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Jabbour has edge on Olasz this time

They've waged political warfare for 20 years

Sunday, May 06, 2001

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When telling the story about his infamous fistfight with fellow politician Richard Olasz, West Mifflin Councilman Caleem L. "Jay" Jabbour starts with a description of the weather:

Uncomfortably hot.

West Mifflin Councilman Caleem L. "Jay" Jabbour. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

On that steamy night, 20 years ago this month, Jabbour drank four glasses of water during the council meeting. Eventually, he had to go to the men's room.

He heard someone throw open the bathroom door as he was relieving himself. It was Olasz, a fellow councilman at the time. The two politicians had opposed each other on a couple of issues that night.

Jabbour zipped up -- just in time.

"He comes up and grabs me by the lapels," Jabbour says. "I push him. He pushes me. I grab him and he grabs me. He swings and I back up. Then I hit him, once in the eye and once in the lip, and he goes down.

"There he was, down between the toilet and the partition."

If that's what really happened it's the only time Jabbour has beaten Olasz.

The bathroom brawl touched off a long, bilious political rivalry that has seen Jabbour run against -- and lose to -- his archenemy in seven elections over two decades. For perspective, imagine O'Connor losing to Murphy in every Pittsburgh mayoral election between now and 2021.

In a twist, however, Jabbour now appears poised to replace Olasz as the District 9 representative on the fledgling Allegheny County Council. Common Pleas and Commonwealth court judges have disqualified Olasz from the ballot for misfiling a financial-interest statement, leaving Jabbour as the only candidate in the May 15 Democratic primary. Ronald Garrison of Munhall is unopposed in the Republican primary for the seat.

Jabbour could finally vanquish his rival, if only on a technicality.

But when two politicians maintain a 20-year attack against each other, can either one come out a winner?

County Councilman Richard Olasz. (John Heller, Post-Gazette)

'They both are jerks'

Jabbour, 68, and Olasz, 70, argue about a lot of things, including about what transpired in the bathroom.

Olasz admits that he threw the first punch. But he insists Jabbour provoked him by calling him a dirty word that starts with "mother."

"I popped him," Olasz said. "When it was over, he said he had double vision and couldn't hear. It was just one punch, that was it. I was in pretty good shape at that time."

Newspaper articles the following morning portrayed both as losers.

Jabbour went to the hospital for X-rays of his head. Olasz came away with a torn shirt collar and several facial cuts.

They both looked like fools to Richard Allen, West Mifflin's mayor at the time.

"They are a bunch of crackpots. They both are jerks," Allen said that night. "I don't know why the people elected them."

Rising to power

Jabbour and Olasz, if nothing else, have some things in common with many of the people who have elected them -- and with each other.

They are both the sons of steel-working fathers who immigrated to the United States and settled in the Mon Valley.

Jabbour's parents came to McKeesport from Syria, while Olasz's immigrated to Homestead from Hungary.

Both Olasz and Jabbour worked for a few years in the mills, but both went on to become accountants.

They both moved to West Mifflin in the late 1950s. Both maintain strong ties to their families.

Olasz, known publicly for his ferocity and bluster, twice broke down in tears during an interview when the subject turned to his mother, who died 10 years ago.

Jabbour, during an interview, talked enthusiastically about the annual family reunions he attends with his children.

The lives of Jabbour and Olasz intersected in the down-and-dirty world of Mon Valley politics.

Olasz entered politics on the strength of his fiery orations. In the early 1970s, he joined a futile campaign to save Homestead Hospital from closure. His angry voice won him a following.

He won election to the borough council in 1974, beginning a political career that has stretched into its fourth decade.

In the early 1970s, he developed a friendship with Jabbour. They had a natural affinity for each other. They were two accountants, two activists in local Democratic Party affairs.

"He and I were the best of friends at one time," Jabbour said.

Olasz, his power in the borough growing, helped his pal obtain the chairmanship of the West Mifflin Democratic Party in the mid-1970s.

And Jabbour says he loaned his buddy $500 in 1976 when Olasz was temporarily unemployed.

Jabbour, if he did make the loan, never received repayment. Olasz denies ever borrowing the money.

"If you get $500 off that guy, it's an accomplishment," Olasz said.

