Is Dan the Man?

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato could have his sights set on higher office. What are the chances, if and when he announces his candidacy for governor?

onoratoJim Mitchell struck one of those prize-fight bells, quickly getting the attention of the hundred patrons at his downtown bar on a Friday night in early February. “Listen up!” ordered the Greek-Irish-American owner of Mitchell’s Restaurant & Bar on Ross Street. As he informed the crowd, “There’s a Greek tradition that when someone comes into your home, you treat him as a guest with respect and courtesy. Dan Onorato will be here soon. I want everyone to treat him right.”

An outspoken opponent of what he calls the “Onorato drink tax”—a 10-percent levy on poured drinks in Allegheny County—Mitchell had reason to be concerned. The drink tax is highly unpopular in local bars, and shortly the principal behind that tax would enter Mitchell’s to confront his critics in the direct manner that has always been his style.

Mitchell originally challenged Onorato to a boxing match after hearing him pledge to “swing back hard” against his foes. Onorato demurred to the fisticuffs, but he offered to tend bar for two hours to raise money in tips for charity.

When Onorato arrived at Mitchell’s around 5 p.m., he got polite applause. Whatever opposition might have been present earlier quickly dissipated as the county’s top elected official good-naturedly poured drinks and bantered with patrons. When he left two hours later, Onorato had $770 in tips for a police and firefighters cardiovascular-research fund.

Equally important, the politician had, at least for the moment, disarmed his opponents by his willingness to share in a mutual cause and by a promise to work with them to find an alternative to the drink tax. His supporters say these are precisely the kinds of actions that could help Onorato become governor of Pennsylvania in 2010.

“Dan would be a very good governor,” Gov. Ed Rendell says of Onorato. However, Onorato refuses to confirm what many believe to be true—that he is running for governor when Rendell must step aside in 2010. Already many people across the commonwealth are wanting to know more about this politician who could be the first person from the City of Pittsburgh to be elected governor since Dick Thornburgh was re-elected in 1982.

“I’ve not eliminated any potential move in the future, statewide,” Onorato quips, “but to me, 2010 is an eternity.”

That won’t stop the talk, and the question of his political future arises just as he has hit that bumpy road over the drink tax. But that, says Rendell, only adds to Onorato’s leadership skills.

“He’s demonstrated here in Allegheny County the No. 1 ingredient necessary to be governor,” Rendell notes, identifying that as “the willingness to make hard decisions, to go against the political forces and to go against what is necessarily popular with the public.”

Others, like former Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey, the Republican incumbent whom Onorato defeated in 2003, are not so sure.

“There was a time when things like this [imposing a drink tax] could happen, and you could get beyond it,” Roddey opines. “Now, an opponent is going to bring up everything you’ve done since junior high, and raising taxes will be one of them.”

For his part, Rendell insists he’s not endorsing anyone yet. After all, other Democrats are also interested in a party nomination that isn’t on the ballot for two years, including state Auditor General Jack Wagner of Beechview, Lehigh County executive Don Cunningham of Bethlehem, state Sen. Bob Mellow of Lackawanna County and Philadelphia businessman and former mayoral candidate Tom Knox. But with nearly $2.3 million sitting in his county campaign account that can be used for a gubernatorial run, far more than the others’ except for millionaire Knox, who can self-fund any race, Onorato is already perceived as the man to beat.

While Onorato sees himself as a fiscally conservative, reform Democrat who held the line on property taxes, balanced the county’s budget by reducing the number of county employees by 626 and led the battle to eliminate six of the 10 county row offices, his political opponents in both parties see a smart political opportunist dressed up in reformer’s clothes who is not yet fully understood by the public.

“The drink tax has really given a pause to some perceptions of Onorato,” says Mike DeVanney, a Republican consultant who managed former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton’s 2006 campaign for governor. “Challengers will ask, ‘Who is the real Dan Onorato?’” It’s a question the public may ask as well.

It Takes a Family

“My style is in-your-face kind of politics,” Onorato says, laughing, “and people love that.”

