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Dunn becomes Democrat

Former county commissioner enters county controller's race

Saturday, February 15, 2003

By James O'Toole, Post-Gazette Politics Editor

Launching what could be an improbable return to the Courthouse, former county Commissioner Larry Dunn switched his party registration to pursue the Democratic nomination for county controller.

Dunn, a former Republican county chairman who served three terms on the Board of Commissioners, said he had decided to bolt his political home because of his increasing estrangement from the local GOP establishment.

"I did this after seeing Allegheny County Republican leaders repeatedly ignore the clearly expressed will of the voters by building expensive stadiums that the public had rejected," Dunn said at a news conference yesterday in the Downtown office of his consulting firm. "I did this after seeing a Republican administration break their word to the voters by raising both property assessments and taxes each year for the past three years, driving more and more of our citizens from the homes they have spent their lives saving for."

That administration is headed by Jim Roddey, the man who halted Dunn's political career, at least temporarily, four years ago by defeating him in an acrimonious Republican primary for chief executive.

Roddey said he's not too concerned about the possibility that, if they were both elected in November, Dunn would be sniping at him from the controller's office, which is just down the hallway from the chief executive's suite.

"I don't think there is much chance that will happen," Roddey said. "The voters of Allegheny County, the last time Larry ran, were pretty clear about how they felt about his stewardship."

But if Dunn were to prevail in this surprising bid for controller, it would not be the first unpredictable turn in his public career.

Dunn served three terms as a Republican commissioner before the county switched to the county executive form of government in 2000. In winning his final term, Dunn shocked the county's Democratic establishment by leading the first Republican takeover of the majority of the board of commissioners in six decades. That GOP reign was cut short, however, when his running mate, Bob Cranmer, weary of the controversies and budget problems that dogged that administration, turned from Dunn to form an alliance with Democrat Michael Dawida halfway through that term.

Competition for the controller's spot was opened with the decision of the incumbent Democrat, Dan Onorato, to forego a re-election bid in favor of a challenge to Roddey in the executive's race. The prospective vacancy had already drawn several Democratic candidates, including county Councilman James Simms, city Councilman Jim Motznik and Mark Flaherty, the son of former Commissioner James Flaherty. Among others considering bids for the Democratic nomination, according to city Controller Tom Flaherty, the party chairman, are John Conley of Baldwin, who lost to Onorato in the Democratic primary four years ago, and Lisa Fera, a Democratic committeewoman who is also from Baldwin.

So far, no Republican has announced for the post.

The potentially large Democratic field presents an opportunity for Dunn, who brings established name recognition to a race that might not demand a majority for victory.

"He can't get to 50 percent, but he might be able to get to 30 or 35 percent," one Republican said of Dunn's prospects.

"He's not to be underestimated," said Tom Flaherty. "He knows his way around on the campaign trail. At this point, it's a fluid race with no real favorite for the [Democratic Party] endorsement or the primary."

Dunn said yesterday that he had cultivated widespread friendships among Democrats while in office. And, several politicians pointed out, there may be no figure in the county who has attended more chicken dinners, Boy Scout award banquets, bingos and funeral homes over the years.

"He's famous for going to every little event in the county," noted Onorato. "That's what he did as a commissioner."

Onorato, like Tom Flaherty, said he welcomed the political veteran to their party, but the executive candidate was more skeptical of Dunn's chances in his new party.

"It's going to be very difficult for him," Onorato said. "The core support he has in the Republican Party can't help him."

Dunn made his announcement in an office festooned with political memorabilia including pictures of himself with Republican luminaries such as Sen. Arlen Specter. Behind him was a white cap emblazoned with the black logo, "5%."

It referred to his oft-stated proposal to cap assessment-driven tax increases on individual properties to five percent annually. Dunn distributed hundreds of similar caps at public meetings across the county in the two years before the 1995 race that brought GOP control of the Courthouse.

In promising to continue his assault on the county's property tax system, Dunn pointed to the fact that he was the only commissioner who voted against the contract with Sabre Systems, the private firm who's reassessment of property values is a continuing font of controversy.

In contrast to the incumbent controller, Dunn is neither an accountant nor a lawyer. He maintained, nonetheless, that his background as commissioner has given him ample insight into the county's finances. He said he would use it to find cuts in county spending.

Since leaving office nearly four years ago, Dunn has operated a government affairs consulting firm, specializing in tax assessment issues.

Dunn wouldn't estimate his campaign budget.

"I won't be able to raise the kind of money I did as commissioner," he said. "but I think, in a crowded field, I can raise the money I need."

James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.

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