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Mud Slide: Raja, Fitzgerald have made race for county exec a messy one 

"What it comes down to is a battle of personalities."

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But when Raja and Fitzgerald are in a room together, you don't want to get too close to the action -- especially if you're wearing a nice shirt. The two have been throwing mud at each other in press conferences, political ads and personal appearances. Fitzgerald's camp has depicted Raja as a heartless businessman. Raja, meanwhile, has portrayed Fitzgerald as a tax-happy career politician. 

Ask Raja how to address black poverty, as moderator Vince Simms did that night at CAPA, and the answer you get is: "Our state right now is clearly a result of my opponent running the county this way."

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald's campaign recently put out a release accusing Raja of "dubious business practices that hurt workers and sent American jobs overseas."

 "There are no issues in this campaign," says GOP political consultant Bill Green. "They both want to drill [for natural gas] in the Marcellus Shale and while they differ on methods, both want to clean up the Port Authority. … So what it comes down to is a battle of personalities." 

There are some differences between the candidates (see graphic, "Slugging It Out"). And a recent independent poll by Civic Science suggests that the race may be surprisingly tight, with Fitzgerald leading by 10 points. The race may turn on which candidate can best rally his ground troops … and perhaps more importantly, demoralize the other side. 

Chart

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The politician

In one sense, Raja's attacks on Fitzgerald might almost be considered flattering. Raja blames Fitzgerald for everything from high unemployment to retailer Saks Fifth Avenue's recent decision to leave Downtown. If you didn't know better, you might think Fitzgerald has been wielding executive power for years.

In fact, Fitzgerald has held only one elected post: Since 1999, he has served on Allegheny County Council, a part-time body whose members make $9,000 a year, and whose authority is far outweighed by that of the county executive. In the private sector, he owns Aquanef Engineering, a supplier of water-treatment equipment. 

But Fitzgerald, who has served as the council's president for six years, has largely shepherded through the agenda of the current county executive, fellow Democrat Dan Onorato. He has, for example, lined up behind Onorato's most controversial initiative: a 10 percent "drink tax" to help fund mass transit. The tax has widely been opposed by bar and restaurant owners; when Onorato ran a failed campaign for governor last year, he lost Allegheny County itself -- and the drink tax may be a reason why. 

Hence this attack from James Genovese, Raja's campaign manager, in a recent release: "Rich Fitzgerald is an empty suit with no vision, no plans and a 12-year record of higher taxes, increased spending and doubled unemployment. It is time for a change in Allegheny County." In another statement, Genovese denounced Fitzgerald as a "career politician who raises taxes and increases spending."

Even Fitzgerald's defense of the tax votes is in lockstep with Onorato's position. At the CAPA event, Fitzgerald explained that he supported a drink tax so he could "not raise the property tax. My opponent says he wants to get rid of the drink tax. [That] means he's going to raise your property tax." (For his part, Raja says the lost revenue would be covered by budget cuts and improving the efficiency of county services, though he has offered few specifics.) 

Fitzgerald invites the attacks in another way, says Green: He often sounds as if he's claiming credit for many of the county's successes -- like a below-average unemployment rate. "Fitzgerald has been a running a campaign like he's the incumbent and that the county is in this incredible position," says Green. "It's almost like he's offering himself up as the co-chief executive. That's what Raja has been seizing on."

Moreover, in a county with a decided Democratic edge, Fitzgerald has made it easy for Raja to paint him as a career politician -- by standing alongside so many other career politicians. When he announced his candidacy in January, Fitzgerald stood flanked by city, county, state and federal officials who were backing his run, such as U.S. Representative Mike Doyle, state Rep. Dan Frankel and Pittsburgh City Councilor Natalia Rudiak.

And Fitzgerald, who has a reputation for flying off at the handle, was hurt during the primary campaign when his Democratic rival, County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty, released a memo in which Fitzgerald pleaded with natural-gas companies for contributions. 

"My campaign has gotten next to nothing from Range, next to nothing from CNX/Consol, next to nothing from Atlas, next to nothing from US Steel. … I love going to the expensive Captains of Industry parties in New York City, but would rather have the ‘Captains' put their money behind a candidate who will promote the growth of industry," Fitzgerald wrote in the memo.

