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County Council picks DeFazio as president

A stalemate is broken in the new county government after Democrat Wagner withdraws

Wednesday, January 19, 2000

By Jeffrey Cohan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The new Allegheny County Council ended a crippling stalemate last night, selecting John DeFazio as its president in a straight party-line vote.

 
  Democrat John P. DeFazio, left, is congratulated by Councilman Dave Fawcett, the Republican favorite, after DeFazio was elected president of County Council yesterday. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

Minutes before the start of the meeting, DeFazio's rival for the presidency, fellow Democrat Eileen Wagner, informed him that she would withdraw. DeFazio in turn cast a key vote to make Wagner vice president.

The DeFazio-Wagner deal ended two weeks of paralysis and politicking that marred the council's first days of existence.

"It felt like three years to me, this thing twisted and turned so many times," DeFazio said.

Also last night, council unanimously confirmed Robert Webb, County Executive Jim Roddey's nominee for county manager, the top appointed position in the new government. Council also established a process for filling the District 13 seat, left vacant when Tom Foerster died Jan. 11.

Foerster's fatal illness deprived council of the tie-breaking vote that could have averted a stalemate over the presidency. From council's first meeting Jan. 3, DeFazio had the support of six Democrats, while Wagner had the backing of all five council Republicans plus one other Democrat.

 
    PG Online chart:

County Council presidency vote

 
 

As late as an hour before yesterday's meeting, DeFazio, of Shaler, and Wagner, of Scott, remained knotted at seven votes apiece.

The political staredown ended when Wagner blinked.

Asked to explain her withdrawal, Wagner said, "I couldn't get the eighth vote. It would have been a stalemate again tonight. It's time we get on with the business of the county."

Wagner's decision left Republican council members simultaneously impressed and disappointed.

"I think what she did was a courageous thing and we all owe her thanks," said Councilman Tom Shumaker, R-Pine.

Republicans, in a show of opposition to DeFazio, voted for one of their own, Dave Fawcett of Oakmont. DeFazio won, 9-5, with the votes of all of the council's Democrats.

In a goodwill gesture proposed by Fawcett, the council then revoted, giving DeFazio unanimous support.

DeFazio told reporters after the meeting that he will appoint Republicans to chair some council committees. "Everyone who knows me knows I am a fair person. They [Republicans] are going to be represented fairly."

Councilman Ron Francis, R-Ben Avon, responded: "He said that he would treat us all fairly, and I'm going to keep him to that."

Councilman James Simms, D-Hill District, had emerged as the most likely compromise candidate if DeFazio and Wagner had remained deadlocked. Although his shot at the presidency slipped away when Wagner withdrew, he walked away from the meeting wearing a broad smile, saying he was unsure that he could have devoted enough time to the president's duties.

"I think it's working out all the way around," said Simms, pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church in North Point Breeze.

Some Democrats said they didn't learn of Wagner's withdrawal until after the meeting started.

"I'm in shock," said Councilman Rich Fitzgerald, D-Squirrel Hill.

Wagner had alienated Fitzgerald and some other Democrats by soliciting support from Republicans.

Simms nominated Mike Crossey, D-Mt. Lebanon, for the vice presidency. But Wagner won 9-5, picking up the votes of all five Republicans plus Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, Charles Martoni, D-Swissvale, and DeFazio.

DeFazio said he had committed to support Martoni for the vice presidency. But after Wagner withdrew from presidential contention, Martoni released him from the commitment and urged him to support Wagner.

Martoni said he was glad to see a woman in council's leadership.

"I think she brings a fresh face to this and a new kind of inclusiveness to the Democratic party," he said.

While council has selected a president and vice president, it has yet to give them job descriptions.

"We still have to define the duties of the president and vice president," said Councilman Rick Schwartz, D-Plum.

Whatever those duties , DeFazio will have to juggle them with those of his job as an international staff representative for the United Steelworkers.

"I'll be around the county courthouse a lot, believe me," DeFazio said.

At the courthouse, he can both tend to his council duties and consult with his brother, Sheriff Pete DeFazio.

At council's next meeting, scheduled for Feb. 1, members intend to interview applicants for the District 13 seat. Under a plan approved last night, applicants have until Jan. 27 to submit a letter of interest to the council clerk.

Council yesterday also confirmed another Roddey pick, Rich Stanizzo, business manager of the Pittsburgh Building and Construction Trades Council, who will take a seat on the airport authority board.



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