Predictably, the former friends disagree about the origins of their estrangement.

Olasz says the friendship ended when he caught Jabbour, as party chairman, crossing out or cutting out a candidate's name from a Democratic slate card.

Jabbour says it ended when he began defying Olasz and showing independence during their time together on the council from 1977 to 1981.

"He wants to be the big controller," Jabbour said.

Olasz doesn't exactly reject that characterization.

"Everyone knew he had to be beholden to me because I was the guy who made him [party] chairman," Olasz said.

The battles begin

His political career on the upswing, Olasz won election to the state House of Representatives in 1980 in the 38th District. For a short time, he served simultaneously in the General Assembly and on the borough council.

Jabbour tried to knock him out of the state Capitol in the first election after the fistfight.

The night of the primary in 1982, Jabbour went to bed immensely satisfied, thinking he had narrowly defeated his friend-turned-enemy. When he woke up the next morning, he discovered to his dismay that the last few precincts had pushed Olasz over the top, giving the incumbent a paper-thin victory, 3,796 votes to 3,782.

Jabbour gave it another try in 1984. Olasz won by more than 1,600 votes.

His first wife's fatal bout with cancer kept Jabbour out of the 1986 and 1988 races. But he resumed challenging Olasz in 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1996. Olasz won every time.

The power of incumbency undoubtedly contributed heavily to Olasz's success. But ethnicity might have played a role, too.

Jabbour has long treated his Arab ancestry as a political liability -- which, sadly, it may be. For decades, he has listed his name on the ballot as "C.L. Jabbour" and he has introduced himself as Jay, rather than use his given name, Caleem.

He is a longtime member of the Prince Humbert Club, an Italian-American organization.

Jabbour said, "A lot of people think I'm Italian."

Not if Olasz can help it.

In past elections, Olasz has distributed campaign pieces that refer to his opponent, in large letters, as Caleem.

Olasz does not regret resorting to that brand of ethnic politics.

"He always passed himself off as being Italian," Olasz said. "Why is he ashamed of his given name?"

Jabbour does not completely hide his ancestry. Above the mantle in his living room hangs a framed copy of his family tree, displayed with justifiable pride. The branches connect names written in Arabic.

Olasz dumped

Jabbour did not run in the 1998 primary, when Olasz finally lost the state House seat he had held for so long. But it is possible that he deserves a big share of the responsibility for Olasz's defeat.

In July 1992, the State Ethics Commission ruled that Olasz illegally transferred two cars purchased or leased with state funds to his daughter and son-in-law. A year later, he was put on a year's probation for two felonies related to the car transfers.

Olasz and many others in West Mifflin suspect it was Jabbour who filed the original complaint that triggered the State Ethics Commission's investigation.

The scandal weakened Olasz. He beat Jabbour by less than 600 votes in 1994. Then in 1996, he received less than 50 percent of the vote in a four-candidate primary but still finished on top.

Jabbour, despising Olasz, managed the campaign of the Republican candidate in the 1996 general election. Olasz triumphed in the Democrat-dominated district.

In 1998, Jabbour wisely stepped aside, sending the entire anti-Olasz vote to one candidate, Ken Ruffing. Olasz lost by more than 500 votes, ending his 18-year stay in the state House.

But the introduction of home-rule government in Allegheny County gave Olasz and Jabbour a chance to renew hostilities on a new battleground.

"Whenever there is a race out there, you can expect to see both of them in it," said John Donis, West Mifflin Democratic Party chairman. "I don't know of any other rivalry like it."

County Council clash

Jabbour, Olasz and three other Democrats ran in a 1999 primary, all hoping to become the first Mon Valley representative on County Council.

Olasz received just 30 percent of the vote, but that was enough to win. Jabbour finished third with 25 percent.

County Council members have staggered terms, so Olasz and five others had to run in 2001 to keep their seats for four more years.

This time, only Jabbour filed to run against him.

In March, at the deadline for submitting nominating petitions, Jabbour phoned the County Courthouse to verify that the county manager's office had received his statement of financial interest, a document all candidates must file to reveal what property they own and what income sources they have.

The receptionist in the county manager's office confirmed that Jabbour's statement was there.

