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It's not for the money: So why is Joe Hardy running for office?

Sunday, May 11, 2003

By David Templeton, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A Fayette County mega-millionaire who built a financial empire of 475 lumber stores in 34 states as well as a world-class resort in his home county is seeking a public office that pays $41,379 a year.

The question is why.

Joe Hardy -- I just got tired of bitching (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

Has the county ignored 84 Lumber magnate Joe Hardy's requests for better roads, utilities and amenities? Is he planning another enormous business project in the county? Or has he gone absolutely, positively berserk?

During an interview on Wednesday, Hardy said he's not running for the Republican county commissioner nomination to benefit his Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and Spa, which employs 1,200.

Instead, he said, he's upset with high unemployment, lack of development and the dearth of business know-how among county officials.

"This is not a sham," Hardy, 80, declared. "The main reason -- the principal reason -- is that I just got tired of bitching. I have a positive nature, and I can't deal with negative things. So I figured, 'Why don't I run?' That was my incentive."

The man whose wealth once was estimated at $1 billion is seeking an elective position to run one of the state's poorest counties, facing opposition from five Republicans, many of whom acknowledge being on the slingshot end of a David vs. Goliath struggle.

"Life's been very good to me financially and it's time to give back," Hardy said. "I want to die broke. If you are successful and die with wealth, you haven't done much with your life. Wealth is temporary. It's time to give back to the less fortunate."

The race has turned quickly into a financial competition equivalent to the New York Yankees going up against the Little League all-stars.

Campaign expense reports filed Friday showed that Hardy had spent about $170,000 as of May 1, $150,100 of it his own money. Next in line in the Republican race was Angela Zimmerlink of Redstone, who has spent $4,305. Hardy also has outspent all of the Democrats running -- of those candidates, Sean Cavanagh, came the closest, spending about $99,000.

Hardy is well-represented in the road-sign competition on an 11-mile stretch of Route 40 from Brownsville to Uniontown, where 16 of about 140 placards for candidates in countywide and municipal races bear his name. Five of the signs are on 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood that would be easily obtained by the Chairman of the Boards, who also has 30 full-size billboards throughout the county.

While his Republican opponents realize the odds, they said they cannot be intimidated, even if it is a case of ambitious mice staring down the economic elephant.

"I've worked for Mr. Hardy ever since Nemacolin Woodlands went in up there [near Farmington], and I don't know if I'm shooting myself in the foot," said Donald M. Miller II, 58, a Republican from South Union whose roofing business has done work at the resort. "If an election can be bought in Fayette County, it's already been purchased. I don't have his resources, but I don't think voters in Fayette County can be bought."

But, as Miller noted, Hardy has spent more money on one billboard than he's spent on his entire campaign. "I'd like to see campaign reform -- equalization," he said.

Miller is hoping his experience as a former Uniontown councilman and his years in business will sway voters his way. He is using creativity to counter Hardy's billboards, signs and local advertising. "It's Miller's Time," is one slogan. Another is his claim he can provide "civility, stability and accountability" to a county government that's featured bickering and even fisticuffs in previous administrations.

"Maybe he is wanting to do something to give back to Fayette County," Miller said of Hardy. "If so, God bless him. I believe in statesmanship. But if it comes down to [money], he's the heavyweight."

Dave Lohr, a 46-year-old Republican from South Connellsville, said he lost a previous commissioner's race by only 236 votes in an election in which voter fraud led to several arrests. He said he feels fraud cost him the election, so he's working vigorously to claim a commissioner seat.

But he noted a sense of futility in trying to match Hardy dollar for dollar.

"With me, it's more like dollars and sense," Lohr said. "He's spending in the six digits and I'm in the four digits. My activities and the fact I worked for the county and have name recognition are better than dollars. Just because you have wealth doesn't mean you have answers."

Angela Zimmerlink, a 42-year-old Republican from Redstone, found some common ground with Hardy because she, too, is financing her own campaign.

But that's where similarities end.

She is a paralegal who manages a real-estate company and also operates a paint store in Charleroi, Washington County, with her husband. She's received a few political contributions but has returned them to the donors.

Zimmerlink, too, has lost a previous bid for commissioner, but said her legal, business and real estate experience and her service on the housing authority board provides the experience needed to help lure businesses to Fayette County.

She said she's hoping voters are looking for someone with experience they can relate to, as opposed to a multimillionaire. "Sixty percent of all jobs are created by small business," she said. "I'm not threatened by any candidate. I choose to spend campaign funds any way I see fit because I am self-financed."

That's Hardy's conviction. "What's a sign cost?" he asked rhetorically, when asked about the claims he's papering the county with campaign posters that proclaim "I do make things happen."

His daughter, Maggie Hardy Magerko, is operating 84 Lumber Co. and Nemacolin Woodlands. Hardy said he was fired by his daughter, but she called him on the phone during the Wednesday interview. 84 Lumber, founded by Hardy in 1956, is the largest privately held supplier of building materials in the United States with 475 stores and 20 more under development.

In 2002, 84 Lumber reported sales of $2 billion with 80 percent of that total to professional contractors, its Web site indicates.

