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Allegheny County executive candidates spar over taxes

An Allegheny County executive debate Thursday night started out pretty civil.

Then the other candidate showed up.

Republican D. Raja, 45, of Mt. Lebanon had the stage at Robert Morris University to himself for about a half hour, while his Democratic opponent, Rich Fitzgerald, 52, of Squirrel Hill, made his way out to Moon from a county Democratic Party dinner Downtown.

The first question after Fitzgerald arrived was whether the candidates would support a gas extraction tax. Raja answered by attacking him for an e-mail Fitzgerald sent to gas company executives browbeating them for not donating enough to his campaign.

Raja took it a step further, saying Fitzgerald was offering to trade county contracts for campaign contributions. Such an offer was not in the e-mail.

"It's just a flat-out misstatement," Fitzgerald said.

Asked whether they agreed on anything, the best the candidates could come up with was that they both didn't want people to flee the region. Raja accused Fitzgerald of resorting to negative attacks to distract from his record. Fitzgerald accused Raja of hiring "two of the sleaziest (campaign) operatives in this area, Mark Harris and Mike DeVanney."

"I think it shows the desperation of a candidate that's run out of ideas and that can't run on his record," said Harris, who managed U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey's campaign last year.

On the environmental impacts of shale drilling, Fitzgerald said he "would use the full force of the (county) health department" to guard against environmental damage by natural gas drillers. He also said the state should levy an extraction tax on drillers - something Raja said he supports as well.

Raja garnered applause from the 26 people in the studio audience when he promised to repeal the drink tax. Raja has said he has identified the $30 million in cuts from the county budget he'd need to offset the loss of drink tax revenue, but he has declined to disclose them, saying he wants to bring it to county department heads first.

"If you're going to make these cuts, you've got to lay it out," Fitzgerald said.

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