Campaign 2013/North: Two candidates vying for Allegheny County council seat

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For eight years, Jim Burn has been a quiet force on Allegheny County Council, the go-to guy to get a bill passed or a political campaign off the ground.

Now, the attorney -- and chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party -- is leaving council, and two challengers, Republican Ed Kress and Democrat Mary Gibson are looking to fill his seat in District 3.

Before she sought to inherit his mantle, fate had already brought together Ms. Gibson, 30, and Mr. Burn. While volunteering for Mr. Burn's first council campaign in 2005, Ms. Gibson and her younger sister found themselves stranded when their car broke down far from home.

"We couldn't get ahold of our parents -- so we called up Jim," she said. "He jumped the car, and he made sure we got home. He basically made a friend for life with the Gibsons."

Ms. Gibson wants to improve the county's efficiency in processing documents and restore Port Authority routes, among other things. A lawyer with the Giant Eagle supermarket chain, she has served on the Allegheny County Human Relations Commission and has previously won an election as her precinct's judge of elections. Ms. Gibson holds a law degree and a business degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

"Working in a business, I know firsthand what businesses are looking for," she said. "I think that really helps."

Ms. Gibson, who lives in Indiana Township, previously served on county Executive Rich Fitzgerald's "Vision Team" examining the court system and is an advocate for digitizing records. She has watched with interest the growing movement to drill beneath parks, although she says she would need to look closer at environmental reports before staking a position on that issue.

Her opponent, however, has no problem jumping in -- either on drilling at the parks or any other issue.

Mr. Kress, 42, of Shaler has served two stints on county council, although he has never won an election for his seat. The attorney was appointed both times, and he's now looking to win over voters with a message of raising revenue without raising taxes.

Drilling beneath county parks? The Republican sees no problem, as long as drilling rigs are kept outside park boundaries. He's also excited by sponsorship opportunities on county properties, which he says go far beyond slapping a billboard down beside picnic tables.

"You could get a sponsor for the park, and whenever there's an event in the park, they'd have their name attached to it," he said. "They could do commercials: 'We really believe in the park system. That's why we became the official sponsor of the park.'"

Mr. Kress said he has been preaching the promise of alternative revenue sources since his first year on council. An early proponent of exclusivity contracts with food and beverage companies and public-private partnerships at large, he's happy to see some of his ideas show up in Mr. Fitzgerald's 2014 budget.

But he wants to take things further, including pitching Allegheny County as a destination for movie studios, among other ideas.

"How do we try to bring Hollywood movies here?" he asked. "It really filters down throughout the economy. They hire a lot of our local people here -- is there anything else we can do to improve it?"

The lawyer says he also would use his clout as a county councilman to help UPMC and Highmark forge a contract, forestalling an insurance battle that could separate patients from their doctors.

But first, Mr. Kress will have to overcome his losing streak at the polls. He has lost two county council elections in the past decade, as well as a bid for county sheriff.

District 3 covers the towns of Aspinwall, Etna, Fox Chapel, Hampton, Indiana, Millvale, O'Hara, Reserve, Shaler, Sharpsburg and West Deer.

Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497.

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