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Chief executive candidate Onorato not known for backing off quietly

Sunday, October 19, 2003

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

"You seem to be a conservative Democrat," says a man to Dan Onorato, who is facing questions from a group of Republicans and Libertarians in the North Hills.

Gene Seeno greets Dan Onorato at a rally in Spring Garden Fire Hall Oct. 1. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

Related article:

Tax cut tops Onorato's campaign platform

Next Sunday:

Campaign Profile: Jim Roddey

The group is relishing the chance to hammer the Allegheny County controller, a dreaded row officer who might as well prowl Grant Street like 19th century vampires, sucking taxes instead of blood, with questions equipped to unravel old-line Pittsburgh Democrats.

"If I vote for you," the man continues, "what can you do, as the county chief executive, to assure me that you're not going to bring with you the entire, slimy, Democratic machine?"

Onorato, 42, who lives not far away in Brighton Heights, a couple of blocks from the city's northern border with Ross, looks amused. Later, he'll say he enjoyed the grilling, but for now, he's going to turn the tables on them.

Onorato says the 11 elected row offices should be cut to as few as two, and if he cannot get a row office referendum on the ballot by 2005, he shouldn't run for executive again. He says he's against the living wage, a proposal pushed by organized labor, saying it is anti-business. He doesn't have to mention it, but people there also know he is anti-abortion and pro-gun.

This is not a conservative pose adopted to win votes in the Bush II era, say friends who have known Onorato for years. Back at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, where he began thinking about running for public office, his basic positions were the same.

It was the late 1980s, and law students were debating President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and proposals to prohibit burning the American flag, both of which were ultimately rejected.

Onorato, though, was in favor of both, said John Estey, Gov. Ed Rendell's chief of staff and a former law school classmate.

"The great thing about Dan was, and is, that he would engage in a dialogue about it. He was not dogmatic, but had a well-thought-out argument. Well thought out, but wrong," Estey said, laughing.

"He paid enough attention to know what the arguments were and think about them, and then put Dan Onorato's passion behind them."

That same argumentitiveness and anger would erupt repeatedly when Onorato joined Pittsburgh City Council a few years later.

Onorato once accused Jim Ferlo of "race-baiting." He said Valerie McDonald was full of "bull crap." Another time he shouted at Sala Udin, saying he was insulted after Udin made a comment about speaking Italian.

"Dan felt passionately about the issues," said former Councilman Dan Cohen, who, like Onorato's other former council colleagues, are Democrats supporting his run for chief executive against incumbent Republican Jim Roddey. "And that passion sometimes manifested itself in lively council debate."

'The way we are'

A stone relief of Mary and the infant Jesus surrounded by angels stands over the doorway to a former Catholic church in Manchester called Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven). The Italian immigrants who helped build the parish early in the last century carved their names onto a marble wall inside. One of them was Valentino Onorato, Dan Onorato's grandfather.

It was a working-class Italian-American neighborhood then and is a working-class African-American community now. The church is still there, called the New Zion Baptist Church since 1994.

Onorato's father, Geno, worked as a machinist at the Allis-Chalmers transformer factory nearby. Geno Onorato's parents had settled in Manchester after emigrating from Forli, Italy. His mother, Vivian, whose grandparents left the Abruzzi region to settle in Bloomfield, was a teacher at Annunciation and later St. Cyril's parochial schools.

Dan, the fourth of five children, lived in the family's house on Sheffield Street for about a month after he was born on Feb. 5, 1961, before the Onoratos, like many other Italian families, moved away.

The move was 1 1/2 miles up Marshall Avenue to Perry South, and, later, to Brighton Heights. The neighborhoods are still on the city's North Side, but a world away.

Like other old neighborhoods nearby, Manchester is beautiful but forlorn; it has gorgeous Victorian homes and committed community groups, but struggles with crime and vacant properties. Brighton Heights is marked by newer, smaller single-family homes in hilly little neighborhoods that would look right in Churchill, Shaler and other older county suburbs.

Much of Onorato's extended family still lives nearby. He is in the same North Side lodge of the Italian Sons & Daughters that his grandfather and father belonged to, and the family carries on the same Italian and church-centered traditions that past generations did.

"Let me tell you about us," Onorato said a few weeks ago, twisting around in the passenger seat on a drive between campaign events. "We get together with 35 people every Thanksgiving. We go away to the beach with family -- brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, thirty-something people. It's a very big Italian family the way we do things, OK? Everything is like that. If there's a birthday party, 25 or 30 people will show up for the birthday party. That's the way we are."