Raja used that memo as the basis for a webpage called shaleshakedown.com. And the issue has been aired publicly at debates like the one at CAPA.

"Look at the email where he threatens people for money," Raja exclaimed. "That's pay to play. That's why we are behind." 

To that Fitzgerald replied, "That's an absolute falsehood. I never threatened anybody. … I was asking for funds just like my opponent does every day." 

 

The Businessman

Raja doesn't lack for political experience: He served as a township commissioner in Mount Lebanon, an affluent suburb that is closely divided along partisan lines. 

But the heart of his campaign is his success as a businessman. In 1992, he launched his IT business, Computer Enterprises Inc., in a spare bedroom. Today, CEI employs 300 around the world, 100 of those located within Allegheny County. 

Team Fitzgerald, though, has attacked one aspect of CEI's business model: Its use of workers in Raja's home country of India. 

Like many IT firms, CEI does use techies in India. And in a 2005 Business Standard magazine article, Raja projected that IT outsourcing would account for "80 percent of our total revenues in the next three to five years" -- up from 20 percent when the article appeared.  

"All of these jobs that Raja is sending overseas are jobs that could be provided to people here in Allegheny County," the Fitzgerald campaign argued in an Oct. 12 statement. 

The Raja campaign shrugs off the accusation. Campaign manager Genovese says that for every dollar the company spends on payroll, 94 cents are paid in the U.S. 

Raja's aggressive business style has also created plenty of work for lawyers. City Paper has discovered upward of 80 lawsuits CEI has filed against former employees. 

CEI hires employees -- sometimes from India on work visas -- and farms them out to clients across the U.S., keeping part of the client's fee. Employees were typically required to sign an 18-month employment agreement, and to provide four weeks' notice if they planned to leave. Employees who violated those provisions could find themselves in court … whatever their excuse. 

Take Sidd Nakade. Court records show that the day after signing his work agreement on Jan. 21, 2009, Nakade informed CEI that he'd learned his mother, who lived in India, could require surgery for cancer. Nakade said he may need to return to India, but claims he was told he would not be able to take vacation time so soon after starting a job. He declined to begin working for CEI. And though Nakade never worked for the company, CEI sued him for $5,600. The case is still pending.  

[Editor's note: Since this article was published, City Paper has been reliably informed that the lawsuit has, indeed, been settled out of court. As is often the case in such resolutions, however, the terms of the settlement remain confidential.]

CEI's record in these cases is mixed, and some CEI lawsuits seem more sympathetic than others. It sued one employee for billing CEI for work -- even after the client's project was over. Other employees made side deals and began working for clients directly -- cutting out CEI after it had made the connection. 

"This is a very successful company that prides itself on delivering to the needs of their clients," says Genovese. "The company has employed thousands of contractors over the past 18 years and very few of them did not live up to their contractual obligations."

Still, CEI's tactics strike some as unusual. 

Prof. Jeffrey Michael Hirsch, an expert in employee and labor law at the University of North Carolina, says there are some "eyebrow-raising aspects to CEI's lawsuits." Hirsch was most surprised by the penalties for violating the four-week notice provision: "The damages sought to the lack of full notice seems grossly excessive," Hirsch says. "Contract damages are only intended to make the plaintiff ‘whole,'" rather than to punish workers. "I sure as heck wouldn't want to work for anyone like that."

Some former business associates of Raja's, who were put in touch with CP by Raja's campaign, defended CEI's approach.

Don Hampton was Raja's boss in the 1980s. Hampton says Raja is "a very tough business guy," but called him "fair." Hampton, who himself worked for Raja for roughly 18 months in the 1990s, says employment agreements are common in the IT world, where protecting intellectual property is vital. CEI's agreement, he says, was "as fair as any other one I've signed." 

But employers don't always press the issue. Hampton says he remembers being in court to testify about an employee agreement "once, maybe twice" in his decades-long career.

Scott Baird, who also once hired Raja and later worked for him, also vouched for Raja. Baird says Raja holds himself to a high standard and "expects the people working for him to do the same thing" -- a trait that would benefit county residents.

 "Look, I know there's an aversion to outsourcing around here and maybe the guy's not a Flaherty or an O'Connor, so people may be leery," Baird adds. "But I've had nothing but great experiences with Raja."

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