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Tom Foerster, 1928-2000: A dominant political force

With perseverance and political skill, the 7-term commissioner became perhaps the county's greatest builder

Wednesday, January 12, 2000

By James O'Toole, Politics Editor, Post-Gazette

Thomas J. Foerster, the soft-spoken ex-football coach who rose from the political back benches to dominate Allegheny County government through the last quarter of the 20th century, died yesterday.

 
  Tom Foerster celebrates re-election in 1983 to his fifth of seven terms as county commissioner. (Post-Gazette photo)

Mr. Foerster, 71, was elected to a record seven terms in the courthouse before being rebuffed in the 1995 Democratic primary. In the last months of his life, Mr. Foerster made what would remain a figurative return to the courthouse with his election to the County Council, the legislative arm of the new form of government he had helped create.

His physician, Dr. Bruce Dixon, said his death, at 4:32 p.m., was caused by complications of the cardiac arrest he suffered last Wednesday and the diabetes that he had suffered for years. He had been in a coma since last Wednesday when he suffered the heart attack in the midst of tests in the hospital.

At his death, in UPMC Montefiore Hospital, Foerster was accompanied by his wife, Georgeann, his two brothers and sisters, and their children.

Mr. Foerster was an unabashed liberal, unafraid to raise taxes for the public works projects and social programs at the center of his view of government. He was proudest of his work in nurturing the community college system and seeing through the development of the new Pittsburgh International Airport.

During his 28 years in office, he also presided over the expansions of a wide variety of human service programs and the construction of four Kane Regional Centers to replace the old Kane Hospital for the elderly. At the prodding of a federal judge, his administration built the massive new jail along the banks of the Monongahela.

 
  Additional coverage:

Foerster's friends recall man who left behind a legacy

Council hasn't discussed replacement

   
 

On his way to those accomplishments, he was an easy person to underestimate. He entered the Legislature in the years when the word charisma first became associated with success in politics. It was a word never associated with Mr. Foerster. He had a plain, stolid, untelegenic face. He fought a lifelong battle with his weight. But through mastery of detail, perseverance, and an innate understanding of politics and coalition -- building, he put together a record as perhaps the greatest builder in the history of Allegheny County government.

While he amassed -- and, critics said, jealously guarded -- power as a political leader, he dismissed accounts of his influence as more perception than reality. And in a post-machine age, he never had the degree of clout that figures such as David Lawrence wielded in the political generation that preceded him. But he did have power.

In later years, his old-school style and sheer longevity sometimes allowed the perception of a sense of sclerosis about Democratic politics. Republican Commissioner Larry Dunn constantly complained of Mr. Foerster's governing style, charging that he was frozen out of decision-making.

But Common Pleas Judge Frank Lucchino, the longtime county controller who once ran against Mr. Foerster then became a close ally, saw him as a benign influence, "a rock of Gibraltar," to his party and his county.

"Others may quarrel with some of the decisions and methods he employed to get things done, but year in and year out for 28 years he is the guy who kept the party going. ... He gave loyalty and expected loyalty in return."

And he often used his power for visionary ends.

"The things he did with the community college during the collapse of the steel industry, I thought, were brilliant," said Morton Coleman, the former head of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Politics.

 
    Arrangements incomplete

Funeral arrangements for Allegheny County Councilman Thomas J. Foerster had not been completed last night.

County Executive James C. Roddey ordered flags at county facilities placed at half-staff to commemorate his death.

Roddey said he had also suggested to the family that Foerster's coffin lie in state in the central hall of the county courthouse. Decisions on arrangements, being handled by John A. Freyvogel of Shadyside, were still pending.

 
 

"At a time when most people were in denial about homelessness ... he moved almost immediately," said Phil Pappas, executive director of Community Human Services, a settlement house. "His abiding passion was to level the playing field and he had a sense of the need to move quickly. ... He was outcome driven."

"There would not be a [Senator John Heinz Regional] History Center if it were not for the vision of Tom Foerster," said John Herbst, the Strip District institution's former director. "He was the first public official to see the potential of the history center and get behind it in a practical way."

Over his long public life, Mr. Foerster battled, at one time or another, with figures across the political spectrum. But, time and again, he would repair those rifts and go on to work with former enemies -- abiding by his oft-repeated adage, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life."

He opposed Pete Flaherty's insurgent campaign for mayor of Pittsburgh but ended up working in tandem with him on the board of commissioners. Years later, he feuded bitterly with Jim Flaherty, Pete's brother, when he joined him on the board of commissioners and froze Mr. Foerster out, forming an alliance with Republican Bob Peirce. By the end of that term, Mr. Foerster and Jim Flaherty were partners again.

