Ed Kress isn't the big, club-swinging, Buford Pusser-esque bruiser that you might expect to run for sheriff. Of average height and build, he looks more like a 35-year-old attorney specializing in bankruptcy and estate planning. Which is exactly what he is.
Kress, of Shaler, also doesn't have the résumé you might expect from a candidate running for sheriff. In fact, he has no law-enforcement experience at all. But that shouldn't be a concern, he says.
"The biggest part of being sheriff has nothing to do with law enforcement," Kress says. "The sheriff runs the jail, transports prisoners and deals with deadbeat dads. But the most important role of the sheriff is to run the sheriff's sale of foreclosed homes.
"That's where I plan on making the biggest difference. Let's see if we can't get in there and maybe keep some people from losing their homes. That part of the job involves the court system, and who knows the court system better than an attorney?"
Kress is the lone Republican in the race and will face one of three Democratic challengers including William Mullen, the current acting sheriff. He served a brief stint on county council, just seven months after he was selected to finish the term of former County Councilor Tom Shumaker who took a job out of state. But he tried to make a quick splash by employing unorthodox revenue-generating techniques.
Sports teams and municipalities across the country have tried to raise cash by selling off naming rights, but Kress suggested legislation to sell rights to parks and bridges and everything in between. In his last act as a councilor, he brought forward legislation to sell the naming rights to the Pittsburgh International Airport.
Those policies didn't end up going too far, but Kress says he would bring his "outside-the-box thinking" to the sheriff's office.
Too many people, Kress says, lose their homes unnecessarily. He says he will work hardest to make sure that veterans and seniors, especially those who may be physically or mentally ill, don't lose their homes.
"In the instance of veterans, why can't the sheriff's office make some calls to veterans' organizations or make a database of programs out there that are available to help them?" Kress wonders. "In the case of seniors, you may have someone who has Alzheimer's who doesn't understand the notice you just tacked on their door. So, why can't we knock or do some investigation to find out if this person is sick? ... That may require developing some sort of outreach team, but if that keeps one person from losing their home, it's worth it."
Maryellen Hayden of ACORN, a community organization supporting low- and middle-income families, was surprised to hear about Kress' platform. Each month the group works with families so they can fight their foreclosures.
"You're telling me he's a Republican and he's interested in fixing sheriff's sales?" Hayden asked. "We're a non-partisan organization and if he's serious about protecting the rights of low- and middle- income families, he's a candidate we'd be very interested in meeting."
Hayden said her group has made several futile attempts over the years to work with the sheriff's office about the high number of foreclosures in the county. According to a 2005 study released by the Pennsylvania Department of banking, foreclosures in Allegheny County grew 60 percent from 2000 to 2003 -- the third highest in the state.
So now, they undertake the task on their own and in the past two years, Hayden says, they have helped about 700 families fight their foreclosures; about half of those have been successful.
"If he's willing to help fix the system," Hayden says, "then ACORN is willing to listen to him."
Kress says he understands that he wouldn't be able to help the majority of people save their homes: "Some people just make bad decisions and can't afford the home they purchased." However, he says a lot of people, including seniors, don't understand that there are ways to save their homes by using the equity they have accrued over the years. The office should be proactive in helping those folks, he says.
"The sheriff," Kress concludes, "has to be more than just a paper-pusher. We ask every other official to try and be innovative in his or her job. It's time for the sheriff's office to show a little innovation too."