And the way it has always been.

"Growing up, my mother would always cook Sunday dinner, Italian dinner. We'd have not just my grandparents, it was my grandparents plus their brothers and sisters -- my great-aunts and uncles. And that was on Sunday, a typical Sunday. They'd come over all day, have lunch there, and if it was the fall, watch Steelers games and have a big spaghetti dinner at night, and play some cards afterward."

With the exception of his four undergraduate years away at Penn State, where he graduated with an accounting degree in 1983, Onorato has always lived that way. Even while at law school he spent a lot of time away from Oakland doing things with his family, such as painting his brother's house or helping his father shovel snow.

"I thought that was unusual. Why would he spend all this time with his family?" Shelly Onorato, who married Dan in 1989, recalls thinking when she first met him.

Shelly, from a small family in Mountaintop, Luzerne County, was at graduate school at Pitt when the two met in early 1987. She found out about the family's closeness firsthand when she visited them for the first time that Easter Sunday.

"There were 40 eyeballs peering out the window as I'm walking in. It was very loud, and very loving. That's just the way they are," she says.

Onorato worked for three years at the accounting firm Grant Thornton. When he tired of the travel that went with that job, he enrolled at Pitt Law.

Yet the accounting side is still there -- being a CPA is one of the calling cards Onorato has always used when running for public office, but it is also part of his personality.

"When we got married, he used to ask for MAC receipts. He's a CPA nerd, so I said, 'OK, here you go, honey.' Who keeps those?" Shelly said.

First run for office

The year the Onoratos married, 1989, was the year Pittsburgh City Council held its first district elections. Before then, candidates ran at-large, meaning they could live anywhere in the city. Candidates were now divided into nine districts, one of them taking in Brighton Heights and other North Side neighborhoods.

In the 1989 District 1 Democratic primary, former District Justice Bernard Regan beat former Council President Ben Woods, 54 percent to 37 percent. A month later, a federal grand jury handed up an indictment against Woods for extortion.

But about a month before that election, Onorato had concluded he could do better.

Ray Meyer, one of three North Siders who have worked on campaigns for both Onorato and Mayor Tom Murphy, said it was just before Regan's primary victory that Onorato told him he was interested in politics. "He said, 'I don't think [Regan's] doing the job.' That was the start of it," Meyer said recently.

"He was a nice guy and everything," Onorato said of Regan, a fellow North Catholic High School graduate. "But I had my own thoughts: Get some new people in there, these people have been around forever. It's almost like what I'm doing now."

And to stagger elections in the new nine council districts, the next race for that District 1 seat was set for two years later, in 1991. By then, Shelly was pregnant with the couple's first child, Kate, who would be born 18 days before the decisive May 1991 Democratic primary.

"Being a CPA, he studied the vote totals" of the 1989 election, Shelly Onorato said. "He said, 'I can probably win this. What do you think?' We had to make a decision because I was pregnant and he wanted to know if I would be OK.

"I said, 'Yeah. Go for it.' That's our adventurous life."

To get a foothold in the community, Onorato joined the Observatory Hill Citizen Council and a related board overseeing several adjacent community groups called the North Side Conference. Learning from that experience, Onorato broadened his focus, longtime Allegheny West activist John DeSantis said.

"Dan understood that to get what the North Side needed, he needed to be more than focused on just that district, and play with the big boys down on Grant Street. They were both trying to do the same thing, but Dan saw a bigger picture than [Regan] did."

Relying on campaign help from his family and from friends from high school through law school, Onorato beat Regan in May 1991, 51.2 percent to 48.7 percent, and went on to serve two four-year terms on council.

Onorato won the 1991 race even though Murphy, who was elected mayor two years later, acted as Regan's campaign manager.

An accountant first

Dan Onorato has much more hair in the 1979 North Catholic High School yearbook, but even then, themes were emerging, along with a youthful taste for classic rock.

Onorato "likes the cafeteria food, football and Boston," a description of the senior honors student says. "His future plan is to go to college for accounting."

After getting his accounting and law degrees, Onorato continued to work for two years at law firm Rich Fluke Tishman & Rich, where he started as a clerk in 1987. A former partner at the now disbanded firm, Allan Fluke, called Onorato a "producer," somebody who has regular clients and billings coming in to the firm.