 
Foerster as a scholastic football coach, circa 1950. 

Mr. Foerster lost to the late Mayor Richard Caliguiri in his only run for mayor but went on to work with his former rival on a variety of political and governmental issues. A split with former Commissioner Cyril H. Wecht led to years of acrimony between them, but even they had a rapprochement by the time Wecht ran for county executive last year.

Until his death, Mr. Foerster lived in the same North Side neighborhood in which he had grown up.

"He lived such a simple life," said Lucchino. "He had his place in Conneaut, which, if you've ever been there, there's nothing to it. ... And he has this nice but very modest house on Troy Hill."

A big kid, he played the line, on offense and defense, on North Catholic's football teams in the early 1940s, and later at Slippery Rock College. While still a student at North, he began coaching youth football, an avocation he would continue up to his election to the state Legislature.

He and Dan Rooney, who would be a lifelong friend, were rival coaches in a North Side grade school league -- Rooney at St. Peter; Mr. Foerster at Nativity.

"He really was a person who thought of the small guy," said Rooney. "He had this great sense of compassion."

Empathy, eagerness to reach out, are qualities cited again and again in reminiscences of the former commissioner.

"One memory that sticks with me was a Christmas 12 years ago when we couldn't meet our payroll," said Bill Strickland, the acclaimed leader of the now thriving Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. "We put out a kind of appeal and [Rep.] Leroy Irvis and Tom Foerster were the two people who showed up on this Christmas week evening and said, 'How can I help.' "

For most of his adult life, Mr. Foerster seemed the archetype of the confirmed bachelor. But, at 62, he stunned even his closest friends with the news that he would marry Georgeann Zupancic.

"She's just the most wonderful person I've met in my life." he said shortly after their wedding on Nov. 23, 1990. "Not only am I in love with her; she is my best friend."

From his wedding day on, Mr. Foerster was quick to volunteer a fond, precise accounting of his nuptial bliss, citing the exact number of days since the end of his bachelorhood, "with never an argument or a fight."

He was an avid anti-smoking crusader. His ban on smoking in the courthouse was routinely defied, but he seldom hesitated to remind a smoker of the error of his ways. Once, hitching a ride with a reporter, he expressed disgust at the auto's overflowing ash tray. Then, mindful of his steelworker constituents, he upbraided his chauffeur for driving a foreign car.

Mr. Foerster's first two runs at the General Assembly, in 1954 and 1956, ended in failure. But, characteristically, he persevered. He was finally elected to the state House in 1958, beating former Steelers quarterback John "Harp" Vaughn. He went to Harrisburg at the same time as his political hero, Lawrence, the longtime Pittsburgh mayor who had been elected governor.

In the Legislature, Mr. Foerster, looking beyond the agenda of his urban district, forged a reputation as "Clean Streams Tom," the champion of sportsmen and environmentalists.

"I think one of the things that strikes me about him is that he's always been underestimated," said former House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis, the Hill District Democrat who entered the General Assembly in the same class as Mr. Foerster and another longtime ally, the late Sen. Eugene Scanlon, D-North Side.

"They gave him an assignment on the committee on mines and minerals that had nothing to do with the North Side; that's the way they treated us freshmen back then," Irvis recalled. "But he surprised them all. His leadership turned that committee around so that it changed the whole terrain of Western Pennsylvania."

Mr. Foerster was one of the architects of laws curbing abuses in the state's strip mining industry. He was a the prime sponsor of the 1965 Clean Streams Act and the 1966 Mine Subsidence Act.

He would be elected to the Legislature five times. One of Mr. Foerster's frequent legislative partners was state Sen. Leonard Staisey. They were chosen by the still-functioning Lawrence machine to replace the incumbent Democratic commissioners, William McClelland and John McGrady.

The challengers styled themselves as the "Action Team," promising to bring more dynamic government to the county. It was a step forward for Mr. Foerster. But he was still very much the junior member of that team, taking a back seat to the brilliant Staisey, who had not allowed blindness to deter him from successful careers in law and politics. There were even rumors then that Staisey had considered replacing his running mate with the late Sheriff Eugene Coon for his second term. Few would have predicted then that it would be Mr. Foerster who would go on to make the greater mark on the county.

The Staisey-Foerster administration would pursue expansions of the county park system and its social service network, new anti-pollution efforts, and the construction of Community College of Allegheny County.

