Campaign 2012/South: Gearing in fourth run for seat in 51st House District

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Voters in Fayette County's 51st House District will face a choice in the Nov. 6 election, though the faces and names have remained much the same during the past eight years.

Once again, the battle for the seat, which encompasses almost all of Fayette County, will feature a showdown between incumbent Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney, 55, of South Union and his Republican challenger, Uniontown Councilman Gary Gearing.

Mr. Gearing, 56, has run for the seat three previous times, including as an Independent in 2004 and 2008, and as a Democrat in 2006.

Though he philosophically identifies as an Independent, Mr. Gearing said he's running on the GOP ticket this year to improve his chances of success and to be part of the political discourse, especially in debates and in the primary election.

"I'm not running as a party," he said. "I'm running for people. I never vote on party lines. When you run as an Independent, you're excluded from the process."

Mr. Gearing could perhaps have saved himself the trouble of switching parties for a third time in eight years, because Mr. Mahoney said he has no intention of debating his opponent again. He believes voters are clear on where the candidates stand on issues.

"I'm done debating him," said Mr. Mahoney, who said the two have locked horns many times over the years. "He just doesn't get it."

Mr. Gearing wanted to debate his opponent and believes a spirited exchange is an obligation for the officeholder, especially to defend his positions.

Still, Mr. Gearing said he's managed to get his message out by knocking on more than 10,000 doors this year.

"The No. 1 issue is still the economy and jobs," said Mr. Gearing, who pointed at Fayette County's dismal and long-standing record as one of the poorest counties in the state.

Mr. Gearing believes there is an opportunity to take advantage of local shale gas deposits and other natural resources to lower energy prices statewide.

"The biggest player that's here right now is Marcellus Shale," he said. "I think the state should have an energy policy. Pennsylvania has the resources to be energy independent."

Such a policy also would embrace oil and coal, which Mr. Gearing believes is being too tightly regulated by the federal government.

"We have natural gas now, but what we shouldn't be doing is kicking coal to the curb," he said.

Mr. Mahoney, who is seeking a fourth term in office, said if he's re-elected he will continue to push for a countywide school district in Fayette County.

"I've been fighting for school consolidation in Fayette County for a while," he said. "It's more cost effective."

His plan would allow local schools to remain independent and open, but would consolidate services and administrative jobs. A $100,000 study commissioned by the state indicated such a move would save a minimum of $20 million in the first year, Mr. Mahoney said.

"You can hold the line on school taxes with that kind of money," he said.

Mr. Mahoney attempted to have the issue decided by voters last year in a referendum, but his efforts were thwarted because they involved only Fayette County.

To approve such a plan statewide would be unrealistic and politically unpalatable, Mr. Mahoney believes.

Mr. Mahoney, though, has built a reputation as a legislator who thinks big. He was the chief architect of two popular pieces of legislation -- the so-called Castle Doctrine and 2008 Open Records Law -- that brought dramatic changes statewide.

Mr. Mahoney engineered the new open records law as a freshman legislator, passing the first substantive changes in the law in more than 50 years.

Last year, he sponsored the Castle Doctrine, an updated law that expanded a person's right to use deadly force inside or outside of his home or vehicle if he is being threatened.

Mr. Mahoney also touted the newly completed Mon-Fayette Expressway as a major economic boost for the region.

"I think we're on the verge of a boom in Fayette County because of transportation," he said.

Mr. Mahoney said he feels he's done a lot for his constituents, both in the district and statewide.

"I wanted to try to make changes for my neighbors and my kids to have a better life," he said.

But Mr. Gearing, who also favors term limits and property tax reform, said the state's business tax policies have curtailed development and investment and believes they are sorely in need of an overhaul.

"Other states have a more competitive tax rate," he said. "We need a business-friendly environment."

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Janice Crompton: or 412-851-1867.


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