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Playing chicken not a game in row office race

Thursday, July 24, 2003

Allegheny County Treasurer John Weinstein says he'll "debate anyone, anytime, anywhere."

Uh, that is he'll debate anyone but the guy who was in the portico of the City-County Building the other day, standing next to a guy wearing a chicken suit and holding a sign reading:

"County Treasurer John Weinstein Too Chicken To Debate John Pierce."

Weinstein won't debate Pierce, who only happens to be his opponent. Nah-ah. No way. So both guys wind up talking through the news media, and the guy with less money winds up using cheap gimmicks to get the public's attention.

You do what you have to do.

It was more than a decade ago that I first cried out in this space for a referendum to consolidate the row offices. Tom Foerster was chairman of the county commissioners then. Both Foerster and the commissioner system have passed away since, but the row offices hang on like Grant Street's answer to "Jurassic Park."

The treasurer, the recorder of deeds, the register of wills, the jury commissioners -- aw, I really don't want to take up the whole column listing the ballot clutter that faces us each November. Suffice to say that these are relics from an era when clerks used quill pens. This unnecessary division of labor creates redundancies that serve mainly to provide jobs for loyal Democrats.

That is precisely why, earlier this month, Democrats on County Council blocked a November referendum to eliminate six of the 10 row offices. You won't get to decide whether we need to continue electing a prothonotary, a clerk of courts, a treasurer and the rest.

The Democrats handed the Republicans this issue, and now they're complaining that Republicans have decided to use it.

"The show [Pierce] put on today is the most unprofessional thing I've seen in years," Weinstein says of his opponent and his giant chicken, Reformo.

It shows Pierce to be too childish for an office responsible for investing a billion dollars a year, Weinstein says. But that is precisely why he should explain why his job needs to be elected rather than appointed and counter Pierce's charges that the treasurer wastes tax money through overstaffing.

Pierce says, "This is not about Republican vs. Democrat," but he has to say that in a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1. If people vote a straight party line, Pierce has no shot, because he's as Republican as Ronald Reagan. He praises county Chief Executive Jim Roddey so much you'd think he'd never heard the phrase "property assessment."

But then Pierce, 31, is new around here. He grew up in Erie, son of a state policeman with ties to Pittsburgh. Pierce and his wife, Alyze, whom he met at Harvard Law School, moved to Pittsburgh three years ago. They're both commercial litigators for a Downtown firm and live in Squirrel Hill.

Almost all of which Weinstein holds against Pierce.

"He just moved into Allegheny County ... so he's not real familiar with Allegheny County's 130 municipalities and the 32 city wards," Weinstein charges. "I'm a lifelong resident and this is a full-time job. You can't be a full-time corporate lawyer and a full-time county treasurer at the same time."

Pierce says he'd take a leave of absence if he wins.

Pierce argues that the inefficient row office system "sucks money out of the private sector for absolutely no good reason." Weinstein says he can show that it doesn't.

Pierce says, "I just don't believe government exists to be a job bank for relatives." Weinstein says he has his own merit hiring policy.

Pierce says he will do the treasurer's job with fewer employees and he'll have no problem walking away from it when it becomes an appointed position.

"I'm not running for this because I need a job in politics," Pierce says.

Weinstein says, "I will be eating chicken on Election Night. I can tell you that."

Weinstein might not have to wait that long. Reformo the chicken intends to spend his lunch hours on Grant Street this week.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at or 412-263-1947.

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