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The old switcheroo

| Sunday, Feb. 23, 2003

I had this dream the other night. There was Allegheny County Democratic Chairman Tom Flaherty, nattily dressed as usual, frantically running around party headquarters and duct-taping all the doors and windows. Considering that we had been on Orange Alert, it was only natural that I would have at least one dream about an attack with biological and chemical weapons.

"Oh, no," Tom said breathlessly, "It's not about that. But I figured this might be the only way to keep Larry Dunn out of the Democratic Party."

Yes, Larry Dunn -- former Allegheny County Republican Party chairman and former Republican county commissioner -- has changed political parties and announced his candidacy for the Democrats' nomination for county controller.

I heard the news on KQV while driving through the East End the night before Larry's press conference, and I swear that the collective voices of the Democrats' leadership could be heard crying out in unison, "No, oh no! Please say it ain't so!" At the very least, Larry's sudden appearance in the controller's race will make a chaotic situation more so.

Who knows, Jim Simms, Jim Motznik, Mark Flaherty and John Conley -- real Democrats all -- could split traditional Democrat voters and Larry could run up the middle and win. Larry must figure that if our governor can win with Rendellicans, he surely has a chance to become county controller with the support of Dunnocrats -- if such a thing exists.


"The old switcheroo" has been tried many times over the years, but with mixed results. Some politicians have changed political parties for matters of principle, others for what they hope will be enhanced political fortune and a third group for the sheer ecstasy of political revenge.

Winston Churchill switched parties twice and never let it stall his political long game. In 1904, when he crossed the aisle from the Conservative to the Liberal Party amidst his former colleague's shouts of "Shame, shame," his shift in allegiance appeared to be brought about by fundamental disagreements with the Conservatives over home rule for Ireland.

Churchill rejoined the Conservative Party in 1924, again as a result of a genuine policy dispute. In the following years, he pretty much failed as Chancellor of the Exchequer and struggled for years as an opponent of German appeasement. Eventually, he was the one man to whom Britain could turn when it was apparent that Hitler was hell-bent on domination.

This does not appear to be the Larry Dunn situation.

In 1981, southwestern Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Eugene Atkinson's much-ballyhooed switch to the Republican Party was announced by none other than The Great Communicator himself. President Reagan attributed Atkinson's switch to their mutual disenchantment with changes in the policies of the Democratic Party. Atkinson's change was more likely the result of an impending Republican reapportionment plan that would have eliminated his district.

Although it may have been a last ditch attempt to save himself, it was probably the only way possible for Atkinson to keep his district intact and, if successful, could have considerably benefited his constituents. In spite of this maneuver, however, the former Kennedy-styled Democrat was defeated the following year.

This, also, does not appear to be the Larry Dunn situation.


In 1991, Republican state Sen. Frank Pecora of Allegheny County found himself without a district. His own Republican Party, unhappy with his voting record, moved his district to Pottstown -- in eastern Pennsylvania -- during reapportionment. Not to be denied, Pecora confounded his nemeses by following his district, renting an apartment in Pottstown and continuing to serve as senator.

Now for the best part: A year later, with the state Senate split 50-50, Pecora demonstrated a thorough understanding of this old Sicilian adage that "Revenge is a dish that tastes best when served cold." Pecora switched parties, transferred control of the Senate to the Democrats, served out his term in Pottstown and retired from politics.

This does appear to be the Larry Dunn situation.

Republican Chairman Rick Stampahar, a plain-speaking fellow, has stated that this all leads back to 1999, when Jim Roddey defeated Larry Dunn in the GOP primary for county executive. For years and with good reason, Larry considered himself to be Mr. Republican. Being bested by a Jimmy-come-lately had to be especially stinging.

While Larry claims motives of Churchillian purity, can you imagine sweeter tasting revenge for him than being in a position to audit Jim Roddey's books• For that reason, he may be pulling for his own Democrat victory for controller, while hoping that Roddey gets re-elected as the Republican county executive.

Many modern politicians are remembered more for switching parties than for anything else. Winston Churchill's party changes are barely more than intriguing political footnotes, since he is now celebrated for extraordinary contributions to Western civilization. Among those things for which Larry Dunn should remember Churchill is this quote:

"In war, you can only be killed once, but in politics, many times."

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