Nemacolin Woodlands will hold a Professional Golf Association tournament in September at the resort's Mystic Rock Gold Course with hopes of a $4 million purse.

Hardy said he's aware of snipes that he's buying the election. He notes it's his money he's spending, although a group of friends and officials he helped over the years have scheduled a fund-raiser for his campaign.

His enormous success as an entrepreneur, he said, translates into success for county government. His experience, knowledge, creativity and, yes, his money can be used to help pull Fayette County out of the doldrums of double-digit unemployment rates.

"Everything is business, and the top person sets the pace, sets the image and sets the attitude," he said. "The three commissioners do not radiate attitude. The commissioners have set the litany but can't figure out a solution. If they do figure out a solution, they can't figure out how to implement it.

"I'm dealing with politics all the time," he said, noting his involvement in political issues and contributions to local, state and national campaigns.

Only two candidates from each party will be elected to run in the general election, where three commissioners will be elected. Due to a party switch, the current board of commissioners consists of three Democrats. Sean Cavanagh filed petitions in 1999 to run in the Democrat primary but was booted off the ballot after his nominating petitions were successfully contested.

Cavanagh responded by running in the general election as an Independent and winning. Once he took office with Democrats Vincent A. Vicites and Ron Nehls, he switched his registration back to Democrat.

Nehls, Vicites and Cavanagh face opposition from Vincent Zapotosky, a former aide to former U.S. Rep. Austin J. Murphy, D-Charleroi, then to former U.S. Rep. Frank R. Mascara; and J. William Lincoln, a former state senator.

The three incumbents have not agreed readily on issues, even though they undertook a countywide reassessment and floated an $11.8 million bond issue to complete a series of county projects. Vicites did not return calls, but Nehls, 65, and Cavanagh, 37, said they've helped to usher in major accomplishments, even if their relationship has been less than ideal.

Cavanagh, a friend of Hardy's, said he was shocked by Hardy's candidacy, but said Hardy would be "a tremendous asset" to the county, if he is elected and takes the job seriously.

"I think he's doing it for the money," Cavanagh said jokingly.

The question is his seriousness. Other candidates questioned whether he will be interested in dealing with everyday issues of county government.

Noting the contentious climate of recent boards of commissioners, Hardy said he built his businesses not as a tyrannical boss, but as someone who listens to others, considers various opinions and compromises when necessary.

He admitted to being impetuous, but said he would rather make a mistake than not make a decision. If elected, he said, he hopes his colleagues will respect his abilities and consider his ideas that have brought him extraordinary success. After all, he said, "government is business."

And if there's a county or community anywhere in the country that would provide a model for Fayette County, Hardy said, he would invite the two other commissioners to hop on a plane with him at his expense and fly to, say, Oshkosh, Wis., to study its success. "It would only take an hour to fly there," he said.

He also said he's willing to contribute money to county projects he deems important, if money isn't available through government grants. If elected, he said, he'd begin immediately to contact successful businesses nationwide and invite them to locate facilities in Fayette County.

County GOP Chairman Chris Sepesy said Hardy has been "an absolutely stellar candidate" who's generated interest in the campaign and in the Republican Party.

"He has been very forceful in getting his issues out. He has been very engaged ... participating in practically every activity that he has been invited to or otherwise. And he has been as robust as any candidate I have ever seen," Sepesy said.

Sepesy said he hasn't endorsed any of the Republican candidates.For anyone who thinks Hardy is not interested in being a commissioner, consider his Wednesday schedule.

At 3:45 p.m., Hardy was in his 84 Lumber office in Washington County making 200 calls to voters in Fayette County. Two of his employees dialed numbers and connected him to Fayette County voters whom he addressed by name and asked if they would vote for him. "Thank you, you've made my day," he said after a number of successful calls.

After the interview, he was scheduled to meet with the Fraternal Order of Police at 5:30 p.m. with another campaign stop scheduled for 7 p.m. He said he soon will begin going door to door to seek votes. Despite the money he's spending, he described his campaign as grassroots.

Describing himself as "a legend in my own mind," Hardy said he's having loads of fun running for office.

"The price is right for Fayette County," he said, noting he would serve office for free or would donate his wage to area food banks. "I won't be tempted to steal."

"I have a sense of humor and think I'm comic relief from other candidates who are so stiff and think they're Abraham Lincoln. You have one guy with three employees who says he understands all business problems. One had the audacity to say he was a philanthropist."

Last year, Hardy gave nearly $1.4 million to causes nationwide, according to donations tracked by his office at 84 Lumber. The money came from Hardy, not the company. The $1.4 million doesn't include donations tracked by his office at Nemacolin Woodlands. The amount of those donations was not immediately available.

Hardy also said he hopes his involvement in Fayette County politics will draw other successful entrepreneurs and wealthy candidates into the political arena to use their resources and abilities for the common good. Already he's offering $1,000 to anyone who comes to him with an idea to come up with an idea for a hall of fame -- tourist bonanzas no matter what they involve.

He's even considering an X Games hall of fame.

"The backbone of our country is the entrepreneur," he said. "They won't need to pay me anything and I'll bring in my expertise. I think it's the right fit."

Staff writer Joe Smydo contributed to this report. David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 724-746-8652.

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