Showdown! Featured

9:51am EDT July 22, 2002

For better or worse, Allegheny County is about to enter an entirely new political era that could make or break the region’s lagging business climate.

Gone will be the county’s outdated three commissioner system and, as some might suggest, the old-line Democratic machine that drove it. It was a system marked by a few successes, such as the building of the airport, but marred by unrelenting political infighting, strange alliances, cronyism and patronage.

Terms such as “embarrassing” and “disgrace” are bandied about almost casually by some to describe county government in recent years.

Now, the county has been granted that rare opportunity to change its ways. And that means a chance to catch up with the rest of the country in terms of economic development and prosperity.

But politics is politics, and the future of this region, unfortunately, will be determined by the tenacity of the political leaders vying for the new position of county executive.

On the Republican side is James Roddey, a consummate businessman, entrepreneur and everyman’s board member who views himself as the political outsider in this race. And in some ways he is. He’s never run for political office, and his resume includes such well-placed leadership positions as president of Turner Communications Corp. and Rollins Communications Corp.

He shares in the ownership of — and helps run — a handful of successful small companies in the region. And you would find it easier to figure out on which local civic boards he hasn’t served.

But make no mistake: Roddey is as much on the inside as any elected politician — for behind every elected official are strategic players orchestrating their campaigns.

He has been an influential force for local Republicans, chairing more than one statewide election and serving as a delegate to the 1988 and 1996 Republican National conventions.

On the other side, is County Coroner Cyril Wecht, a card-carrying member of the old-line Democratic machine. Without question, he’s a working man’s scrapper who won’t run from a good fight. And he has the credentials to back him up.

As a lawyer, doctor, politician and world-renowned forensic pathologist, he commands a high level of respect. He’s well-connected politically across the state.

Clearly, this race is, in many ways, a cut-and-dried contest of contrasts: Republican vs. Democrat, businessman vs. politician, white-collar attitudes vs. blue-collar. But change is the order of the day.

How either will effect change in the government, and, ultimately, in the region, will determine how prosperous this region becomes. Do they each have a vision and a plan to bring that vision to life?

The following interviews give some insight into such change, if, in fact, they believe change is necessary. Then it’s up to you. We hope this helps you make the right choice. But keep one thing in mind: This is only the beginning.

James Roddey

Five years ago, you said that, while you actively work behind the scenes in local Republican politics, you would never get involved in running for political office yourself. Now here you are. What changed your mind?

In those days, I didn’t envision that we would have a home rule charter and that we would have a single county executive. As I’ve surveyed the political landscape, running for mayor was pretty much an impossibility, with a 6-1 or 8-1 disadvantage of the registration. I had no interest in going to Washington and no interest in going to Harrisburg, and, quite frankly, no interest in being one of three county commissioners.

But as I worked on home rule and worked to get that passed, it became apparent that a single executive could make a real difference in providing leadership, so that’s why I got interested.

Why is that different than having three commissioners?

Well, you always have to have a partner in making any decision. Sometimes it’s one partner and sometimes it’s another partner, which means it becomes very political. You start trading. One partner wants something, so, “OK, I’ll go along with you on this vote, but I want you to vote for something else.” It just doesn’t lead to efficient government.

Let me say what this hasn’t done for us. This community has not been very competitive in the last five years while the country has enjoyed its greatest economic boom in history. Allegheny County simply missed that boom.

We missed it because we never had a consensus in the community of what our vision of this region should be. We didn’t have any focus on what we were trying to do. We had no plan. If you don’t have vision, you don’t have focus and you don’t have a plan, then you don’t have leadership.

One of the key qualifications of leadership is to provide all of that — to create a goal, to create a vision, to put together a plan and execute it and keep everybody focused on the plan.

If we haven’t had a plan, what have we had?

We’ve had confusion. We’ve had bickering. We’ve had fighting. We’ve had one group pitting their interest in one group against another, constant turmoil in the county government and with the city. It’s remarkable that we’ve progressed as much as we have considering that we really never had the kind of leadership we should have had.

But we have marvelous resources here, resources that are certainly beyond the scope of other cities that we would consider our peers or our competitors — places like Cincinnati, Columbus, Ohio. They’ve really gotten ahead of us in creating jobs and in development and attracting companies. And they’ve done all these things with far fewer resources than we have.

