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One incumbent won't survive primary

| Monday, May 12, 2003

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is among a series of stories profiling candidates for Fayette County commissioner. Today, the Democratic candidates.

UNIONTOWN - At least one of Fayette County's three commissioners likely will not return for another four-year term.

Because Commissioner Sean Cavanagh switched parties, all three are Democrats - a unique situation among the 61 Pennsylvania counties that elect a three-member board of commissioners.

The county code calls for a minority commissioner, so only two Democrats will be nominated to run for office in the fall. Barring a successful write-in campaign, at least one incumbent won't be back.

Of the three current commissioners - Cavanagh, Ron Nehls and Vincent Vicites - Nehls is the least experienced.

Nehls, 65, of South Union Township, is finishing his first term. But he points to all the things accomplished in the past four years, compares the record to Vicites' and Cavanagh's first terms, and says there's one difference: him.

"Most people agree that last term there was turmoil, disruption and not much accomplishment," Nehls said. "In this administration, many people are saying how much is being accomplished.

"I am asking people to simply notice the difference between the past administration and this one, and that's me."

Although Nehls has raised less money than his competitors, he said he believes his message will come through.

He styles himself as a man of ideas who may be a poor politician, but who gets things done.

"I want to give people a choice of a candidate that's different, and I want to continue to set a new direction for Fayette County government," he said.

Nehls was the main proponent of two large county projects: finding a use for the long-dormant Great Meadows Amphitheater, and procuring the three-floor Federal Building in Uniontown - for free.

In addition, Nehls contends that two other projects, property tax reassessment and floating a county bond issue, would not have been undertaken if not for him. Those efforts helped to stabilize the county's tax base to start solving long-neglected problems, such as prison overcrowding.

In the next term, Nehls proposes forming several regional councils of government to share in the tax windfall from new growth, so that municipalities outside the developing areas will not be left behind.

The other two commissioners are both in their second terms. Among the incumbents, Cavanagh is clearly the most controversial.

In his first term, several politicians - most notably former Commissioner Harry Albert - accused Cavanagh of roughing them up.

An outspoken critic of the system that has led Fayette County to this point, Cavanagh in this election cycle adopted two slogans that highlight his divisive nature: "Fighting for Fayette" and "The Commissioner Who Tells It Like It Is."

As he has in the past, Cavanagh again is portraying himself as the man against the political machine. Still, Cavanagh said he supports progress as much as his colleagues - he just goes about it differently.

"I think the last two administrations got a lot done, and I'm for progress and the people of Fayette County," he said.

Cavanagh supporter Tim Mahoney, a Uniontown businessman and jury commissioner, acknowledges that Cavanagh has a rough-edged style that may be off-putting to some people.

"But look around. They're turning dirt all through the county. He should get another chance" to serve as commissioner, Mahoney said.

Cavanagh specifically has targeted challenger J. William Lincoln, a former state senator, along with Lincoln's associations with county Democratic chairman Fred Lebder.

"The legacy of their leadership to this county is crime, poverty and unemployment," Cavanagh said.

The third incumbent, Vicites, may be the strongest candidate of the three, according to polls commissioned by his opponents.

Vicites said that's because he has focused on serving the people. He claims to have returned more than 100,000 phone calls since he was first employed with the county in the 1980s.

With recent upticks in investment in the county and the planned completion of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, Vicites said he believes the county is prepared to grow.

"Last census, we had the first growth in Fayette County population (in 40 years). We must continue to work to move Fayette forward, to keep our families together," he said.

Although Vicites is chairman of the board of commissioners, he recently said that Cavanagh and Nehls called the shots lately.

Vicites criticized their decision to fire a personnel consultant and subsequent negotiations with the county's largest union, which nearly resulted in a strike.

Although Cavanagh complained that Vicites undercut the county's position by communicating his bargaining position to the union, Vicites said fairness was the issue.

"They have been underpaid for so long. They deserved (a total of) 16 percent," he said.

Because of his strong position in candidates' polls, Vicites said he is focusing on his own campaign and ideas and not mentioning others.

However, he obliquely referred to his dissatisfaction with the board of commissioners at a recent fund-raising event.

"Please, give me someone I can work with, and you'll be proud of this county again. The negativism has to stop," Vicites said.

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