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South Neighborhoods
Kaiser's independence became a double-edged sword

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

By Roger Stuart, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

State Rep. Ralph Kaiser's choice was clear -- vote his conscience and represent constituents in his 41st Legislative District or side with the House Democratic caucus in Harrisburg to raise taxes.

He chose the former in a defining moment that reaped retribution a decade later, when he was redistricted out of office.

State Rep. Ralph Kaiser, D-Brentwood, jokes with his office manager, Linda Abernathy, as they clear out his Caste Village office. Kaiser was redistricted out of his 41st Legislative District seat. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

"They hit the eject button on me," Kaiser said in the waning days of a 14-year legislative career marked by political independence that served him well among fiscally conservative South suburban constituents but poorly among his party's leaders.

Never mind his enormous popularity at the polls, he said after seeing his district carved up last year. "They have a long memory."

"I don't think they can perceive the future the same way they realized the past," Democratic leader William DeWeese had predicted ominously in 1991 after Kaiser and four other Democratic legislators had failed to toe the party line.

They voted against a $3 billion tax increase in then-Gov. Robert Casey's 1991-92 budget, which increased state spending 12 percent.

"The range [of sanctions] could go from staff complements to projects in the districts to legislative opportunities in this chamber," DeWeese, still the chief House Democratic leader, said back then.

"But it was not personal," he wrote in a letter to the editor in the Post-Gazette after the reapportionment, which also eliminated the seat of state Rep. David Mayernik, D-Ross, who voted with Kaiser against Casey's tax-increase budget in 1991.

"The depredations of demographics forced us to make some difficult cuts," DeWeese concluded. "To borrow a metaphor from World War I, we had to gird our caucus with 'stout wire.'"

Bringing home the money

High-stakes politics paled, though, alongside descriptions of Kaiser by legislative pals and grass-roots leaders as a low-key "rainmaker" reaping millions of dollars in state grants for local projects.

"I'm not a blackslapping or cigar-in-the-mouth-type of guy," he said, recognizing the persona he projects. "I'm a blue-collar guy. I just do the work."

For local politicians, such as Castle Shannon Mayor Don Baumgarten, that meant finding money in Harrisburg to defray a multitude of public and civic projects. "He brought a lot of money into the community. People really benefited."

Castle Shannon alone got hundreds of thousands of dollars, Baumgarten said. "I think he got more than $250,000 for borough parks over the years, plus grants for the police department, ambulance authority, youth activities, senior citizens, the library. He was well loved by the fire departments."

"Ralph teamed up with a small number of legislators in recent years to bring back a phenomenal, unprecedented amount of tax dollars to his district" said state Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, a longtime legislative colleague. "He has been very good at being able to sniff surplus cash in Harrisburg."

Much of it has been in legislative initiative grants, known more widely as "walking-around money." But it also has included transportation money for the Port Authority of Allegheny County and allocations from the state road maintenance budget.

"I don't care if you're a Democrat, a Republican or you're not even registered, you pay taxes and are entitled to have tax money in the form of grants come back to your community," Kaiser said.

The largest single grant was $1 million for the new, yet unopened Brentwood fire hall. But the list includes police departments, senior centers, school districts, libraries, parks, economic development and youth baseball, football, softball and soccer organizations.

Kaiser once garnered money for a $100,000 street sweeper to be shared by communities in his recently dismantled district, including Brentwood, Castle Shannon, South Park and parts of Baldwin Borough, Bethel Park and Whitehall.

But not all the grants inspired praise. Consider the speed-monitoring device he brought to his district -- complete with a Kaiser campaign sign.

"I think attaching his name to it as a roving campaign advertisement is pushing the envelope," Bethel Park GOP Chairman Garvey Jones said.

Kaiser's knack for acquiring state funding for back-home use has been perhaps his most noteworthy accomplishment, one that fellow state Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, traces to "a unique facility with figures. ... He knows numbers, percentages. He usually has them, down to the line items."