Now, back to the original question, why are you stepping forward?

I think it’s time that I step forward and try to provide the kind of leadership we need to take us into the next century. My public and community career has been based on solving problems, whether it was at WQED, the Port Authority, or the Regatta, I’ve often been called in to fix a problem, and we’ve got big problems.

I came to the conclusion that, No. 1, there was a need for somebody to step forward, and, No. 2, I could win. And No. 3, it’s something I want to do. I care a lot about this community. It’s been good to me.

I’ve been here almost 21 years. I’ve had successful businesses. I’ve had a good business career. I’ve had very fulfilling community experiences. And I’m frustrated that we aren’t doing better, that we aren’t realizing the potential of this region.

I think there are some very basic things we need to change, and I think I can change those. I don’t see my opponent really making any significant change. So that’s why I’m running.

What portion of your time as county executive do estimate would be spent on economic development activities? What kinds of activities will you pursue?

First of all, the Home Rule Charter mandates that we hire a county manager who will run the day-to-day business of the county. While I would be involved in policy decisions and certainly involved in decisions about hiring key positions, I would let the county manager run the business of the county.

I would think certainly that in the first four years, economic development would probably consume 50 percent of the activity of the county executive. It’s the No. 1 issue, it’s the No. 1 need, and it should be the No. 1 activity of the county executive.

Now, economic development encompasses a lot of things. It encompasses development of the airport, and it involves creating resources to work with, so we’re going to have to make government a lot more efficient

I know it’s a radical idea to suggest to politicians that we should have business discipline and business sense in government. But when I talk about business and government, I’m not talking about making a profit. I’m talking about setting goals, making people accountable, expecting people to show up for work and put in a full day’s work, and expecting people to treat the citizens of Allegheny County like customers, which would certainly be a novel idea.

As the first county executive, your actions would, to some degree, set precedents for those who hold the office in the future. Of all the things you would be responsible for, what would be your priorities?

Fixing the assessment system is a very high priority. We have a Third World assessment system. It’s an embarrassment, acknowledged as the worst system in the commonwealth and perhaps the worst in the country.

It’s politicized. It’s not professional. It’s unfair. So we’ve got to fix that.

Getting the property tax lowered is very high on the list. We can’t be competitive in this community unless we get our property tax lowered. But in order to do that, we’ve got to cut the cost of government. We’ve got to make government more efficient. That’s all one package to work together.

What ideas to spur e)conomic development would you most like to implement?

First of all, we have wasted six years at the airport. We’ve had really no meaningful development there. We have a wonderful airport, and we were promised 20,000 jobs. After six years, we don’t have any more new jobs at the new airport than we had at the old.

This year, they broke ground for a hotel at the airport. Every airport in America has a hotel. It’s as if we didn’t know we needed one. We just got around this year to tearing down the old airport after six years, as if we didn’t know that we needed to tear it down. And probably the most revolutionary idea of all is we’re going to have a gas station at the airport.

The airport is a good news/bad news story. It really represents a triumph in government in getting the airport built and a failure of government in having zero development out there. So that’s No. 1. I think if we can complete an air cargo facility, industrial parks, office complexes, I think we can do a lot of economic development right at the airport and on that property.

Beyond that, I think we need to look at some of the disadvantaged areas of this community. There’s a project going on in Homestead that represents about a $300 million investment. I think projects like that in other areas of the Mon Valley could be very, very important to us.

We need to create tax-free enterprise zones to encourage businesses to come in and utilize available property. If I know how to do anything, it’s marketing. I certainly would make that sort of the centerpiece of our economic development effort — that we market the region in an intelligent way.

My assumption is that your main focus would be on marketing, once you’re done changing infrastructure. Does a lot of this come down to being an effective marketer, whether it’s marketing the resources we have or drumming up enthusiasm for the region?

That’s true, but it’s more than just being a cheerleader. First of all, you’re correct in your assessment. We’ve got to sell, and we’ve got to sell ourselves first. Everyone within the community has got to feel good about what we can do together. We’ve got to build a consensus.

We really have never gotten all of the interests in the community together. We’ve been fighting among ourselves. We need to let the rest of the world know about our resources.

Everything is marketing. You’ve got to sell people on ideas, on creativity. But we can do it.