Irvis had written the law creating the state's community college system. His friend Mr. Foerster supported the concept in the Legislature and embraced its brick-and-mortar embodiment throughout his long tenure in the courthouse.

"When people talk about his record, you always hear about the airport, and that was important," said Bob Nelkin, a close advisor on human service issues. "But to Tom, it was the community college and human services that were closest to his heart."

The Staisey-Foerster years also saw an expansion of rapid transit, an area that included the controversial Skybus proposal that would contribute to the end of their partnership. Skybus was to be a pioneering rubber-wheeled train running on separate, sometimes overhead rights of way.

The plan was hailed as visionary by some but denounced as expensive and untested by others, including Pete Flaherty, then the popular mayor of Pittsburgh. In the face of the widespread opposition, Mr. Foerster would eventually back away from the proposal, while Staisey remained steadfast in his support. In the 1975 primary, Staisey was ousted by Jim Flaherty. Mr. Foerster survived, but the Democrats' partnership didn't last much beyond the general election. Flaherty formed a coalition with Peirce. Mr. Foerster was still in office, but not in power.

In 1977, he turned his sights across Forbes Avenue, to the City-County Building where Caliguiri had succeeded Pete Flaherty as mayor after Flaherty went to Washington in the Carter administration. Mr. Foerster won the Democratic nomination over a multi-candidate field that included Lucchino and James Simms, now a county councilman. Mr. Foerster thought he also had received assurance from Caliguiri that he would not seek a full term and would instead support Mr. Foerster. But Caliguiri, after staying out of the Democratic primary, ran as an independent and defeated Mr. Foerster by 5,000 votes.

After that disappointment, Mr. Foerster got some consolation with the breakup of the Flaherty-Peirce alliance. Mr. Foerster and Flaherty mended their rift, restoring Mr. Foerster's share of county power.

While Flaherty stepped down after a single term, Mr. Foerster won re-election in 1979 teamed with Wecht. Environmental issues were again a preoccupation. County government tried to balance air quality against the interests of the steel industry -- then on the verge of a decade-long collapse -- as it implemented new federal clean air laws.

The Democrats also joined in taking the first steps toward the financing and construction of the midfield terminal project at the airport. And they struggled to craft a response to a civil rights suit protesting inhumane conditions at the county jail.

Wecht was serving as chairman of the county Democratic party at the time, and his term, for a variety of reasons, was a fractious one. Mr. Foerster eventually sided with his former rival, Caliguiri, against Wecht. They opposed Wecht's re-election both to the party post and as a commissioner.

Wecht, along with Coon, won the party endorsement for commissioner in 1983, but Mr. Foerster prevailed, winning nomination in the primary and going on to re-election teamed, warily at first, with Pete Flaherty. Some doubted the durability of that alliance of very different political personalities, but it proved a productive partnership, with accomplishments including the completion of the airport project and the massive new jail.

Every other week, the commissioners and their aides would pile into buses, traveling to the far corners of the county to get a first-hand view of its projects and problems. From Aleppo to Wall, from Pine to Moon, Mr. Foerster boasted that he had been in every one of the county's 130 municipalities more than five times.

"I would assert that his legacy is more than any particular project," said Lucchino. "It was his quiet but firm willingness to move ahead on issues before they were popular. There were the obvious things -- the airport, the community college, the Kanes -- but there were many other things that people don't know anything about."

Echoing Herbst, he mentioned Mr. Foerster's role in supporting the Heinz history center. Lucchino said he played a similar background but crucial role in committing the county a countywide computer system for libraries and the the Carnegie's development of the Andy Warhol Museum.

"He was no arts devotee, but he saw the advantage of this unique institution," said Lucchino. "He was the perfect example of the saying, 'It's amazing how much you can get done if you don't care who gets the credit.' "

With his re-election in 1991, Mr. Foerster became the first commissioner in the century to serve seven terms, eclipsing the record held by the late Commissioner John Kane. But it would prove to be Mr. Foerster's last term and one that would be buffeted with personal and political controversy.

In the Democratic primary that year, Mr. Foerster had supported Michael Coyne against an old protege and former aide, Joseph Brimmeier. The race caused a lasting intra-party rift. Four county employees who had supported Brimmeier later sued the county, charging that their subsequent firings were acts of political retribution by Mr. Foerster. The commissioners who succeeded Mr. Foerster settled the suit in 1997 with a payment of $475,000. But Mr. Foerster opposed the settlement, insisting that there was nothing to the charges. He said that if he had fired everyone who disagreed with him over the years, "There probably wouldn't be anyone left working for the county."

