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Allegheny Exec Candidates Fight to the Finish

By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor

It’s the highest-dollar campaign in Pennsylvania this year, and it’s by far the messiest. PoliticsPA visited Allegheny County to check in on one of 2011’s biggest elections.

In Allegheny County, Democrat Rich Fitzgerald is squaring off against Republican Raja in what the Pittsburgh City Paper accurately depicted as a mud-fest for the County Executive’s office. Between the primary and general, candidates will spend more than $3.5 million on the race by the time it’s all said and done. Most of that will come in the form of negative television ads.

The negative TV ads, radio spots and press releases are coming so rapidly that they’re difficult to keep up with. Debates – like the big one scheduled Tuesday night by WTAE – have been knock-down, drag-out brawls.

Republicans take the tenor of the race as a good sign. Raja’s record looks better to an electorate wearied by politics-as-usual, they say, so the negative battle hurts Fitzgerald more. And they ask, why would Fitzgerald go so intensely negative if he was comfortably ahead?

Democrats, on the other hand, believe it’s better for the airwaves to be overflowing with mud from all sides than Republican attacks alone. The plethora of conflicting negatives prevents any of Raja’s attacks from gaining traction, and turns the race into a equation of voter registration and getting out the vote – which favors Fitzgerald.

Ultimately, the character of the race reflects the character of the candidates.

Raja is a businessman. For months, his campaign consisted of a technocratic debut tour for his pages and pages of plans for county government. He’s made his case to the voters like an executive to a board room of investors.

“People are ultimately going to judge on who will make the County better for them,” he says. “Who is going to keep the jobs here, who will fix the Port Authority, who’s going to bring more flights to the airport.”

Fitzgerald is a businessman, too, but as a 12-year veteran of County Council he also come through his share of political street fights. He knows he needs to respond punch-for-punch in this campaign to give pause to future opponents – Republicans and Democrats alike.

“Some day, someone else might decide to take a shot at me. Ok, that’s fine. It’s coming back at you,” Fitzgerald said. “If people think they can just beat up on you, then they take free shots. Where’s the disincentive?”

“I wasn’t not gonna just take it. I’m no John Kerry. I’m not gonna let them ‘swift boat’ me.”

Fitzgerald is doling out hits left and right. Take, for example, Fitzgerald’s recent targets. Not Raja, but two of his campaign consultants: Mark Harris and Mike DeVanney of Cold Spark Media. He blames them for the negative tone of the campaign.

“Mike DeVanney has been part of what’s wrong with politics. Mark Harris is what’s wrong with politics,” blasted Fitzgerald. “They’re bottom feeders. They like to play in the mud.”

“They found a cash cow with this guy [Raja], and conned him out of two million dollars. It’s the biggest con job since Bernie Madoff.”

Charges of unethical activity cut both ways. Raja’s campaign has repeatedly highlighted an incident from May in which Fitzgerald solicited funds from Marcellus shale industry leaders in an email (unusual only in that it became public).

“I need money and I need it fast,” reads a selection from Fitzgerald’s email. It’s the Raja camp’s favorite attack and appears to be their ‘closer’ – the campaign’s final TV and radio advertising push before election day.

The Fitzgerald camp is most fond of its attacks related to Raja’s company, Computer Enterprises, Inc. The business strives, “to be the #1 services provider in contracting projects and outsourcing,” according to its website. Plus it’s had a few issues with the Department of Labor (all of which are resolved, and weren’t all that significant to begin with, say Raja campaign staffers).

Ad after Fitzgerald ad blasts Raja as a job destroyer, an outsourcer who sends Pittsburgh jobs out of the country. It fits nicely into the heartless-Republican-businessman model that Democratic campaigns often highlight. Indeed, Fitzgerald manager Mike Mikus commissioned several such ads when he ran Rep. Mark Critz’s campaigns against Tim Burns last year.

It’s tough to count the number of attack ads last cycle that blasted various candidates for sending jobs to India, but few of the targets of those ads were natives of India.

It leads to the biggest issue of the election that neither campaign is talking about: Raja’s race.

Democrats and Republicans alike admit that an Indian candidate automatically has a tougher time here.

