Although out of county government, Jim Roddey continues to influence region
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Jim Roddey, in his office in Green Tree, is still highly visible in the community after losing his re-election campaign for Allegheny County chief executive.
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One morning last winter, listeners to Mike Pintek's morning radio talk show on KDKA might have been surprised to hear an unusually peevish-sounding Jim Roddey calling in from his car phone.
What exactly the former Allegheny County chief executive was annoyed about is lost in the mists of memory, but it's safe to say it had something to do with an ongoing battle between Mayor Tom Murphy and a Republican-backed fiscal oversight board, of which Roddey was a member, over who was in charge of fixing the city's troubled finances.
Had it come to this, though? Was Allegheny County's first-ever county executive under home rule -- its "George Washington," if you are to buy Republican consultant William J. Green's characterization of Roddey's role in county history -- now so marginalized politically that he had been reduced to calling in to talk shows to vent, a little over a year after being unceremoniously dumped by the voters after one term in office?
Or, to put it a little differently, had Roddey, known for so long as The Silver Fox for his suave demeanor and gleaming head of white hair, finally aged into The Lion in Winter?
This question, put to Roddey one recent steamy summer day -- on his car phone -- elicited a dry chuckle and a one-word answer.
Methodically, Roddey ticked off three reasons.
He's on Pintek's show on a regular basis by prior agreement, so he wasn't just calling up to vent.
His calendar is packed with speeches, business breakfasts, commencement addresses, awards ceremonies, business trips to New York and Cleveland, bi-monthly appearances on WQED's "On Q."
And thirdly, while Roddey has submitted his resignation to the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, the oversight board that so annoyed Murphy during the past year, he was just appointed to the state Transportation Funding and Reform Commission, created to try to put an end to the recurring crisis in mass transit funding.
"I have so much going on that I just can't keep up," he says.
Bitterness is not a word in Roddey's emotional vocabulary, or at least one that he'd admit to more than a passing familiarity with.
"Am I bitter? No. Disappointed that I lost the election? Maybe, but it took me about 20 minutes to get over it," he said. "If I went around the city and everyone said, 'Ha, ha, you lost,' there might be some inner stigma. But everyone's been very kind. And if I'm perceived any other way, I can't speak to that, but I still feel I have a lot of influence."
Besides overseeing various local business ventures, including Business Records Management, Roddey's been flying back and forth from New York a lot recently, trying to acquire a company whose name he won't reveal. He's also excited about a startup business called Accu-Nurse, which trains and instructs nurses' aides in nursing homes using voice-recognition computer technology.
"One of the reasons I like that company is that it will perform something that will benefit society," he says. "It's going to make money, and it's going to be very successful and will employ a lot of people but will also actually perform a service that will be very useful."
Roddey's pitch for Accu-Nurse sounds tailor-made for a politician, which raises the question: If he's so good at this stuff, why couldn't he get elected to a second term? When he was sworn into office in 2000, people were talking about a Republican renaissance in the county. Roddey was described as the third most powerful politician in the state, after the governor and the mayor of Philadelphia.
"Assessments," he shoots back.
His decision not to appeal a court-ordered property reassessment meant higher valuations and increased tax bills for most homeowners in the county. And that was the kiss of death for Roddey's political future, most observers agree.
"It clearly hurt him," said David Matter, president of Oxford Development Co., who worked closely with Roddey on the 1998 home rule charter referendum, which overhauled the county commissioner system. "He was handed that mess, remember. It had been a problem for many years, and when he decided to act, it exposed his flank and created enormous political problems for him. Still, Jim thinks he chose the right course."
The county's 2-1 Democratic voter registration advantage hurt, too. Dan Onorato was a "young, energetic, attractive candidate," Roddey says. Finally, Roddey benefited in 2000 from having a Democratic opponent who polarized the electorate -- Cyril Wecht, the county coroner, a dream opponent.
"You either love Cyril or hate him, and over 30 years he had managed to alienate about half the Democratic party," Roddey said. "I was perceived as being someone new, while Cyril was perceived as being old guard, and people who didn't like him were going to teach him a lesson. And anyway, all the stars were aligned, and I had an opportunity to win. I had almost no opportunity next time."
