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Councilwoman set to get her feet wet

Monday, January 03, 2000

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

All 15 elected members of the brand-new Allegheny County Council -- even the longtime party politicians like Tom Foerster and Richard Olasz Sr. -- will be charting unfamiliar territory as they serve in the new government.

On the face of it, however, Jan Rea of the North Hills seems more of a neophyte than most. After all, she is the only elected member who lists her occupation as "homemaker," although as the wife of an influential banker she has been active in Republican politics for the past five years.

This is the first in an occasional series of stories following Rea's progress as she learns, along with her colleagues, to navigate this new form of government and to make decisions on budgets, personnel and services.

On election night, Nov. 2, a tall, striking woman stood nervously in front of a television at the Doubletree Hotel Pittsburgh, where a victory party for Republican county executive candidate Jim Roddey was beginning to pick up some serious steam.

  Jan Rea is readying herself for her new job with that same attention to detail that she learned 25 years ago as a legal secretary. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

With 80 percent of the vote tallies in, it was clear that Jan Rea had won a spot on County Council as a representative of District 2 in the North Hills.

But Rea declined the congratulations, keeping her eyes riveted on the flickering television set until the very last minute. That amused some political veterans in the room. They chalked it up to a novice's insecurity.

"I just wanted to make sure every vote had been counted" before declaring victory, Rea says today, brushing off the notion that as a first-timer she was somehow unsure of herself.

"Nobody is sure they're electable until every vote is counted," the 48-year-old McCandless resident says firmly. "I've watched people campaign, and no matter how sure they're going to win, you just never know. There's something about having the total vote count in, and most politicians will tell you they aren't ever really comfortable until their name is on there as the winner."

Since that night, Rea has been readying herself for her new job with that same attention for detail that she learned 25 years ago as a legal secretary and later as the wife of a successful businessman and mother of two boys. In the office off the kitchen in her sprawling, attractively decorated home in an upscale subdivision near North Park, a huge calendar features painstakingly handwritten notations about meetings, seminars, receptions -- Rea got a Franklin planner for Christmas that she hopes will be easier to lug around.

But for someone who thrives on organization and control and leaving nothing to chance, the ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants climate in the Allegheny County Courthouse during the past two months has been unsettling.

The County Council will not officially exist until sometime after 4:30 p.m. today, but, not surprisingly, it has already begun to take shape behind the scenes in an unwieldy, disjointed, occasionally rancorous fashion. Not surprisingly, that shape is mostly along party lines, although there are overlaps here and there.

Besides background maneuvering about who would be the County Council's president -- a question still unsettled last night -- there have been lengthy discussions about what kind of office space the part-time members should have and who would pay for its renovation; whether one person should swear in all the County Council members at this afternoon's ceremony and whether each member should have his or her own person holding the Bible; and who should be hired as the council's chief of staff and how much he or she should be paid.

While there have been plenty of meetings, never once have all 15 members been together in the same room, unless you count the seven workshops on county government sponsored by the Pennsylvania Economy League -- and Richard Olasz Sr. boycotted those, declaring that a "Republican-controlled organization" didn't have anything to teach him, a nine-term Democratic state legislator.

Last week, a meeting to discuss the distribution of office space produced a dismal turnout: While four out of the five Republicans attended, only two out of 10 Democrats showed up, many of them pleading holiday conflicts. And on Thursday, Democrats met separately to try to come up with their own candidate for president.

All of this has disappointed Rea, who disagrees with the notion espoused by her Democratic colleagues that council has to match Roddey in political muscle.

"We have to try to be nonpartisan," she says. "We're supposed to be working with Jim Roddey, not to be divisive -- to be a balance, and yet to be supportive."

Grounded in party work

Rea's political career began after her sons left home for college and got a running start in part, she admits, because she and her husband have been generous supporters of the Allegheny County Republican Party. Indeed, to this day, the Rea name adorns one of the most influential investment firms in the state, Russell Rea Zappala, although Don Rea and his partners sold their shares of the firm long ago.

But as a vice chairwoman of county Republicans, Rea notes that she also spent many hours answering phones and licking envelopes.

"I would also sit in a room and lick 4,000 stamps if that's what it took," she says of her five years in local politics.

And while her calendar is bursting now since being elected to County Council, it was quite full before: Rea travels to Harrisburg once a month to sit on the governor's advisory council for the Public Utility Commission; she sits on numerous boards, including those of the Western Pennsylvania Boys and Girls Club, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and its legislative committee, and the Homeless Children's Foundation. She's also a Republican state committeewoman.

