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Newsmaker: James Fenton / Political rookie takes one for team

Monday, April 08, 2002

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Hockey players throw their bodies in front of flying pucks to block shots.

James Fenton (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette)

Wide receivers absorb punishing blows from defensive backs to make a catch.

Batters let fastballs bore into their quadriceps to get on base.

Last week, Allegheny County Council's newest member committed the political equivalent of these acts of athletic self-sacrifice, and he did it as a raw rookie.

James Fenton, a Democrat appointed to council just two days earlier, cast the deciding vote Thursday in favor of a reapportionment that all but dashes his chances of winning election to his seat.

He supplied his fellow Democrats with the final vote they needed to approve a council-district map that will generally put Republicans at a disadvantage in elections for the next 10 years. Unfortunately for Fenton, though, the new map shifts his hometown of Mt. Lebanon from a Democrat-leaning District 5 to a Republican-dominated District 6.

"Some people said I was thrown to the wolves right away," Fenton said.

It may be small consolation for a shortened stay on council, but his selflessness has not gone unappreciated within his party.


Name: James Fenton

Date of birth: April 15, 1955

Place of birth: Homestead

In the news: Fenton won appointment to Allegheny County Council on Tuesday, then cast the deciding vote for reapportionment two days later, even though the new map will make it almost impossible for him to win election.

Quote: "Political suicide? I don't view it that way. People vote for who is going to do the job."

Education: Graduated from St. Anselm High School in 1973; completed labor-management classes at Penn State University.

Family: Wife, Cindy; son, Casey, 18; daughter, Bridget, 16.


"He deserves a lot of credit for putting the party and the process ahead of his own personal interest," said Rich Fitzgerald, chairman of council's Democratic caucus. "Jim came in at the very toughest time you ever could. Talk about getting thrown into the fire."

Republicans are challenging the new map in federal court and U.S. District Judge Robert Cindrich will hold a status conference this afternoon. While Fenton set aside his personal ambitions for the benefit of his party last week, he probably won't be overly upset if Cindrich orders the Democrats to redraw the districts again.

"If that's what the court forces us to do, I'm going to ask [Council President James] Simms to let me be involved in it," Fenton said.

A longtime Democratic committeeman, Fenton is finishing the unexpired term of another Democrat from Mt. Lebanon, Mike Crossey, who resigned last month to begin campaigning for the state's 42nd District House seat.

The financial secretary-treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, Fenton received the appointment to Crossey's seat on a unanimous vote of County Council on Tuesday, but a few members had reservations.

In interviewing for the appointment, Fenton set off a few alarms when he said about nepotism:

"I've been able to show a lot of instances where, if a father is a good employee, his son is a good employee, because if the son messes up, the father takes care of it."

After Fenton left the room, Councilman Charles Martoni, D-Swissvale, tried to allay concerns about the union executive's remarks.

"I don't think he would sit up here [on council] and advocate nepotism," Martoni said.

Councilwoman Brenda Frazier, D-Stanton Heights, replied, "Well, he almost did."

Minutes later, Tom Shumaker, R-Pine, expressed some reluctance about appointing a union executive.

"I have concerns that he's coming to council with an agenda and his agenda is not to represent all the residents of District 6," Shumaker said.

Then after Tuesday's meeting, when Fenton went around shaking hands with his new colleagues, Shumaker gave him the cold shoulder, dismissing the newcomer as a puppet of the Allegheny County Labor Council.

Fenton took offense.

"I'm not in anyone's pocket," the new councilman said later. "I'll do what I think is right."

Shumaker aside, Democrats and Republicans appear to be communicating well on council, in Fenton's view.

"I think they have a good working relationship," he said.

Fenton comes to council with a reputation as a level-headed, open-minded union leader.

"I can honestly tell you I can't name a better person to negotiate with," said Laurie Andrews, chief operations officer of the Port Authority. "He's very honest. He's someone who can solve problems. He's not a rabble-rouser. He's very good at seeing both sides and being very reasonable at compromising and considering solutions."

Predictably enough for someone who worked for the Port Authority for 18 years, Fenton would like to find more money in the county budget for public transit projects, such as a future extension of the "T" to Oakland.

"I'm going to be working on council any way I can to promote these ideas for transit," he said. "That's what really got me interested in taking the [council] job."

Fenton will hold the seat through the end of 2003, but he intends to run next year for a full term in District 5 -- never mind that his vote Thursday will make it almost impossible for him to win.

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