The Pennsylvania primary is just two weeks away, and the candidate leading the four-deep Democratic field in money and polls is a man from Pittsburgh who’s little known to many Philadelphia-area voters. Dan Onorato reminds a lot of people of a famous Philadelphia politician.
The Pennsylvania primary is just two weeks away, and the candidate leading the four-deep Democratic field in money and polls is a man from Pittsburgh who’s little known to many Philadelphia-area voters.
Dan Onorato reminds a lot of people of a famous Philadelphia politician.
Eight years ago, Ed Rendell ran for governor on his record as mayor of Philadelphia, where he said he’d turned a struggling city around.
Dan Onorato is the elected executive of Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh.
“When I took over Allegheny County in 2004, we had a lot of problems, too,” says Onorato. “The city of Pittsburgh was filing for bankruptcy. Our largest private employer was US Airways and they left. They took their planes and their jobs out of our airport. And the county was on the verge of bankruptcy.”
Onorato says he made the kind of tough decisions leaders have to make.
“I consolidated 10 elected offices into four,” he says. “Those six offices were all held by Democrats, and my party fought me on it. You think that was easy? Government reform is easy to talk about, but sooner or later you gotta walk the walk.”
Does Onorato really deserve the credit for the reforms he cites?
“Yeah,” says David Miller, a former Pittsburgh budget director, “I think that’s pretty fair.”
Miller is one of several Pittsburgh analysts and civic and business leaders who agree that Onorato did good work in eliminating row offices, cutting hundreds of county jobs and balancing the budget without property tax hikes.
But one of Onorato’s opponents, state Senator Anthony Williams of Philadelphia has launched a TV ad attacking another Onorato claim.
“Dan Onorato says he’s kept unemployment low,” says the ad’s announcer. “But unemployment in his county has risen a whopping 30 percent in just the last year.”
The charge is technically accurate, as is Onorato’s claim that his county’s unemployment is below state and national rates.
Michael Langley, a key Pittsburgh business leader, says Onorato can fairly claim a leading role in bringing jobs to the region.
But there’s one part of Onorato’s record that doesn’t appear in his campaign bio.
“He’s raised taxes,” says William Green, a Pittsburgh political analyst. “He raised a tax called a drink tax. It’s a seven percent tax on alcohol, which has not gone over very well. He raised hotel taxes, and also car rental taxes.”
There was a bitter fight over the liquor tax – Onorato wasn’t welcome at some bars and restaurants, and his tires were slashed when the measure was debated.
But Onorato says the county needed local revenue to secure state and federal transit funds, and he isn’t ashamed of the stand he took.
“Not at all,” he says. “In fact I wear it as a badge of honor, a badge of courage. Not only did I take the lumps, I pushed it publicly. I was the face of it, and I debated it for a year.”
While Onorato has at times battled party leaders, he looks like an establishment candidate in one sense: he leads the Democratic pack in fundraising, and has big contributions from businesses and unions.
For example, he received a $20,000 check from a Pittsburgh contractor named Robert Mistick, who’s gotten work on county-funded construction projects.
“Bob Mistick’s not only a long time friend, he’s a neighbor,” says Onorato. “He’s been a long time friend of mine, supported me on all my races well before I was a county executive. So he’s somebody that supports me because he believes in what I do.”
Onorato noted the county’s contracts are competitively bid, and said he favors imposing limits on campaign contributions in Pennsylvania.
Onorato has done well in the race in part because several of Governor Rendell’s fundraisers have joined him.
It helped that Rendell’s former chief of staff John Estey was a law school classmate, who began introducing Onorato to Rendell’s team three years ago.
University of Pittsburg analyst Morton Coleman says being seen as Rendell’s guy in this race is a mixed blessing.
“I think in some ways it will be helpful,” says Coleman. “But, you know, Rendell’s got a lot of people upset with him right now, so I’m not sure.”
Onorato says he’s a fiscal conservative, but won’t sign a no-tax hike pledge.
He says he personally opposes abortion, but will abide by Pennsylvania law and would veto any attempt to impose new abortion restrictions.