Allegheny County, while a distinct political entity, is indisputably the hub of the region. How would you balance your role as Allegheny County executive with that of a key representative of southwestern Pennsylvania?

You can really divide the job into two areas. Delivering services is Allegheny County’s responsibility, and we’re really not concerned about going across borders. We’ve got to be sure everybody has adequate fire and police and garbage disposal and that we have good transportation, that we have a good health and human services network.

Economic development is the region. If we bring another Sony in and it locates in Beaver County, that’s going to be a win for the region. That’s going to help Allegheny County.

If we bring enough companies in, if we have enough economic development going on in the region, we won’t have to worry about Allegheny County. We’ll get our share, but we will always be the hub.

What is your opinion of the efforts by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance to increase visibility of the region? How would you complement or improve its efforts?

I think the concept is good, and I think it’s the correct concept to bring organizations together under one umbrella to do the marketing. I’m sure we have all of the organizations under the tent as securely as we need them. There seems to still be some division of effort.

Secondly, I think they got a very slow start for a variety of reasons, trying to build a consensus, trying to break down some of the barriers between some of the fiefdoms that exist.

Their plan is a good plan. I think the plan has a great deal of merit. I think they’ve identified what the problems are, and I think they understand what needs to be done. The big problem is resources. They don’t have enough money to execute. The plan as they have presented it now will be very minimal. Really, we need more resources.

What would you say has been your greatest success and failure to date?

I’d have to break it down into several categories. I’ve had great business success with several of our businesses. Probably Star Cable represents a real business triumph. We’re in the process of possibly selling Star Cable, and it’s certainly going to sell for a whole lot more than we put in it when we started.

We had a great success with Pittsburgh Outdoor Advertising. I think we paid $13 million and sold it in three and a half years for almost $35 million. So that was a success.

In terms of public, I think the Port Authority, where we had a $22 million deficit and a horrible, horrible patronage system and were losing $2 million a year; we turned that around, balanced the budget and eliminated patronage. It was tough.

Now for failures. If you go back all through life, I failed to make the Olympic team. I ran track for a good part of my life when I was young, and that was a big disappointment. I thought I had a shot [in the 400-meter hurdles] and was not able to do that.

I’ve had some business failures, but I don’t know that anyone is good at listing their failures. I probably have some enemies who could do a much better job.

Why should people vote for you?

Because I don’t need the job. Therefore, I can do what’s right. I don’t have to worry about getting re-elected. I don’t have to surround myself with political cronies, make promises I can’t deliver, or appoint people to things because they made contributions.

I’m not looking to build a political career. This is about fixing the problems of the community.

Dr. Cyril Wecht

What portion of your time as county executive do you estimate would be spent on economic development activities? What kinds of activities will you pursue?

I can’t give you an idea about percentages. That’s a fascinating question. I would say this, that there’s not an awful lot that doesn’t come eventually back to economics in government. You talk transportation, you talk of bringing in new business, you talk about developing new programs to permit people to provide vocational skills so that you’ll have that kind of work force.

Everything comes back, perhaps, to the dollar bill and the purse. So you really have to define that more, but I think I understand what you’re saying — matters that are more closely related to what I would call hard economics. Obviously, it’s a very, very big part of what you do, but I can’t give you a percentage. And of course I’ll never function that way. It reminds me of when I used to be quite a good violinist in my younger days. I practiced four hours a day, and six on Saturday and Sunday. I had a rigorous schedule, so much time for scales, so much time for etudes and so much time for other things. But I can’t do that with government. You’ll take it as it comes and you’ll deal with what you must. But economics will be the No. 1 matter.

As the first county executive, your actions will, to some degree, set precedents for those individuals who hold the office in the future. Of all of the things you would be responsible for, what would be your priorities?

The number one thing is to strengthen and stabilize that which is here — to make certain that we can do everything possible to enhance the businesses that exist. Since it’s my understanding that probably of all the businesses in America — maybe 70 percent are what would be characterized as small businesses — that obviously includes to a very substantial degree small businesses. So when we talk, as I do and everybody else does, about bringing in new businesses from elsewhere in America [and] from abroad, we talk about what we can do to help these people, about taxes, financing, other special accommodations we can offer.