Nobody ever accused the North Side native of being reticent about anything. When he won his first election, in 1991—an unexpected 187-vote victory over incumbent Pittsburgh city councilman Bernard “Baldy” Regan—young Onorato ran into the street, pumping his hands Rocky-style for joy, recalls his childhood friend Mark Breauninger.

Breauninger, now a licensed general contractor and custom-home builder in Phoenix, grew up with Onorato, first meeting him at Annunciation, the North Side Catholic grade school they both attended, going on to North Catholic High School together, and later rooming with Onorato at Penn State University. “Dan was always the kid who would crack the jokes, one of the more popular kids, sort of the class clown,” Breauninger says. “He would make everyone laugh.”

But he was also a smart, respectful student who never got into trouble, was good at pick-up sports and graduated from high school with honors, ranked 16th out of 263 graduates. And, says his lifelong friend, he was grounded in his family.
To understand Onorato and his politics, you need to appreciate his Italian working-class roots on Pittsburgh’s North Side. “Who I am today is directly reflected in that family environment. I grew up in an extremely close family,” Onorato adds. “All of that experience, my moral judgments and doing what I think is right, I attribute to that.”

The Onorato family attends a Pittsburgh Pirates game at PNC Park in 2006.

The county executive’s paternal grandfather, Valentino Onorato—the surname translates as “honor” in Italian—came to America in 1924 with his wife, Assunta, from the Abruzzi region of Italy. His grandson still has the trunk stamped “Ellis Island” in his home today.

The Italian immigrants settled in Manchester. Valentino was a stone mason who worked for Donatelli Granite on Brighton Road. Among the notable projects to which he contributed his skills: The base of the Columbus statue in Schenley Park. Onorato has good memories of his father’s parents, spending lots of time at their home. Forced to move in the 1960s because of the Route 65 expansion, Onorato’s grandparents bought a house on Marshall Avenue within walking distance of Onorato’s home in the Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood.

“It was very valuable knowing the generation that came over here,” Onorato affirms, an experience he regrets his own children cannot learn from.

Unlike his father’s parents, his maternal grandparents, the Orsinis, were Italian-Americans from Bloomfield and had been born in America. His grandfather was a dispatcher for White Terminal, a refrigerated warehouse.

Dan Onorato’s parents, Geno and Vivian, reared five children. In addition to Dan, 47, the other siblings are Gina Gaertner, 53; David Onorato, 51; Marianne Chillinsky, 49; and Suzanne Conroy, 45.

“I have great memories of my childhood. I wouldn’t change that for anything,” says Onorato. “My father worked as an electric-transformer machinist at Allis-Chalmers on the North Side for 27 years. Home at 5:30 every night. It was a special time growing up, seven around the dinner table. We had the same seat every night.”

Although his parents were public-school graduates, the Onorato children all went to parochial school. “The Catholic faith is very much an integral part of our lives. My mother taught with the Sisters of St. Joseph for 30 years, mostly at Annunciation, and it was not unusual to have priests and sisters in our house.” Onorato was an altar boy, and every Sunday his family had the same row on the same side in church at Annunciation. Skipping church was never an option for him or for his own children today.

But his most enduring memories growing up are those Sunday dinners. “On Sundays we would have both sets of grandparents and great-aunts and uncles. We had 20 to 30 people every Sunday in my home. I thought that was normal.” And he was subjected to loud talk, strong views and lots of family argument. “People would come in and say, ‘You’re screaming.’ My dad would say, ‘We’re not screaming. That’s how we talk.’ Very lively debate.”

Growing up in such a family, Onorato says he learned very quickly how to survive. Stand up for yourself and what you believe. Don’t be afraid of other points of view. And when your back is against the wall, count on your family.

Catching the Political Bug

If Onorato’s life experience had ended in the insular world of one faith and one ethnic heritage, he might never have gone beyond a district councilman. But Onorato and his siblings were expected all along to be the first generation to go to college.

In the fall of 1979, Onorato entered Penn State University in State College. He majored in accounting, and shortly after graduation in 1983, became a certified public accountant.

