In the race for Allegheny County executive, Republican D. Raja and Democrat Rich Fitzgerald have become experts at both citing their own proposed policies and at taking political jabs at one another.
But during a televised Sept. 15 debate at Pittsburgh's CAPA High School, the two men seemed to be out of their element when asked about issues facing the African-American community. Their answers provided little more than those same personal attacks and political rhetoric that they've been throwing around since the May primary.
The debate was sponsored by the League of Women Voters and the Black Political Empowerment Project. The questions were submitted by some of the 50 or so folks in attendance, as well as by the public ahead of time.
When it came time to answer questions about the problems facing the black community, the two provided answers that did little more than show a disconnect from both the topic and the audience they were addressing.
One question, for example, was: "Pittsburgh has the highest rate of poverty among … African Americans. … The wealth gap between white and black is its worst in 25 years. What will you do to change this?" In response, the two men didn't offer much in the way of specific plans, although Raja said that fostering small business was a key, and Fitzgerald said he's always willing to work, and has worked, with groups like BPEP.
Then, Raja spent most of his one-minute response taking a jab at Fitzgerald.
"What would you say to the person in charge for the past 12 years and the president of council for the past eight?" Raja said. "You've got to take responsibility for this. Our state right now is clearly a result of my opponent running the county this way."
For his part, Fitzgerald opted for the classic street-cred-by-association answer.
"I'm proud of the fact that every single elected official who is African-American endorsed me. They didn't endorse my opponent," said Fitzgerald. "And I think [state Rep.] Joe Preston said it pretty well: ‘You know the one thing about Rich, when he walks into the African-American neighborhoods, he doesn't need an escort,' because I've been a member of the community for 40 years."
Later in the evening, moderator and WPXI reporter Vince Simms asked the candidates, "As County Executive, what will you do to decrease gang violence?" And even more than with the previous question, the pair seemed unprepared to offer any specifics.
"Gang violence, OK. Education is a critical aspect of it and, really, jobs [because] people need to know that there's a way you can succeed by doing the regular stuff and have a win come out of it," Raja said.
Fitzgerald then used the first several seconds of his allotted one minute to debate a comment Raja made earlier about Fitzgerald's inability, as council president, to balance the budget. But from there his answer got even stranger.
"With respect to gang violence, we need a multi-pronged approach -- education and hope. And then the biggest part of it is, we need to provide the jobs to the young people that are there. I think Marcellus gives us a great opportunity," Fitzgerald offered, referencing the region's Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry. "We put a program in place at the community college and you go through that program for a few months and you come out with a job that pays about $28,000 a year. You go further in that program … and you can get a $45,000-a-year job. We also need to work with our local law-enforcement officials, with the FBI … and the [district attorney]. … Truly it takes a village to solve this problem."
And apparently that village has natural gas sitting underneath it.