I have said repeatedly all that is good and necessary, but first, before I go hustle the ABC Widget Co. in California to build a satellite operation here, I want to see if we have a widget company already existing and make sure that we’re not intruding upon them. It’s very easy sometimes to be attracted by the face and figure of a new secretary, but you have to remember that you have a wife that’s been around for a while. So you’ve got to remember the people who’ve been loyal to the community, have produced for this community, given of themselves and so on. I think that their needs must be addressed first.

Also, I would want to find out from them what we need in that particular field of endeavor. Are they capable of doing that or are they interested in doing that? Do they plan to stay in business? Would they like to be complemented by the acquisition of a similar business and so on. Think of restaurant clusters. You would think, perhaps, that wouldn’t it be better to have your restaurant all by itself somewhere. Well, it seems that in some locations you have a whole bunch of them. This person likes Chinese food, that one likes Italian food and this one just wants a deli sandwich. Maybe it’s good to have these clusters and spin-offs. I intend to find out from the appropriate agencies, organizations and individuals, through the grapevine and so on, who’s out there, who’s looking to expand, who’s looking to come east, who abroad is interested in coming to America. I intend to utilize business people to the greatest extent. They would be the major component of what I refer to as teams, ambassadors without pay, that I want to have help me do these things.

It’s obvious then that business people will be the key people. They won’t be the sole members of the team; we want to have appropriate individuals who can address the questions the entities elsewhere will have. So we’re going to have appropriate representation, but we’ve got to have people who know and understand business, who talk the language and appreciate economics.

What ideas to spur economic development would you most like to implement?

I think growth and development has to be the No. 1 priority. The development of rapid mass transit has to be another major priority, and since that can’t be done overnight, it has to be decided upon and commenced immediately so that in my lifetime I’ll be able to put the shovel into or break that bottle of champagne on something that would have started in the year 2000.

Straightening out the property tax assessment mess, that will be a priority matter: to eliminate the inequities and inefficiencies, to professionalize and de-politicize [it]. That should not be too difficult to accomplish. That does not seem to me as formidable a task as the other things I mentioned. Then, to develop the airport infrastructure to the fullest extent possible, to utilize our airport as Atlanta has done. Here we are midway between Chicago and New York, Canada above us, Washington and Baltimore to the southeast, Cleveland to the west. I think we’re strategically located, so that’s an important thing.

Young adults not coming back to their homes and remaining in Pittsburgh, that’s another major point and serious problem. I would say probably two-thirds of kids from middle-class homes who go away to good colleges and universities aren’t coming back to reside in Pittsburgh. We can’t continue to let that happen. We’ve got to find programs and very specific undertakings that are designed to reach out to these young people.

Allegheny County, while a distinct political entity, is indisputably the hub of the region. How would you balance your role as Allegheny County executive with that of a key representative of Western Pennsylvania?

It’s something I commented on to a congressman earlier today from an adjacent county. I look upon Allegheny County as the hub and not the entire wheel. We’ve not been sensible or sensitive enough to the surrounding counties, to our loss as well as to our shame. By failing to involve all of the outside counties through their governmental and business leaders, we have failed to develop the clout that we could have as a region to its fullest extent possible.

I chatted with commissioners from Beaver County; they were never invited, they were never told about things that were going on: the airport hangar terminal, the airport authority and so on. You can’t deal with people like that. This is Southwestern Pennsylvania, and we must develop this as a region to compete with the greater Cleveland area, the greater Baltimore area and other areas. I’ve known these people for a long time, politically, governmentally, personally, and I look forward to the opportunity to involve them for the purposes of making this a significant region.

What is your opinion of the efforts to date by the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance to increase the visibility of the region? How would you work to complement or improve on their efforts?

They’ve done a good job, and they’re an important entity. I intend to work closely with them. David Shapira (chairman of the PRA’s board) is somebody I’ve known for a long time. Our daughters went to school together, and they are very close friends. I have already had a couple of meetings with him. I think it’s an important organization with a good objective and programs. What they do and how they do it is their business, but I intend to work with them and with all of the other existing groups. I want to learn more about how they differentiate and distinguish themselves one from the other because it’s my impression — and a number of other people have actually said it to me — that there’s an overlapping, there’s redundancy, which, of course, leads to inefficiency, confusion, and not to mention perhaps less bang for your buck. But I’m not going to dictate, I’m not going to take over corporate Allegheny County. But I want to play a more active role.