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Dunn with liberal GOP, Larry switches political horses

Saturday, February 15, 2003

Space aliens yesterday kidnapped former Republican Chairman Larry Dunn and replaced him with a changeling who immediately called a press conference to say he is now a Democrat.

"The Republican Party in Allegheny County has become the party of big money and corporate welfare," he said during an otherworldly 40 minutes in a tiny office with nine reporters.

During the press conference, the ex-chairman, who served three terms as Allegheny County commissioner and was a protege of Elsie Hillman, one of the wealthiest Republicans in the galaxy, denounced the GOP as a tax-and-spend party, and said the Democrats are fiscal conservatives.

I was there. I saw it, I tell you.

Dunn summoned reporters to his Downtown offices yesterday to tell them he wants to run for county controller and will do so as a Democrat. In the office next to his were stacked boxes of plaques, mementos and files from his county office days. One box, number 24, was marked "Elephants." They are not likely to be freed from that captivity soon.

Dunn suggested that the Republicans in Allegheny County have become too liberal, that the Democrats want to fight overspending and that none of this had anything to do with his feelings about James C. Roddey, the silver-haired millionaire who retired Dunn to the private sector after rolling over him in the 1999 Republican primary for county executive.

"My beliefs and values have not changed. The Republican Party of Allegheny County has changed," Dunn said.

There is much to say for the part of the argument about the Republican Party of Allegheny County changing since Dunn's time. When he first joined it, it rarely won anything. Since then, it has elected two Republicans to Congress, seized control of state House and Senate seats in the North Hills and now owns the county executive's office.

Dunn, who spent yesterday afternoon explaining that the GOP is now the party of the wealthy elite, has a long history of working for such down-market, working-class nominees as Richard Nixon, Bob Dole and John Heinz.

Hillman, the former Republican National Committeewoman who funded Dunn's tenure as party chairman and sponsored him for appointment to his first term as Allegheny County commissioner, issued an emotional farewell.

"Everybody is free to do and be what they want," Hillman said. "Larry is one of them."

Dunn's departure from the party caps a disappointing 12 months for Hillman, who seems to be running some sort of finishing school for apostates. One of her students, state Treasurer Barbara Hafer, split with her party to endorse Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Rendell. A few months later, Teresa Heinz, widow of the late senator, announced that she was changing her registration to Democrat so she could vote in the presidential primary for her husband, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

Heinz's switch was long anticipated and had, in fact, been encouraged by one of Dunn's successors to the county chairmanship, Bob Cranmer.

In 1994, Heinz gave a speech acidly describing Republican Senate nominee Rick Santorum as "Forrest Gump with an attitude." Cranmer responded with a livid note to Heinz that ended with the line, "Enclosed is a change or registration form. I suggest you use it."

Cranmer, reached by telephone in Ohio, said he had not sent a carbon of the letter to Dunn, thus eliminating confusion as an explanation for yesterday's spectacle.

"This is about Larry Dunn having to make his mortgage payments," Cranmer said.

His own theory was that the campaign slogan might be "The Job Needs Dunn and Dunn Needs the Job."

Asked which candidate he likes in next year's Democratic presidential primaries, Dunn replied, "I have no idea." He'll be saying that a bit in days to come. He's still new at this thing.


Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.

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