti-Hertzberg TV ad.

 

With the possible exception of badly burned politicians like Hertzberg, few people seem to have noticed what kind of sleazy tactics the Republicans are using -- or the thoroughness with which they use them from the national level on down. Few voters are connecting the Republican power grab in Pittsburgh to those that have taken place across the country -- from the removal of Gray Davis in California to the forced redistricting of Texas into more Republican-friendly lines.

 

For voters in Pittsburgh, where Democrats still hold saw, it's easy to overlook those connections. Maybe we'll feel differently on Election Day a year from now. Let's just hope that, by the time we wake up and start talking about it, there aren't any Republicans listening in.

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