Bethel Park's mixed electorate makes it an unknown quantity

Its across-the-aisle affinity in contrast to recent political climate

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For all the talk of red and blue states, there are still places like Eastview Road in Bethel Park, and there are still men like Tom Bucci.

He's a barber, and after 42 years behind the chair, he has heard every political opinion possible. So it is with some authority he can claim to be an independent voter, something he admits with the what-can-you-do weariness of a presidential debate moderator.

"I vote the man, not the party," he said, sitting on his front porch Monday. "If you're a Democrat, you're pulling the blue lever. If you're a Republican, you're pulling the red. Most people don't vote the man."

Here, that may be different.

Mr. Bucci's house sits in the middle of a statistical anomaly: a neighborhood that is exactly divided between Republicans and Democrats. In his voting district -- a square mile or so just southwest of Bethel Park High School -- there are exactly 320 Republicans and 320 Democrats.

Indeed, Bethel Park as a whole is one of the most evenly split towns in Allegheny County -- 52 percent Democrat, 47 percent Republican. It's the largest municipality to be so balanced, bested by only a handful of small statistical enclaves such as Rosslyn Farms and Glen Osborne, which have a few hundred residents each.

And even though Bethel Park has voted Republican in recent state and national elections, residents and town officials say their mixed electorate has fostered an across-the-aisle affinity that could give Washington some tips.

"I've been a mayor for 15 years, and I have yet to see a vote on council that went on party lines," said Clifford Morton, a Republican who is Bethel Park's mayor. "It votes on what people think is best."

Bethel Park's borough council has five Republicans and four Democrats. The school board has six Republicans and three Democrats. Though just over half of voters are registered Democrats, the town voted for John McCain in 2008.

Contrast that to neighboring Upper St. Clair, where 60 percent of voters are Republicans and all seven township commissioners are GOP-aligned. Or Castle Shannon to the north, where nearly 70 percent of voters are Democrats.

In many ways, Bethel Park is the Ohio of Pennsylvania: an unknown quantity, rife with independents and difficult to pigeonhole ideologically. This is the town that voted Tom Corbett into office in 2010, but also ousted Rick Santorum in 2006. It voted for a tax increase last year; it also stepped it back.

This isn't unusual for towns with a mixed electorate, academics say. When politicians have a diverse voting base back home, they're more likely to seek compromise and reach out to groups with different opinions.

"It tends to moderate the positions of politicians," said Lew Irwin, an associate professor of political science at Duquesne University. "It is a far healthier dynamic than the ultra-partisan districts, where people just talk past each other."

Perhaps no candidate better fits this stalemate than Jim McLean, the son of a former mayor who now represents Mr. Bucci's split-ticket neighborhood. A Democrat, he was appointed to town council in 2010 -- to fill a departing Republican's seat.

In other communities, that would have been cause for uproar in GOP circles. In Bethel Park, it got him re-elected in 2011.

"I knew from when I ran that the registration generally in the 7th Ward is pretty even. ... In fact, it's uncanny how close it is," Mr. McLean said. "But whether it's a function of the evenness of the registration or whether it's just the way things have developed, I would suggest that if you came to our council meetings for the next year, you'd not be able to tell who are the Republicans and who are the Democrats."

Through much of the past 50 years, Bethel Park ran union blue, stocked with workers who commuted to Pittsburgh for work. But expansive growth over the past few decades fueled a rise of Republicans, with younger families filling the new housing developments cropping up at the community's borders.

That contrast can been seen around Eastview Road. Across the street from Mr. Bucci's house, Jim Shumaker, 79, washed his Buick and hoped for an Obama win. He has voted Republican before, but returned to the Democrats after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I was totally against what Clinton was doing socially, so I voted for Bush," he said. "But not the second time."

But a block over on Marbury Road, Dan Reinhart has both a "Romney-Ryan" and a "Keep America Free: Fire Obama" sign planted in his front yard. With the confidence of a man who has researched his facts on the Internet, he said it's an answer to the Obama sign on his neighbor's property across the street and was soon joined by other Romney signs up and down his street.

Even so, he still professes to vote the candidate, not the party.

"I'm not a straight-party voter -- I read down the list of people and vote for who is best," he said. "And on the smaller scales, the Republicans and Democrats still get along."

Organizing a community with a split electoral roll can be difficult, party officials say. But local GOP chairman Joe Melaragno said Bethel Park voters are more similar than their registrations would suggest: conservative Democrats and middle-of-the-road Republicans, both of the Western Pennsylvania breed that defies easy labeling. He suspects many Democrats are closet Republicans who never changed their registration; Mr. McLean believes they're just less likely to turn out to vote.

But everyone agrees on one thing: Political conflicts largely stay out of sight in Bethel Park, neighbors say. A few lawn signs were stolen from Mr. Reinhart's yard; he suspects kids, not political opponents.

People are just too polite in the suburbs, Mr. Bucci said, ever the blunt barber. They don't say what they think.

"It's all hi, bye, see you later," he said. "People are not talking about it on their front porch."

The biggest sign of partisan politics might just be the "Confection Election" at Bethel Bakery, where Obama-themed cookies are slightly edging out their Romney competitors in sales.

electionspresident - neigh_south

Andrew McGill: or 412-263-1497. First Published October 25, 2012 4:00 AM


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