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PG Columnists

Cranmer, Dunn strengths vary

Thursday, January 07, 1999

By Brian O'Neill

No good deed goes unpunished. Commissioner Bob Cranmer saved Allegheny County from financial meltdown a year and a half ago when he walked away from his incompetent Republican colleague Larry Dunn and joined with Democrat Mike Dawida to restore sanity to government.

Since then, the county bond rating, which had been in free fall, has stabilized. The budget is balanced. And yet it is Dunn, not Cranmer, who remains in the running for the Republican nomination to be our first county executive in a new system of government.

Such is political life.

It's no mystery why Cranmer is persona non grata in Republican circles. By placing second and third in the 1995 general election, Dunn and Cranmer gave Republicans control of this county for the first time in more than 60 years, and they hit the ground slashing.

Taxes were cut 20 percent the day they took power, fulfilling a popular campaign pledge. Then came the hard part, the governing part, and Dunn just isn't cut out for that.

Anyone can do the popular thing, but when taxes are cut, less money comes in, so programs and people have to be cut. This is where Dunn choked. At the 11th hour, he ditched a plan to privatize the Kane hospitals, which won him the gratitude of Kane employees, but got the county no closer to a balanced budget.

Something had to be done, and Dunn doesn't have it in him to make tough calls. The $76.6 million budget surplus the Republicans inherited was fast disappearing, Wall Street bond rating agencies were downgrading county bonds, and Dunn coped in his standard way. He went into denial. Government gridlocked.

So Cranmer changed partners. He allied with Dawida, and they struggled out of the budget quicksand. It wasn't easy. People were hurt. There were employee buyouts and layoffs. But Cranmer, who announced Tuesday he would not run for county executive, will be leaving whoever wins that seat a real government.

For that, and his support for county funding of stadiums, Cranmer might never be forgiven. Dunn, who spends most of his work week politicking, having not much to do on Grant Street, has made a lot of friends with all his handshakes and dodges of responsibility. He's a master at playing the good but betrayed party soldier. It's telling that Dunn still was portraying himself Tuesday as the anti-establishment man who can lead this county out of decline - a brazen stance for someone with 10 years in office.

Cranmer, meantime, can't buy a break. He spent more than $300,000 last year on TV commercials and party mailings and even an unprecedented state of the county address at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall. He delivered what he believes is "a great Republican story" of a leaner, meaner government.

When the polls came back, Cranmer's negatives among Republicans were higher than ever.

So he's leaving the primary field to Dunn, former county GOP Chairman David Christopher and - maybe, maybe, it always seems to be maybe with this man - businessman James Roddey. Democrats, meantime, likely will choose between Dawida or county Coroner Cyril Wecht as their nominee for county executive.

Cranmer can concentrate on government rather than politics this year, while Dunn does the opposite. That, at least, is as it should be.

Each man to his calling.

Brian O'Neill's e-mail address is: boneill@post-gazette.com.

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