Coming home to Pittsburgh was never an issue, and the 22-year-old moved in with his family and joined an accounting firm, Grant Thornton. For that job, he traveled most of the time as an auditor. “That’s where I cut my teeth on understanding business,” he points out. “It gave me the technical training I use every day of the week. I understand business. I’ve watched good management teams and those who’ve run things into the ground.”

In 1986, he entered the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Says classmate John Estey, “Dan stood out as a leader in that he was never afraid to voice his opinion and correct you when he thought you were wrong. You could always count on Dan to give you a piece of his mind.”

Years later, in a move that would prove helpful to Onorato, Estey, a Philadelphia lawyer, became Gov. Rendell’s chief of staff.

Law school was significant to shaping Onorato in another important area. The university is where he met Shelly Ziegler of Wilkes-Barre, who was earning a master’s degree at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health. A few years later and just weeks before his graduation, they married in Wilkes-Barre on April Fool’s Day in 1989.

Shortly before the wedding, Onorato talked to Shelly about moving back to the North Side so he could run for public office. “Shelly comes from a Republican family,” says Onorato, “so I said to her, ‘You’ve got to switch parties because if I lose in the Democratic primary by one vote, I’ll never forgive you.’” It was the first indication that Onorato had caught the political bug.

That same year, city voters approved an amendment to the Pittsburgh City Charter that switched the at-large election of nine city council members to nine separate council districts, each with its own representative. For the first time, North Side residents would elect their own district councilmen. In the Democratic primary, “Baldy” Regan won one of the council seats, a two-year term that meant Regan would have to defend his seat in May 1991.

During this time Onorato volunteered to work on the campaign of another North Sider, state Rep. Tom Murphy. Murphy was challenging Mayor Sophie Masloff, who had become mayor in 1988 when Mayor Richard Caliguiri died. Masloff had better-financed and better-known challengers than Murphy’s, but Murphy’s aggressive door-to-door campaign gave the North Side representative a second-place showing, setting him up for his eventual win in 1993.

During the course of that campaign, Onorato became close to one of Murphy’s political operatives, Joe Viehbeck, who owned a flower shop on the North Side, and Ray Meyer, a community activist. Political insiders have always credited Viehbeck with engineering Murphy’s impressive mayoral campaigns. Now working full-time for a law firm, Rich Fluke Tishman & Rich, Onorato, Viehback, Meyer and others plotted his run against Regan in the May primary in 1991.

“I had no money, so I door-knocked, starting in January,” Onorato recalls. “I did this in January, February, March, April and into May, and I worked the senior-citizen centers like crazy.” Onorato admits there was no particular issue against Regan, so they came up with the theme “You Deserve More,” saying the North Side was being forgotten and that it was time for change.

“Nobody thought we were going to win, so when I ended up winning by 187 votes, some TV reporter showed up at our headquarters and said, ‘Which one of you is Dan Onorato?’” he laughs. “Nothing will beat that race. That was a big upset.”
So Onorato took his seat on Pittsburgh City Council and ultimately served eight years, earning a reputation as an anti-tax fiscal conservative. In fact, on many issues he was more conservative than his Democratic colleagues.

Looking back, Onorato identifies two important lessons he learned on council: “It was a great training ground in understanding politics and governance. You learn how to debate and compromise,” he says. But, equally important, Onorato also says he learned how to deal with the news media, a relationship that has generally served him well. “City council is a heavily over-exposed body with spotlights all over you,” he notes. “That’s when I learned don’t try to hide or duck it; take it head-on, and be accessible to the media. That’s my style.”

After two terms on city council, Onorato was ready for something else. In 1999, Allegheny County was electing its first chief executive under its new county charter, and all 10 row offices were still in place. Of that group, the only row office that ever interested him, Onorato reveals, was county controller; that’s because it fit his financial and legal background. When incumbent Controller Frank Lucchino decided to run for judge, Onorato had clear sailing to the nomination and ultimately won election county-wide with the greatest percentage win of any Democrat on the ballot.

At age 38, Onorato was now ready for a regional stage that one office would clearly give him.

Rising to the County’s Top Job

Former Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey, now the county Republican Party chair, believes he knows why Onorato defeated him in 2003 for the county’s top job. “No. 1 was the property-assessment issue, an issue they used saying I had instigated the assessment when it was court-ordered two years before I ever ran,” Roddy reflects. “I bore the brunt of that.”