Rea says she first got intrigued with the idea of running for County Council after she became vice chairwoman of the Republican Party of Allegheny County and began attending county commissioners meetings with party Chairman David Hamstead. Together, they watched in horror as the newly elected Republican majority commissioners began squabbling in public.

"I was just so disappointed," she says. "Here, we finally had this majority in the courthouse and for whatever reason we could not move county government."

The journey from novice candidate to seasoned, thick-skinned politician is a journey still in progress. She was bitterly disappointed when she didn't get organized labor's endorsement for the general election, given that her father was once a steelworker and that she regards herself as something of a moderate.

Indeed, while she looks very much like the affluent North Hills suburban soccer moms she represents, with her stylish clothes and mane of wheat-colored hair, Rea's story is the classic Pittsburgh story: Her father, John Tallean, was a steelworker of Polish and Austrian descent, who, in the mid-1950s, moved his family from a row house in Lawrenceville near the 40th Street Bridge to the then-practically-rural Shaler -- - the first in his family to leave the city.

Growing up, Rea -- then Jan Tallean -- and her two sisters, Karen and Libby, always knew the value of hard work, and how much her family's security stemmed from the successes or failures of industrial Pittsburgh. She remembers whispered worries by her parents about the next work stoppage and whether it would put her father out of work at the Pittsburgh Rolls plant under the 40th Street Bridge. When the strike came, her mother, Louise Swiatkewicz, would go to work at Krasny's Bakery in Lawrenceville to tide them over.

And as soon as Rea was old enough, she took a job at the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant near Shaler High School, working after school and on weekends so, she says now with a laugh, "I could buy those sweaters by Ladybug."

She could buy all the Ladybug sweaters she wanted, although they don't make them anymore, but instead of shopping and lunching, Rea is getting up at 6 a.m so she can be interviewed on Jerry Bowyer's radio talk show. She and her husband opted not to attend the Pennsylvania Society's glittering annual dinner in New York City before Christmas so she could attend all the Pennsylvania Economy League briefings on the minutiae of government. She has dutifully attended Christmas parties at which she knew not a soul, but at one of them ended up talking with Mayor Murphy.

Two women, 13 men

She and Eileen Wagner, the only other woman on County Council, have also bonded, despite their different party affiliations.

"Jan and I have sort of found each other," says Wagner, a Democrat who also represents one of the county's most affluent communities, Upper St. Clair, although Wagner's district is more economically diverse than Rea's.

"It's nice to have another gal to talk to, although I hate this business of the girl thing," Wagner adds quickly.

Rea concurs.

"Do I believe that some people on council are chauvinists? Yes," she says, although she declines to offer specific examples.

"It still is a good old boys' network," Rea says. "I've had a sense of it, with 13 men on council. In fact, I have a more intense sense of it than before. It surprises me going into the year 2000 this is where we are politically.

"Just say that I'm a double minority: a woman and a Republican."

Still, Rea has been anything but a sit-back-and-watch kind of person. When Robert Webb, a deputy county controller, declined to take the job as the County Council's chief of staff, Rea, who had, in an informal tally, voted against paying him $92,000 but says she wanted him for the job, called Webb in an effort to persuade him to reconsider. And she's been anxiously monitoring the battle over the County Council presidency, although she declined to say Friday whom she was supporting.

"It's been stressful for every member of council," Rea says of the negotiations. "I'm just hopeful that someone not aligned with the good old boys' network is leading council on Jan. 3."

Just what is that good old boys' network she speaks of, exactly?

"Someone with connections already in the courthouse, who values partisanship and the status quo over changing Allegheny County," she says.

But she's not holding her breath. While Rea says today's swearing in will be one of the happiest days of her life, the first meeting of County Council immediately afterward to elect a president will also be "one of the most stressful experiences in my life."

While worrying about who will be president, Rea is also concerned that there still is no chief of staff in place as the group begins its work, initially from offices in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland.

Eventually council members will move to the courthouse, Downtown, once their offices are ready and the Gold Room is reconfigured -- the two rows of directors seats that originally faced toward the commissioners' "throne" have been ripped out to make room for one row of 15 seats for County Council members, facing outward toward the audience.

Luckily, she notes, Margaret Philbin, the county's director of communications, has been working to ensure council members will have letterhead stationery, nameplates, phones and a fax in working order when they take office.

But in the end, Rea realizes that she has to learn to let go a little bit and let events take their course.

"It's a very serious job, and I recognize that. Once I'm sworn in the stress begins," she says. "And I'm ready for the stress."

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