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Leaders of local GOP are at odds over approach to 2011 primary and general electionsEdit

Sunday, April 10, 2011 By Timothy McNulty, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [1]

There are not as many GOP leaders in Allegheny County, so when they fight it means something. All last week party insiders were agog, and picking sides, in a public spat between the GOP's county chair Jim Roddey and the Republican bloc on the Allegheny County Council.

Mr. Roddey accused his fellow Republicans of kowtowing to Democrats on property reassessments and transit funding, and blasted them for appointing a former colleague to a vacant, at-large council seat. He stepped in to endorse another candidate for the seat and said the council members were hurting the party's chances of winning countywide seats come November 2011.

"They don't consult with anybody. They think they can figure this [election] out and they haven't made good decisions," Mr. Roddey said.

Many of Mr. Roddey's comments were directed at Councilman Vince Gastgeb, an inaugural member of the body who joined in 2000, the same year Mr. Roddey took over as the first county executive.

"I guess he feels the need to bring these issues up publicly and that's his prerogative," Mr. Gastgeb said. "He can endorse who he wants, and can be critical of me and the other Republicans [on council] generally, but we have to work better as a team."

The fight comes at a critical juncture for the party, when it senses for the first time in eight years a chance to win back Mr. Roddey's old executive seat. It is emboldened by Tom Corbett's narrow capture of Allegheny County in the governor's race, despite its 2:1 edge in Democratic voters, which was an effort that Mr. Roddey, Mr. Gastgeb and fellow councilwoman Jan Rea worked on together.

Last week Mr. Roddey publicly endorsed Mt. Lebanon high-tech firm owner D. Raja in the GOP primary for executive over ex-councilman Chuck McCullough. That was not so surprising given Mr. McCullough's pending trial on charges he took an elderly legal client's money without her knowledge -- a trial that could leave the GOP without an executive candidate come the fall, Mr. Roddey told the Tribune-Review.

It was Mr. Roddey's other endorsement of attorney Heather Heidelbaugh over fellow candidate Ed Kress that caused a stir. Mr. McCullough was forced by the county charter to leave that seat once he joined the executive campaign, and naming his replacement was up to the three remaining council Republicans. Before their vote, Mr. Roddey asked the GOP bloc of Mr. Gastgeb, Ms. Rea and Matt Drozd to make a neutral pick -- perhaps Dan Garcia, the chair of the county's Young Republicans -- and short of that, to appoint Ms. Heidelbaugh.

They did neither and appointed Ed Kress, a fellow attorney who was appointed to a council seat in 2005 then lost it to Jim Burn, currently the county and state Democratic party chairman. "We appointed Ed because he has experience and we have worked with Ed before," said Ms. Rea, another original 2000 county council member. "We have not worked with Heather up to this point. If she's elected we'll work with her in the future."

Mr. Roddey has long supported Ms. Heidelbaugh -- a hard-charging Mt. Lebanon election law expert with years of experience in national and state GOP politics -- and said the move "forced me to try to level the playing field, so I am endorsing Heather. That is why I took them to task."

It is clear Mr. Roddey thinks Ms. Heidelbaugh can use the at-large seat to shake up the Republican presence on council, and provide a new voice on GOP policy. Mr. Roddey "earnestly believes I can make a substantial contribution on council. That's why he's endorsing me," Ms. Heidelbaugh said last week.

But Mr. Kress, of Shaler, has support too: Republican committees in four North Hills communities endorsed him in the last week since his appointment.

Local GOP fights are rare but when they happen they are doozies. County Commissioner Bob Cranmer broke with Republican running mate Larry Dunn in 1997, changing the face of county government. The city's GOP chair Bob Hillen filed a criminal complaint against county chair Robert Glancy in 2006, accusing him of macing, which could have landed Mr. Glancy in jail.

The most direct comparison may be the bitter GOP primary fight between county commissioner Bill Hunt and challenger Barbara Hafer in 1983. Like the current battle over the Republican at-large seat, the '83 contest was for an all but vestigial position -- the minority seat in a body controlled by Democrats Tom Foerster and Pete Flaherty. Mr. Hunt famously dismissed Barbara Hafer as "the little nurse from Elizabeth," a remark she rode to victory and used throughout her political career.

The current spat also involves Mr. Roddey's support of GOP activists Bob Howard and Ned Pfeifer in their respective campaigns for county controller and treasurer. Like his support for Pittsburgh Tea Party leader Patti Weaver's executive bid -- which abruptly ended in March 2011 due to fundraising problems -- some in the party see Mr. Roddey's support as a lost cause that could just drive more Democrats to the polls. (Ms. Weaver is another big supporter of the Howard and Pfeifer candidacies.)

"I think it's smart to just put our resources at the top of the ticket if we expect to run a serious race" for executive, Mr. Gastgeb said.

"That's one person's opinion," Mr. Roddey said. While admitting a GOP win in one of the row offices is a long shot, he said, "I've got 400 people saying we need to fill these open positions on the ballot. We keep giving Democrats a free pass."

It was not always this way. Besides Mr. Roddey's inaugural role in the executive's seat, Republicans were one vote away from controlling council -- which had a bare 8-7 Democratic majority -- as late as 2005. Those days seem far away now.

This kind of intraparty leadership fight in the GOP "doesn't happen often. They don't have the people to have it often," said political analyst William Green. "There hasn't been a lot of strong Republican leadership and it's sad to see the good leaders they do have be at each other's throats when they should have unity going into the fall."


Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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