Roddey has positive words about Onorato, who's doing "a good job" with one glaring exception: his decision to cap county property assessment increases.
"It's pure politics," said Roddey. "He's going to run for governor, and he's scared to death of this assessment issue. So he's trying to manipulate the system for political advantage."
While Roddey understands Onorato's motives, he also believes Onorato made a mistake in not toughing out the issue early on in his term.
Asked about Murphy, Roddey is less charitable: "He's a terrible manager." The two had started out as friends, but today Roddey believes their relationship soured during his re-election campaign when he criticized the mayor's handling of the city's finances -- and Onorato's connection to the Murphy administration.
Then, when Roddey was appointed to the oversight board, the two continued to clash, most recently over a lawsuit brought by the authority to block the city's new union contract with firefighters.
"I think Murphy thought he could ignore the authority and rely on the Act 47 team instead. I think Tom thought he had never done anything wrong, that he was being frugal even though he wasn't," Roddey continued, with the slightest bit of frost entering his voice, "Tom had no business background and no experience in finance and got very bad advice."
Murphy was traveling in Europe last week and was unavailable for comment, his aides said.
What of the man who will most likely succeed Murphy as mayor, Democratic nominee Bob O'Connor?
"Bob O'Connor is a very nice person, but I don't know yet if he'll be able to rise to the job," Roddey said, adding that despite O'Connor's years spent as a restaurant executive, "he's got a pretty thin business background. A lot of his opportunity for success depends on who he puts around him."
His most scathing comments are reserved for former city controller and Democratic County Chairman Tom Flaherty, who Roddey says "represents everything that's bad about politics. He's a demagogue, he makes up things, he has no regard for the truth, and he really never accomplished anything other than getting elected."
Flaherty, now a candidate for county Common Pleas judge, declined to respond.
"I just want to say I wish Jim health, and peace, and I mean that sincerely," said Flaherty.
Fellow Republicans credit Roddey in shepherding a fledgling home rule government and leaving it in solid shape for his successor. While he failed to ram through an ethics code that was as tough as he would have liked, there were other accomplishments.
"He instituted a uniform personnel policy in county government. How novel is that?" pointed out Republican consultant Green. "When you're trying to fight the old ways, you're not going to win every one of these battles, but he got to write the map for the whole thing."
"I had a real advantage over other people that might be in political office because it was not life or death for me," Roddey added. "I wanted to do what was right, and I wanted to do a good job. But my livelihood and my future did not depend on making deals with other politicians. So I had the luxury of simply being able, when I thought something was wrong, to say that, and that did not endear me to the Democrats."
Allegheny County Council President Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat, takes a somewhat different view. He said Roddey did his share of meddling in county council politics, from individual member races to the council's ethics code to committee assignments.
"I think Jim came into this job with high expectations, and good will, and in many ways, he became involved in all the politics and machinations and got away from governing, particularly in economic development," said Fitzgerald.
Today, Roddey is perhaps proudest of his role in eliminating most of the county's row offices. While the voter referendum didn't actually happen under his watch, "I honestly believe we would not have row office reform today if I had not started that battle."
Onorato couldn't be reached for comment, but if he has any response, it will be easy to find his predecessor. Today, Roddey is hosting Mike Pintek's radio talk show from 9 to noon.
At age 72, retirement, it seems, is not an option. His thirst for the limelight, it seems, was whetted when he was a child living in California and was hired to be an extra in Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt." "My wife swears she can see me in a street scene."
Today, he's a popular choice for master of ceremonies, it seems, for every charity ball in town, where he gets to indulge his inner Johnny Carson, delivering masterfully timed jokes laden with corn, prompting loud laughs.
"I would like to retire when I'm 100," said Roddey, who pointed out that his own mother, age 96, is still throwing dinner parties in her retirement community in Corpus Christi, Texas.
"And I would like to have the reason for the retirement be that my business associates will come to me and say that if I don't leave the office, someone is going to have a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against me," he says, with just the trace of a gleam in his eye.Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
Earlier this year, former county chief executive Jim Roddey took part in the Epilepsy Foundation's annual Mardi Gras Gala.
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First Published June 21, 2005 12:00 am