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Democrat Fitzgerald tops Raja in Allegheny County executive race

An ebullient Rich Fitzgerald celebrated his victory on Tuesday to become the third executive-elect in Allegheny County history, promising to continue the policies he says have turned the region around.

Fitzgerald, 52, D-Squirrel Hill, who runs a water treatment consulting business and served on County Council for 12 years, including eight as president, defeated D. Raja, 46, R-Mt. Lebanon, who founded a software company in his spare bedroom and grew it into an international firm with hundreds of employees.

In Westmoreland County, Republicans appeared on the verge of authoring a historic shift in government power. GOP candidates were close to winning a majority of the board of commissioners and several row offices for the first time in 55 years.

Fitzgerald led Raja by 25 percentage points with 93 percent of precincts reporting. Fewer than 30 percent of voters appeared to have turned out for a contentious race which, by the end, became marked by mudslinging.

"We were able to get our message out and win over the voters," Fitzgerald told supporters at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall on the South Side.

Raja conceded about 9:30 p.m.

"There is no doubt this county is better off for the debate we just had," Raja told about 100 supporters in a Radisson Green Tree ballroom. Evoking cheers from supporters, he added: "I am not going away. I will continue to be involved."

With 245 of 306 precincts reporting in Westmoreland County, Republicans Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney were topping the ticket with 27 percent and 23.7 percent, respectively. Incumbent Democrat Ted Kopas was running third with 23 percent. Mt. Pleasant Borough Mayor Gerald Lucia was in the fourth position, several thousand votes short of winning a seat on the board.

Despite a Democratic registration edge of more than 2-to-1 in Allegheny County, Fitzgerald campaigned hard until the end, starting the race's last days before dawn to greet commuters at transit stops around the county. Raja hosted town hall meetings throughout the summer and began the campaign's final week by launching a group he called Democrats for Raja in an attempt to appeal to the electoral majority.

When Fitzgerald takes office on Jan. 2, there won't be much time for a honeymoon. Outgoing two-term Executive Dan Onorato went straight from his inauguration to a high-stakes meeting with US Airways officials who were abandoning their hub here. Today, issues at the airport, Port Authority and within the county budget will demand immediate attention.

Port Authority faces a $64 million deficit next year and the prospect of chopping its service in half. Pittsburgh International Airport, designed to handle 30 million passengers, served just 8.2 million last year.

The county doesn't have much money to spend on major new initiatives. After more than 10 years with no property tax increases, the difference between tax revenue and expenditures in the county nearly reached $50 million. Neither candidate offered specifics about where they would cut expenses or which tax they would raise.

But the issue that's likely to eclipse all others in the early part of next year is the court-ordered property assessment.

The state Supreme Court ordered the county to reassess because it said property values are so stale that the tax bills they determine are unconstitutionally inaccurate. The reassessment is scheduled to take effect next year, with new home values going to Pittsburgh homeowners first, as early as December. According to a Common Pleas Court schedule, the county is supposed to mail homeowners their preliminary values by Jan. 31 and certify the new assessments by early April.

Fitzgerald said he'll refuse to implement the new assessment until state lawmakers require all counties to keep their property assessment as current as Allegheny County's, even saying he would go to jail rather than comply with a court order to send out the new values.

None of these problems is insurmountable, Fitzgerald said, pledging to work with Republican leaders in Harrisburg to bring jobs to the county he'll lead for the next four years.

"Jobs is not a partisan issue," Fitzgerald said.

Photo Galleries

Election Day - November 8, 2011

Election Day - November 8, 2011

Election Day photos from throughout the region.

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