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Skins game: The other stakes

| Saturday, May 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
JC Schisler | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.
Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner.

Even though their names are not on the ballot, Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner have as much skin in the game as Bill Peduto and Jack Wagner, their respective choices for mayor of Pittsburgh.

Fitz came out early for City Councilman Peduto, holding fundraisers and rallying public officials and unions to the side of his candidate. An unabashed critic of incumbent Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who has resisted every attempt at meaningful consolidation of city-county services, Fitzgerald has not wavered in his support for Peduto.

And from the start, Chelsa embraced her Uncle Jack's late-minted candidacy, organizing a necessarily rushed but successful nomination petition drive when he announced in the wake of Ravenstahl's sudden departure from the field. Chelsa has held the Wagner political beachhead since Jack left the Pennsylvania auditor general's position.

Fitzgerald, the county's top executive and policymaker, is the protagonist on the stage that is county government. Chelsa Wagner is the antagonist, charged with watching the spending, expected to at least nip at the heels of the county administration. The tension between them is natural, by design, and it plays heavily in the race for mayor.

For much of our history, the dominant political voice in our region was that of the mayor of Pittsburgh. Tom Foerster, a county commissioner from 1968 to 1996, and a formidable political boss, unsuccessfully sought to control the mayor's office once in his own right and twice through surrogates over three decades.

But with the inexorable population shift to the suburbs, county government is now the big dog. And that road was paved for this change in 1998, when Allegheny County voters chose to replace the three-commissioners form of government with an executive-led form of government. Now, the county speaks with one voice, instead of three.

With this change, the governor of Pennsylvania and the mayor of Philadelphia are the only officials in the commonwealth with more political clout than the Allegheny County chief executive. But within Allegheny County, there is no bigger prize than the Pittsburgh mayor's office and the next mayor will play a major role in the next race for county executive.

Controllers have a habit of running for chief executive. Former City Controller Tom Flaherty and current Controller Michael Lamb sought the mayor's job and former County Controller Mark Flaherty ran against Fitzgerald for county executive. And some political wags believe that Chelsa Wagner might be the next controller to seek the top job.

Long gone are the days when chief executives and controllers shared a philosophy of government, when both often came from the same unified political party. It is more likely these days that they at least come from different factions — like the Fitzgerald and Wagner factions — Democrats all, but often at odds.

And so the politicians and interest groups are picking sides, not just for this mayor's race but for the county executive race to come.

Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).

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