Diligence is another characteristic, Mayernik said. "He's the epitome of what an elected official should be. Ralph is an early riser. He's up in his office before 5 a.m. most days in Harrisburg. He should have been a chicken farmer, he's up so early in the morning."

Mill to stump

Kaiser's initial career choice, as a steel worker at the U.S. Steel Duquesne Works, led at age 34 to the most wrenching crisis in his life, when the mill closed for good. That was 1984, some 11 years after he'd graduated from Robert Morris with a bachelor's degree in business.

He had chosen the mill work because the pay was so good. "I was making as much as some people with MBAs." When those good times ended, Kaiser found jobs scarce, because too many people hit the streets at the same time.

"In 1980, there were 25,000 employees of U.S. Steel in the Mon Valley. In 1985, there were only 5,000," he said. But he and wife Susan decided to stay in Brentwood and tough it out.

"From '84 to '88, it was always two jobs -- one full time during daylight and one part time at night and Saturdays and Sundays. During one six-month period, I worked every day. Even though they were hard times, it brought out the best in me. When times got tough, I got tougher."

So, he was amenable when approached by several Democratic members of the Allegheny County delegation in Harrisburg to challenge the GOP incumbent for his state House seat in 1988.

"No Democrat had ever won out there," Kaiser said. "Ray Book had held the seat for six years. Joe Zord had held that job 18 years before Bob Frazier for one term."

Although campaign money was scarce, Kaiser made up with tenacity what he lacked in cash to make the run.

"When I told my wife I had been asked to run for the Legislature, she said, 'Do what you want. That's fine.' I took my car title to the credit union and got a $4,400 loan against it. My payments were like $140 a month. I said, 'If I win, fine. If I lose, I can earn an extra $140 to pay off the loan.' She believed me."

Kaiser got 30,000 pieces of literature printed and began door-knocking July 3, 1988, missing only four days from then to the general election.

"I would come home from work, then knock on doors from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, then Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 p.m. until 9 p.m. I figured 43 hours per week every week on top of a 40-hour-per-week job. I went to 80 to 85 percent of the homes in the district.

"People, Democrats, said, 'You don't have a chance, buddy.' That wasn't very encouraging. I thought, 'Where is the razor blade to cut my throat?' But when people started saying, 'You were at my friend's, my cousin's,' I started to know I had a chance."

He defeated Book by 168 votes. The next time out, he defeated his opponent by a 2-1 margin, losing only three voting districts. They proved to be the last ones he lost in any Democratic primary or general election, he recalled.

Chosen battles

Among his proudest legislative accomplishments was being cited by Common Cause in 1993 as one of 13 Democratic "Untouchables" for their efforts to reform the way the House of Representatives conducted business.

"He is laid-back, but when need be, he can go off, especially when he feels strongly about an issue," said Readshaw, his longtime House colleague.

Consider the humane officers reform bill Kaiser shepherded into law. During one hearing, he held his own badge, handcuffs and Pennsylvania Humane Society ticket book above his head and said legislation was needed to keep unqualified officers like himself off farms and out of people's doghouses.

"I filed two forms with the Department of State, spent 10 minutes and $100," to become a humane officer, he said.

By the end of the month, after he was to be sworn in by a judge, he would be able to wear a uniform, carry a gun and write tickets costing pet owners as much as $600 in fines, all without any training, supervision by any government agency or knowledge of animals.

"I never even owned a dog," he said. "And the closest I've ever come was to pet one owned by someone else."

Kaiser's new job is director of government affairs for WQED, serving its television and FM radio stations and Pittsburgh Magazine. He can start drawing a state pension, he said, adding that "a number of people have asked me to run for county council or controller."

Now, though, with his legislative career behind him, Kaiser maintains, he's still the same person who went to Harrisburg 14 years ago.

"The only change is that I no longer call a soft drink 'pop.' I have to call it 'soda.' In Harrisburg, when I said 'pop,' they looked at me like I was crazy, or they laughed. I kept the same principles. I never got Susquehanna fever, meaning you forget about the people back home."

Roger Stuart can be reached at email rstuart@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1414.

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