Mr. Foerster was indisputably a champion of social programs, constantly importuning the state and federal governments for more money for human services. But his administration faced sharp criticism even in those areas in the early 1990s. Children and Youth Services was the subject of frequent complaints and eventually of a scathing report citing its inadequate procedures and overflowing caseloads. The county Housing Authority was officially designated "troubled" by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In 1993, a major round of reassessments brought howls of suburban outrage, spotlighting an antiquated and frequently inequitable tax system -- one that Mr. Foerster himself had often complained of. Newspapers were filled with reports of symptoms of government bloat such as the provision of rent-free housing in county parks to a few favored employees, and lack of control and accountability in the distribution of county cars.

Cutting closer to home, Mr. Foerster's step-son, just months before the primary, was indicted and, after pleading guilty, sentenced to eight years in jail for trafficking in cocaine. Mr. Foerster's own actions were scrutinized in connection with the case, with questions raised over whether he had intervened with law enforcement officials on his stepson's behalf. But federal prosecutors later said there was no evidence that Mr. Foerster had done anything improper.

As the 1995 primary approached, all of those factors reinforced an aura of vulnerability about the incumbents. A big field lined up to exploit that opportunity, led by state Sen. Michael Dawida and his running mate, Coleen Vuono. With all their baggage, Mr. Foerster and Flaherty were still favored, but Dawida and Vuono rolled to upsets for the Democratic nominations. The voters who had re-elected him again and again apparently felt that Mr. Foerster had stayed too long at the party. He trailed in fourth place.

If they didn't agree with the premise that there was something wrong with their administration, Mr. Foerster and Flaherty had endorsed and encouraged a growing view that there was something wrong with the structure of county government itself. Enlisting Duquesne University President John Murray as its chairman, they appointed a committee, Compac 21, to study how a mode of government more than two centuries old should be tailored for a new century.

"Tom called me one afternoon and invited me to meet with him without telling me what it was about," Murray recalled. He traveled down the Bluff from Duquesne to the courthouse and sat down with Mr. Foerster and Flaherty in Mr. Foerster's office.

"Tom did most of the talking," he said. "He told me to take a very copious look at the structure of county government. He told me there would be no interference and he lived up to that completely. ... In my experience, it's fair to say what he cared about was making this county a lot better regardless of how it had to be changed. He was interested not in his own legacy but in the future of Allegheny County."

After the 1995 defeat, Mr. Foerster settled, with surprising enthusiasm, into senior statesman status. Foundations supported a distinguished fellow chair that allowed him to teach at Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne universities.

"He was a really outstanding teacher," said Coleman. "It was a hard period for him. He had lost the election. He had his health problems, but he jumped into his work and he did it so well. I never heard him complain."

The recommendations devised by the Compac 21 panel were the seeds of the home rule government and, indirectly, of Mr. Foerster's return to public life.

Staying with his North Side roots, he declared his candidacy last year for the new District 13 seat on County Council. Not for the first time, he was denied his party's endorsement. But Mr. Foerster cruised to easy victories in the primary and general elections. He promised to take a nonpartisan approach to the new council, saying, for instance, that he would avoid party caucuses if they were formed. Mr. Foerster actively campaigned for the council presidency, but his new colleagues preferred to go in another direction.

In his hospital room, he was sworn in by an old county government colleague, state Supreme Court Justice Stephen A. Zappala Sr. Without Mr. Foerster, the County Council might very well not have existed but he was never able to attend one of its sessions.

"Just a couple of weeks ago, we were talking and I know he would have loved being president of council, but his real concern was that the job be done the way it should be done," said Elsie Hillman, the former Republican national committeewoman. "It's just a shame he didn't get to play a part in it."

Nelkin said, even as his health was failing, Mr. Foerster was working the phones on issues he hoped to tackle on the new council -- harnessing the city's universities in a new center to address racial understanding and increasing funding for the community college's work in developing skills for the changing workplace.

"I worked with Tom on a lot of government things, but when I think of him, I think of the impact he's had on many lives and mine personally," said Mayor Murphy.

"My daughter graduated from high school not knowing what she wanted to do. She started at the community college and she ended up getting a master's from CMU. ... We had an aunt in Kane hospital a number of years ago. Kane used to be a terrible place. But, really with Tom's leadership, the mini-Kane's are excellent. I think there are families he's touched like that all over Allegheny County."

In addition to his wife, Mr. Foerster is survived by two sisters, Mary McLaughlin of Pittsburgh and Virginia Muth of McCandless; two brothers, John of Swissvale and William of Zelienople; and five step-children.



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