Roddey steps down as chair of county Republican committee
February 16, 2016 12:25 AM
James C. Roddey addresses the crowd Monday during the Spirit of Lincoln Dinner, the annual gathering of the Allegheny County Republican Committee, at the Westin Convention Center Hotel, Downtown.
By all accounts, James C. Roddey has left the Allegheny County committee in better shape than he found it eight years ago.
By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
James C. Roddey, a onetime Allegheny County Executive, is stepping down as chair of Allegheny County’s Republican Committee after eight years. Party stalwarts and former foes alike hailed his tenure, which will end March 4, at a time when such bipartisan warmth is increasingly rare in politics.
“It has been a wonderful and rewarding experience,” Mr. Roddey said at the party’s annual Spirit of Lincoln Dinner held Monday night at the Westin Convention Center Hotel, Downtown. “I’ll still be around. Even though I’m getting a little older, I still have 27 years more to work.”
He said during his tenure the party raised $1.3 million and now has more Republicans than any other county in the state.
In an interview last week, Mr. Roddey said that at age 83, “I do need to cut back. ... It’s time for someone new.”
“He’s been a wonderful Republican leader in the county and nationally,” said Rob Gleason, who chairs the state Republican Party. Mr. Roddey “has a great political mind,” he said, and “I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like him.”
“He was a worthy adversary and a good friend,” former Allegheny County Democratic Chair Jim Burn said. “And you always knew he was going to bring his ‘A’ game.”
Such bipartisan warmth is increasingly rare in politics, and Mr. Roddey is often ranked in a line of pragmatic Western Pennsylvania Republicans including former Gov. Tom Ridge, the late Senator John Heinz and the late Elsie Hillman.
Mr. Roddey said that such voices have been “at risk for a long time. … I think the days of the moderates being a majority of the party are gone.” Nor is he shy about criticizing the GOP’s presidential front-runner, businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump.
While he said Mr. Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders had “tapped into a frustration and anger” with lagging economic growth, “Trump doesn’t have the intellect, the training, the skills to be president. He should not be the most important person in the world.”
Did Mr. Trump’s rise play a role in his decision to step down? “I don’t know,” said Mr. Roddey, who supports Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. “Maybe if my choice for president was leading in polls … it might be different.”
A North Carolina native and retired Marine Corps captain, Mr. Roddey came to Pittsburgh for business in 1978, and soon made a name for himself by being active in civic causes. In 1988, he chaired a successful bid for auditor general by Barbara Hafer, whom he’d met on the Port Authority board. His penchant for humor was on display early on. At a Hafer fundraiser in Monroeville, he appeared on the back of a baby elephant.
“The only problem was, they had balloons hanging from the ceiling, and when they released the balloons it spooked the elephant,” Mr. Roddey recalled. “I had to jump off.”
But politically, he’s been riding the elephant ever since. He supported campaigns for former Attorney General D. Michael Fisher, and in 1999 won elected office himself, beating pathologist Cyril Wecht to become the first Allegheny County Executive under a new home-rule charter he had campaigned for.
Mr. Wecht said the two men were friends today. “The only thing I have against Jim,” joked Mr. Wecht, “is that he spent a considerable amount of money getting airplanes to drop chemicals to make it rain” on Election Day.
By all accounts, Mr. Roddey has left the county committee in better shape than he found it eight years ago. Mr. Roddey’s “steady leadership has put the local GOP on good financial footing and improved the Republican image in our community,” said Dave Majernik, the county committee’s vice-chair.
Among the highlights of his tenure, Mr. Roddey cited the 2010 gubernatorial election, when Allegheny County voters backed Republican Tom Corbett over their own county executive, Dan Onorato. The party also won a special election in the 37th state Senate district last fall.
Still, Democrats enjoy a registration advantage of more than 2 to 1 within the county, and last fall there was no Republican running for any of the countywide offices at stake: county executive, county controller, county treasurer, and district attorney.
“I don’t believe in just finding a name to run,” Mr. Roddey said. “Too often it’s embarrassing.”
Mr. Roddey isn’t departing politics entirely: He said last week he will remain an active Rubio supporter, and Mr. Gleason said he’d retain his seat on the state party’s leadership committee.
According to committee bylaws, committee members must vote on another chair to fill out Mr. Roddey’s term within 45 days, during which Mr. Majernik will serve as acting chair. Republicans select new committee people in the April primary, and once installed the committee will choose a new chair in early summer.
Insiders say Mr. Roddey’s successor, at least in the short term, will most likely be D. Raja, the GOP’s 2011 nominee for Allegheny County Executive. Mr. Raja confirmed his interest Monday, and said Mr. Roddey leaves behind “big shoes to fill.”
And thanks in part to Mr. Roddey’s work, “The guy coming up behind him will do very well,” said John Oliver, a Roddey friend and Sewickley Heights mayor who served in Mr. Ridge’s cabinet. “Jim always looks out for the long-term interest of the party. That’s always been his way.”
Chris Potter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2533.
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