Battle looming for county controller position next year

Mark Flaherty eyes challenge to Chelsa Wagner, egged on by county leader Fitzgerald

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With the encouragement of his onetime rival, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, former county Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty is considering a challenge to his successor, Chelsa Wagner.

Mr. Flaherty did not respond to requests for comment, but his cousin, Shawn Flaherty, a key adviser to his unsuccessful bid for the executive post three years ago, confirmed that he was planning to run. A figure familiar with Mr. Fitzgerald’s views also confirmed that he was enthusiastically supporting the Flaherty bid against Ms. Wagner.

The two Democratic officeholders have clashed repeatedly since they took office after the 2011 election. The executive, for example, bristled at Ms. Wagner’s 2013 contention that he and county council had not lowered the county’s tax rate sufficiently to compensate for a court-ordered reassessment. In 2012, he criticized the controller for printing her name on the yellow weights-and-measures stickers affixed to gasoline pumps in the county.

Their rivalry was vividly spotlighted last December when Mr. Fitzgerald ejected Ms. Wagner from a reception he was hosting in connection with the annual Pennsylvania Society gathering in New York City.

Mr. Fitzgerald wouldn’t comment on his conversations with Mr. Flaherty, but he was eager to elaborate on his criticisms of the current controller.

“She’s incompetent, and, quite frankly, she’s a joke; she’s an obstructionist and she never shows up for work,” he said.

Ms. Wagner affirmed that she would run for re-election next year and said she was undeterred by the vociferous opposition from her courthouse neighbor.

“I regard it as a badge of honor,” she said of Mr. Fitzgerald’s criticisms. “He doesn’t want accountability. He doesn’t want transparency. He wants people he can control.”

Ms. Wagner said she was familiar with the reports of a Flaherty candidacy and predicted that for voters, “it will be a turnoff that the county executive is trying to handpick the controller.”

Mr. Fitzgerald is aggressively asserting his Grant Street influence as he is also up for re-election next year. It’s a contest in which he figures to be strongly favored. At this point, no challenger has emerged in either party for the county’s top job.

“I don’t know if we’ll have anyone,” said Jim Roddey, the county GOP chairman who is the only Republican to have been elected county executive. “I don’t know of anyone right now.”

And on the Democratic side, with less than a year to go before the 2015 primary, no one has made any visible moves toward mounting a challenge, a move that would seem to demand considerable logistical and fundraising groundwork against a well-funded incumbent.

“It’s not just the money, it’s the record,” Mr. Fitzgerald said of his re-election prospects. “We have a good story and a good record ... three bond upgrades; we’ve increased the [county budget’s] fund balance.”

Ms. Wagner said that Mr. Fitzgerald was so intent on undermining her candidacy that he had personally called some of her campaign contributors urging them to withhold their financial support. Mr. Fitzgerald hotly denied the charge.

“I don’t need to do that stuff,” he said. “All she ever did was give herself a pay raise; she’s not providing value for the taxpayers.”

Mr. Fitzgerald’s likely support for Mr. Flaherty is somewhat surprising given their hard-fought contest for the Democratic nomination in 2011. Mr. Flaherty chose not to seek another term as controller in deference to his bid for the county’s top job. Mr. Fitzgerald, a veteran of a decade on county council, won the party battle, and went on to defeat Republican D. Raja in the November election.

In last year’s Democratic primary for Pittsburgh mayor, Ms. Wagner was strong supporter of her uncle, former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, in his unsuccessful bid for the nomination won by Mr. Fitzgerald’s close ally, Mayor Bill Peduto.

Politics editor James O’Toole: or 412-263-1562.

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