“He’s right,” Onorato acknowledges. “He had a court order and hid behind it,” Onorato retorts. “I had a court order in 2006 and fought it.”

Roddey says Onorato also ran a smart campaign, mimicking the reform agenda of the Republican incumbent. “Everything I said I was going to do, he said he would do it, too. I firmly believe that if I had not started the row-office reform movement, he would never have embraced that. The polling is clear. When you have the registration advantage and a young man who is personable, articulate and attractive, and he’s saying the same thing I said, he’s going to win.”

Roddey isn’t bitter about his loss. Indeed, during much of Onorato’s first term, Roddey praised the Democrat for his fiscal conservatism and reform agenda. But now he claims Onorato is changing because he is preoccupied with higher office. “His quest for the governorship has become a central focus point rather than being the best county executive he can be,” Roddey explains. “His obsession with not wanting to be blamed for property taxes going up has caused him to make bad decisions.”

It is a common Republican theme. By freezing assessments at the 2002 level, Onorato has starved the county of needed dollars, creating a shortfall in revenue that opened up a $30 million hole in the county budget. So, say Republicans like Roddey, he came up with the idea of a drink tax to fund Port Authority of Allegheny County, freeing up the property-tax dollars once used for transit to plug the hole along with some airport revenue the state gave Onorato on the last day of 2007.

Onorato bristles at this assertion, saying the county is on target to end its structural deficit without raising property taxes, especially when gaming revenue kicks in a few years from now. He insists that Roddey just refuses to understand that property owners do not want to pay the “backdoor tax increases” of a property reassessment.

The Democrat says the drink tax was not the option he wanted but was the one approved by the state legislature. He would have preferred to take $30 million right off the top of the $160 million generated each year by the county’s 1 percent sales tax. But the legislature has not authorized that, he notes. Moreover, says Onorato, his reduction of 377 transit workers’ positions last year and the hard line he is taking for a “competitive” labor agreement with the transit unions this June, which risks a transit strike, are far more than Roddey ever did to contain government spending.

“That really irks me—that I have Jim Roddey as my critic, who was the head of the Port Authority for four years and the head of this government for four years—and he was in charge of all these outrageous PAT expenses, and he’s going to tell us how to do it?” Onorato says, his voicing rising. “Jim, you had your shot, and you ran it into the ground. No more.”

Whether the whole transit- and drink-tax controversy has taken a political toll remains uncertain, but it has resulted in a personal toll. Late in 2007, picketers appeared twice outside Onorato's current parish, St. Cyril’s of Alexandra Catholic Church in Brighton Heights, while he was attending Mass. Then there was an incident, which Onorato is reluctant to talk about, when the tires of his car were slashed outside his North Side home. Nobody was ever caught. And another time somebody threw something at his car, a matter he says the police handled. Although such tactics anger him because they seem more personal than political, he says he will never change his opinions.

Not that he’s totally indifferent: “It affects you,” he says. “I’m human. I’ve got a wife at home, three kids at home.” Onorato is protective of his wife, Shelly, and their three children: Kate, 16; Emily, 14; and Danny, 11. “I spend most of my free time at my kids’ sporting events,” Onorato says, “and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

To relax, Onorato enjoys golf; he tries to take in two or three Penn State football games a year, and he often can be found at Pirates games with his kids.

Heading to Harrisburg?

Although Dan Onorato insists it’s too early to talk publicly about a run for governor, his political modus operandi has always been to prepare early, just as he did two years before his first race for public office. The only election he ever lost in nearly 20 years was a special election for state Senate in 1994 that arose suddenly when the late state Sen. Eugene Scanlon died. With little time to prepare, the better-known Jack Wagner beat Onorato. “If you want to run for office,” he says from experience, “you’re looking at a two-year commitment minimum.”

Without a Republican challenger for re-election last year, Onorato did not need a campaign war chest unless higher office had been on his mind. But his fundraising has been aggressive, taking in nearly $1.4 million last year, boosting his cash-on-hand to $2.27 million. Insiders say his strategy is to raise so much money that it scares off potential Democratic challengers.