Raja’s very name represents a hurdle for the candidate. It’s common for natives of Bangalore, India – Raja’s place of origin – to have only one name. He added a first initial “D.” because it is required in the U.S. And though both candidates are intelligent speakers, during debates it’s impossible to ignore the contrast of Raja’s accent with Fitzgerald’s perfect “Yinzer” diction.

Republicans boast that Raja’s story is one that voters will love: an enterprising young man choosing Allegheny County as the best place to start a business (that now employs 300 local workers) and a family. However, GOPers have privately complain of their opponent’s handling of the race issue.

“I wouldn’t call them ‘racist,’ but they are definitely racial,” said one GOP operative of Fitzgerald’s ads.

Fitzgerald vociferously denied the use of race by his campaign.

“Outsourcing is bad, I don’t care who does it. His ethnicity has nothing to do with what he does, it’s his policies,” said Fitzgerald. He emphasized that he had not even used the word ‘India.’

Indeed, his campaign hasn’t – instead using the term “overseas.” The Fitzgerald camp habitually scans ads and press releases for anything that might be taken as racially suggestive.

Turning an image black-and-white and making it grainy is fairly standard in the negative ad playbook. Fitzgerald and Mikus say the campaign actually touched up the footage of Raja they use in their ads to reduce the contrast – and prevent possible racial undertones.

Compare these photos. The one on the left is one of the Raja campaign’s official headshots, the one on the right is a still from the Fitzgerald ad.

That said, there is an undeniable theme of “he’s not one of us” from the Fitzgerald campaign.

“My dad was born here,” says his daughter in their first TV ad of the general. Her siblings list other aspects of Fitzgerald’s Pittsburgh background. That as is often listed as an example of Fitzgerald ‘going there,’ by people close to Raja. (He ran the same ad in the primary against Mark Flaherty, whose family name gave him the lead in the ‘native son’ contest between two Irish Pittsburgh Democrats).

But there’s more to it than that. “Republican Raja keeps trashing us.” Raja, “sends our jobs overseas,” accused Fitzgerald’s first negative ad.

Republicans, by the way, are making their own play at divisiveness. A hard-hitting mail piece from the Pa. GOP says Fitzgerald, who is Catholic, “doesn’t share our values,” on the issue of abortion. (Image via North Pittsburgh Politics). And forthcoming mail pieces will attempt to link Fitzgerald to President Barack Obama (Fitzgerald says he supports Obama’s re-election).

Asked if he thought his opponent was making race an issue, Raja brushed it off.

“That’s for the pundits to decide,” he said.

How much of a role will race play in the election? It’s practically impossible to measure. And it might not even matter.

Chris Briem at the blog Null Space looked at trends from the past three Exec races (in which all candidates were white). He predicts that 20 to 30 percent of voters will cast a straight party vote for Democrats, and that to win Raja would need 62 to 72 percent of the remaining voters – a tall order for any Republican.

Raja’s campaigners point to internal polling that shows a significant percentage of voters are still undecided – particularly Democrats. They say undecideds typically break to the challenger. Given Fitzgerald’s resume as a County government insider, that means Raja.

“I think the decision is going to be this: if people feel that the County is OK or good, they’re going to pull the Democratic lever,” Raja said. “If they feel the County is not, it’s on the wrong track, then that’s when they’re going to say it’s time for a change.”

Veteran Pittsburgh political consultant Bill Green has predicted a Raja victory.

But it’s a very narrow window. Fitzgerald himself embraces the Fitzgerald-as-incumbent paradigm. He supports most of outgoing Exec Dan Onorato’s policies and boasts of Allegheny County’s relative economic success.

“The votes he has taken and the record he has compiled — sometimes in opposition to his party’s leadership — attest to Rich Fitzgerald’s experience in this arena,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Editorial Board wrote when it endorsed him.

So who is most likely to win?

The answer, according to Democrats and many Republicans, is Rich Fitzgerald. Democrats are confident that their candidate will win by in a 15 to 20 point margin and several Republican insiders that PoliticsPA spoke with are hoping just to make it competitive.

Republican operatives including several close to Raja  are hoping a strong finish, if not a win, will demonstrate just how up for grabs western PA really is in next year’s presidential contest.

In any case, neither candidate is letting up the gas. Both are vigorously pressing the flesh at parades, factories and bus stops as the campaign enters its final week.

And the negative ads that so strongly define the contest? Election-weary viewers can look forward to November 9th.

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