Like many others interviewed for this article, he mentioned his surprise that an accountant/lawyer such as Onorato would give up those careers for government.

"He could have made a lot more money if he had stayed in law," Fluke said.

Council members in 1999 made $47,470 annually. The Allegheny County chief executive makes $90,000 this year.

"He could be making $200,000 a year easily now, but that is not what he wants to be doing with his life," said Jui Joshi, the assistant director of development and alumni affairs at Pitt Law, and one of the classmates who helped Onorato run for council in 1991. "I could not sacrifice like he has done."

Onorato currently makes $66,500 a year as controller, while his wife, Shelly, works once a week as a dental hygienist in Ross. Their three children -- Kate, 12; Emily, 10; and Danny, 6 -- all attend school at St. Cyril's, where the family also goes to church.

In talks on the campaign trail, Onorato notes that he did not seek re-election to council when he ran for county controller in 1999, though he faced opposition in both the primary and general election. He is doing the same now: If he loses the executive race, he will be out of a job next year.

"You said you consider me a conservative Democrat. I don't know. ... I will not be beholden to any one group or organization," Onorato told the crowd of conservatives in Ross.

"I'll be in a new position for four years if I'm successful in winning, and [voters] can kick me out after four years. With my CPA background and my law background, I'm hopeful I can find a job," he says cheerfully, drawing laughs from the group.

His anger shows

Onorato's steady clip from accountant and councilman to Allegheny County controller and possibly chief executive has hit a couple of bumps along the way.

In 1994, he ran in a four-way race for the Democratic nod as the 42nd District state senator and came in second to former city Council President Jack Wagner, 46 percent to 40 percent.

In early 1998, Onorato aimed to become council president and expected Murphy to help him line up votes using the muscle of the mayor's office. But after a four-way deadlock, Murphy's political rival, Bob O'Connor, won the job.

Murphy has never been the best at the nitty-gritty of politics, but behind the scenes, Onorato was still "devastated" by the loss and angry at Murphy for letting him down, Cohen and others said.

Onorato's anger on other issues often showed.

By the time he joined Pittsburgh City Council in 1992, it was shedding its circus image of the 1980s, when people like Regan, Woods, Michelle Madoff, Sophie Masloff and Eugene DePasquale served. But it could still be an emotionally charged place, so the 30-year-old Onorato fit right in.

One of his best-known blowups came at the end of his tenure in a council debate over city aid to Vento's Pizza near the old Sears in East Liberty, which had to be moved to make way for a new Home Depot.

Gene Ricciardi mentioned speaking to owner Al Vento about the matter in Italian, and Sala Udin, smarting from council's recent approval of a development plan in the Hill District that he didn't like, said city residents "shouldn't have to speak Italian" to get aid.

Then and now, Udin said he was joking, but Onorato went berserk. "You're out of line! You're way out of line!" Onorato said. "If I would have said that about an African American, you would have a press conference. You should apologize to every Italian American in this town."

Udin and Onorato said they made up minutes after that October 1999 incident; according to Udin, Onorato often introduces him to other Italian Americans when they're at campaign events together to show there are no hard feelings.

During the debate on the police review board, which Onorato opposed, saying it would unnecessarily duplicate misconduct investigations by the city's office of municipal investigations, the anger showed repeatedly.

In an October 1996 debate, Onorato and Ferlo repeatedly shouted at one another, calling each other a "race-baiter." After a series of hearings in July 1996, Onorato complained that review board supporters were the "same group jumping around from hearing to hearing," to which Valerie McDonald responded, "We are all black, but we do not all look alike." Onorato called her comments "bull crap."

Last month, McDonald was at meeting of more than 20 black elected Democrats in Wilkinsburg to endorse Onorato. She shrugged off the old fights, and said some of Onorato's criticisms of the police review board ended up on target.

"He had technical concerns, and let's face it, some of them have evidenced themselves," McDonald said. "It had nothing to do with race or neighborhoods, it was the technical implementing of the thing."

Udin, who had shouting matches with McDonald as well as Onorato while on council, was at the same Wilkinsburg luncheon. "You disagree with people about one thing, and work together on the next. That's what the Democratic Party is about," Udin said, sitting down with a plate of fruit.

It's just that disagreements with Onorato can be louder.

"Dan's voice is loud. His eyes get big. He steps right to you. That's not typical of most politicians," Udin said.

"If you don't know him that can take you aback."

Tim McNulty can be reached at or 412-263-1542.

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