"I said, 'How about my opponent's?' " Jabbour recalls. "She said, 'No, it's not here.' "

An elated Jabbour phoned his attorney. They quickly brought a lawsuit to strike Olasz's name from the ballot.

Olasz had attached his statement to his nominating petitions and submitted them to the division of elections. He just didn't file his statement in the county manager's office, as required.

But rules are rules. In March, Common Pleas Judge James McLean sided with Jabbour and barred Olasz from the ballot. Commonwealth Court Judge Warren G. Morgan rejected Olasz's appeal and upheld McLean's decision last month. Olasz said he would not run as a write-in candidate.

Jabbour is now guaranteed his party's nomination in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1.

How could Olasz have made such a mistake, handing his County Council seat to his worst enemy?

On purpose, perhaps.

There is rampant speculation that Olasz intentionally misfiled his financial-interest statement.

One popular theory holds that Olasz sabotaged his own campaign for the benefit of his son, District Justice Richard "Dan" Olasz Jr., who is facing a tough challenge to his re-election bid from West Mifflin Council President Bob Kostelnik.

According to this theory, the senior Olasz figured Jabbour would run a negative campaign and would dredge up misdeeds, such as the 1992 car scandal, that could tarnish the family name. In misfiling his financial-interest statement, Olasz found a way to get out of the race without looking like he was a ducking a fight with Jabbour.

Ruffing doesn't subscribe to this theory but sees some merit in it.

"I'm sure Jay was going to bring up Rich's past," Ruffing said. "Would that have had a trickle-down effect on [Olasz's] son? Of course. Maybe [Olasz] thought that through."

But Olasz insists the theory doesn't even make sense.

"If I'm in the race, Jabbour has to concentrate on me," he said. "Now, he can use his money to fund Kostelnik's campaign.

"I think it's ludicrous to make an accusation that I deliberately did this."

Like a professional wrestler talking into the camera, Olasz said, "Jabbour, I'd love to face you on the ballot and give you another shellacking."

Jabbour offers no apologies for beating Olasz in court instead of at the ballot box.

"[Olasz] has to do things right like everyone else," Jabbour said. "He always wants to break the rules."

Jabbour loses 7 of 8

Jabbour is heading to the County Council with a limp, politically speaking. He has not emerged unscathed from the biennial beatings that Olasz administered during the last decade, Ruffing believes.

"I think Rich really hurt Jay [politically]," the legislator said. "He blames [Jabbour] for everything that happens in the borough."

Election results point to the conclusion that Jabbour has never fully recovered from the damage to his reputation sustained in the 1981 fistfight.

In 1979, Jabbour emerged as a rising star in West Mifflin politics, finishing first in a 14-candidate field in the May council primary. But voters bounced him from the council in 1983, two years after the mayor tarred him as a "crackpot" and "jerk" for his bathroom brawling.

Jabbour regained his council seat in 1985 and won re-election in 1989, but not as the top vote-getter in either case.

Then in 1993, after mutually bruising battles with Olasz in the 1990 and 1992 state House primaries, Jabbour suffered the most humiliating defeat of his political career, finishing last among eight Democrats in the council race.

In 1994, right after another primary clash with Olasz, a district justice found Jabbour guilty of pulling down Olasz's campaign signs and harassing a Democratic committeewoman. He was ordered to pay $96 in fines and court costs.

Jabbour came up short in the 1995 council election. Finally, in 1997, he reclaimed a spot on the council again, finishing fourth to snatch the last available seat.

Overall, in the 1990s, Jabbour lost seven of the eight races he entered. Grabbed, pushed, besmirched and beaten by Olasz, he hardly resembles the political racehorse who bested all comers in 1979.

And Olasz, of course, is undeniably wounded. The car scandal threatens to haunt him for the rest of his political life, and Jabbour's successful court challenge now relegates him to the political sidelines.

But no one expects a cease-fire, no matter how battered, how weary the combatants.

"That's just a rivalry that goes on and on," Donis said.

Olasz, for his part, acknowledges that he may run for office again, be it for borough council or County Council. The next Jabbour-Olasz rematch could take place in 2005.

That wouldn't surprise Ruffing.

"I think this will probably go on as long as these guys are still living," he said. "What's another 20 years? I just wish it would end."

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