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Primary races shape up for Allegheny County row offices

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The controller's race may be the feature attraction of the May 20 ballot in Allegheny County, but Democrats will square off in two other row office primaries as well.

Two Democrats are seeking the nomination for register of wills and another two for recorder of deeds.

In the primary for register of wills, Eileen Wagner, 60, is trying to make a political comeback after losing the most pivotal race in the short history of the County Council.

The primary pits her against Jeff Woodard, 34, who ran in the lieutenant governor primary last year and finished a distant last in a field of nine candidates.

Wagner, one of the original 15 County Council members, lost her seat to Republican Doug Price in the 2001 election. As a result, the Democrats lost their veto-proof majority on council.

But she is the clear front-runner in this race.

She wants one term in the register of wills office to cap a short political career.

"I'll be almost ready to collect Social Security," she said.

Woodard, a part-time instructor at Community College of Allegheny County, views the register of wills office as a political stepping stone.

"I think the title 'Senator Jeff Woodard' sounds pretty good," he said.

Certified public accountant Tom Stepnick is the lone candidate in the Republican primary for register of wills.

Another also-ran from last year's lieutenant governor primary is challenging incumbent Valerie McDonald Roberts for recorder of deeds.

Green Tree Councilman Ron Panza, 38, finished fifth out of nine in the 2002 lieutenant governor primary after also running for the state's No. 2 job in 1998.

In his campaign against Roberts, he has seized on the fact that her office has fallen three months behind in recording mortgage satisfactions.

"The office is not running like it did maybe four years ago," Panza said. "Maybe it's time to think of new ways."

Roberts said the explosion in home refinancings had overwhelmed her staff, but she predicted that a new computer system, set to go online in her office on July 1, would eliminate the backlog.

"I want to reform the office," she said. "[The new computer system] is going to change the face of the recorder of deeds office."

Two years ago, Roberts, 47, became the first African-American elected to an Allegheny County row office. She formerly served on City Council and the school board.

Becky Barrett-Toomey is unopposed for the GOP nomination for recorder of deeds.

None of the primaries for four other row offices -- district attorney, treasurer, prothonotary and clerk of courts -- feature more than one candidate.

The incumbents in those four offices -- District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., Treasurer John Weinstein, Prothonotary Michael Lamb and Clerk of Courts George Matta -- are all running unopposed in Democratic primaries.

On the Republican side, John Pierce is running for treasurer; Liz Jackson, for prothontary; and Alice Williams, for clerk of courts. No Republicans filed for district attorney.

Jeffrey Cohan can be reached at jcohan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3573.

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