Onorato did spend $580,000 last year, often to make new friends. In December at the annual gathering of the Pennsylvania Society, a nonprofit, commonwealth-friendly organization, at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, where political and business leaders converge from all over the state, Onorato spent nearly $15,000 for a meet-and-greet bash that was standing-room-only. His invitation list included every county official, Republican and Democrat, in all 67 counties, along with the state’s other elected officials.

And Onorato has not been shy about handing out thousands of dollars from his campaign account to candidates running for public office, including $15,000 to the Democratic candidates for county commissioner in Montgomery County, a suburb of Philadelphia, and $10,000 to newly elected Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.

Now back in private law practice in Philadelphia, Estey, who knows every major Rendell contributor, has plugged Onorato into the Rendell money machine in southeastern Pennsylvania. David L. Cohen, former Rendell chief aide and now a top Comcast executive, has already given the would-be governor $2,500, as have other Philadelphians whose names mean little here but whose support is a good start.

“He’s a lot like Ed Rendell because of his focus, his vision, and his likeability,” says Estey, “but he’s not as seasoned as Rendell.” Onorato’s focus on economic development, making it easier for companies to locate and expand in Pennsylvania, is what Estey says reminds him of Rendell. But Estey is most impressed by Onorato's leadership skills.

“There were people who doubted, on the most fundamental level, that Dan would make the hard choices to balance the budget, lay off people and consolidate row offices. But he has a track record of putting his money where his mouth is.”
Roddey disagrees, saying that’s political spin. Republicans say Onorato has set himself up for a fall, not simply because he embraced an unpopular drink tax and is driving the county into debt, but because he brought a lawsuit over property taxes that could require every county to abandon the base-year assessment concept and reassess properties.
“It will force a lot of counties to have a reassessment, and if I’m a Republican running for governor against Dan Onorato, [then the candidate can claim] he caused it. It’s the Onorato assessment,” adds Roddey.

Not to worry, Onorato counters. Taxpayers know exactly how he stands on property taxes, he says. “We’re the only county in Southwestern Pennsylvania that has not had a property-tax increase in the last six years,” he repeats. “That’s the fiscal discipline we bring.”

For all the comparisons with Rendell, Onorato is not keen on the governor’s 2003 income-tax increase, although he is careful to say he doesn’t know the fiscal calculations the governor faced when he inherited a deficit. But it’s the social issues that separate the two.

While Rendell has always been pro-choice on abortion, Onorato is pro-life, allowing for exceptions for rape, incest and protecting the life of a woman. But he supports family planning, including contraception, as a way to reduce abortions. He is a strong supporter of tuition tax credits to help parents send children to parochial and private schools. Marriage, he believes, is between a man and a woman, but he hasn’t taken a position on civil unions. Although Onorato supported the more conservative Bob Casey, a longtime friend, over Rendell when the two ran for governor in 2002, he was smart enough to talk to Rendell before that endorsement and later embraced Rendell’s candidacy, forging the close partnership the two have had ever since.

Onorato says Western Pennsylvania Democrats are different from national Democrats on the East and West coasts. “The people I grew up with were Democrats because they were hard-working people,” he says. “How do we make sure we get pensions? How do we make sure that people get health care? How do we make sure we get student loans for college? That’s what Democrat meant to us. It was about giving us a chance to get to the middle class. You had to work your butt off, but government would give you a chance if you played by the rules and would be responsible. I think sometimes the national Democratic debate is far-removed from the Democratic policies I knew as a kid.”

The more immediate question is whether Pennsylvania Democrats will embrace his mix of fiscal and social conservatism in a competitive primary about 24 months away. Beyond that, history is against a Democrat succeeding Rendell. Since the 1940s, the governor’s mansion has switched parties every eight years, meaning 2010 is the Republican turn.

“I just think that was an accident of history,” Onorato counters. “Pennsylvania is changing. We can’t predict now. The right Democratic candidate with the right message can win.”

Jon Delano, a longtime contributing writer for Pittsburgh magazine, is an attorney who is the money and politics editor for KDKA-TV and a political analyst who teaches politics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

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