Brand R vs. Brand O | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Brand R vs. Brand O

As Jim Roddey and Dan Onorato spend $6 million to package and sell themselves, voters have to figure out what's really new and improved...and what's just generic

Jim Roddey and Dan Onorato: They're everywhere you want to be. They're in your living room, in your car, and (if you have a TV there) in your bedroom. The Allegheny County executive and his challenger, the county controller, are in the news most days, and they're spending some $6 million on their campaigns, mostly for TV commercials.

Just as dish soap claims to be tough on grease but easy on hands, Brand R and Brand O will tell you they're firm on taxes, and gentle to the elderly. They'll promise to freshen your air while they clean out your row offices. And they'll claim to relieve more economic flu symptoms than any other candidate.

With the help of a panel of advertising professionals (See sidebar, 'Go with the brand the pros use' ), City Paper took a close look at Brand O and Brand R, from their packaging to their promises to the consultants that make them sparkle. On Nov. 4, you'll make your selection and report to the checkout. Sorry -- no returns or refunds.

You're in good hands...with Roddey.
That's the message the chief executive of Allegheny County imparts to 20 young professionals gathered at the Pittsburgh Technology Council's offices. The normally sharp-suited Republican is looking laid-back in a black T-shirt and black pants, as he fields softball questions and checks his watch, mindful that his driver will have to fight traffic to get him to the impending Steelers game.

Tonight, the Squirrel Hill resident is in grandfatherly mode. He talks sympathetically about school funding inequities and campaign finance reform, though he offers no specific proposals. Asked about the impact of the property reassessments on his re-election bid, he cracks wise: "We have decided it's not going to be an issue. We sent a letter to Dan Onorato saying, ‘Don't bring that up.'" The shirt-and-tie, skirt-and-blouse crowd titters into plastic cups of wine.

Roddey is even generous in his comments on beleaguered Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy, a Democrat with whom he's known to have a prickly relationship. "Tom Murphy is an honest person. He cares about the city. He cares about its people," says Roddey. "But he's pushed [the city's budget] problem away until it can no longer easily be solved." The county, in contrast, "has a solid financial base," he says.

Roddey misses no opportunity to contrast the relative calm surrounding county finances with the deficits and layoffs plaguing the city, or to note that his opponent, Onorato, was a city councilor from 1992 through 1999. In fact, perhaps the main selling point of Brand R is that it hasn't made much news lately, while the city has laid off one-sixth of its workforce. "If there's a way to associate Dan Onorato with the City of Pittsburgh in the minds of voters, and at the same time have resonating in the background that the City of Pittsburgh is broke, that's going to just put the nail in the coffin for Onorato," says Baxter Peffer, director of public relations at Downtown-based Krome Communications.

Roddey's polls show that virtually everyone in the county knows his name, and 62 percent of them like him -- a better favorable rating than Onorato, Gov. Ed Rendell, or President George Bush. Among the true believers are Brian Halloran and Brian Pitell, two early-thirtysomethings who've organized this evening's conversation between young professionals and the county exec. "Our livelihood depends on the success of the city and county," says Brian Halloran, a risk management professional. Roddey is "someone I believe in."

Neither Pitell nor Halloran, though, will be voting for Roddey. Both live in Mars, just across the Butler County line. And the vote of the security guard manning the desk below may be in doubt, too. As Roddey heads for his car, the guard tips his hat, and says, "Have a good evening, Mr. Mayor!"

How do you spell relief? O-N-O-R-A-T-O.
That's what Danny, as everyone here calls him, is telling the 75 small-town officials and Democratic Committee members gathered at the Tonidale Restaurant and Lounge in Oakdale: Brand O relieves the heartburn caused by high property assessments. He's also the brightest thing in the room as he works the crowd in a red polo shirt and blue pants. The assembled pols are mostly older, grayer, conservatively dressed. They sip Rolling Rocks and debate among themselves whether the meat in the hot tray is chicken or lamb. They aren't fashion plates or gourmands, but they have a history of winning elections, and Onorato is here to fire them up.

"We can win this. It's ours to lose," says the Brighton Heights Democrat. But it won't be easy. "We believe that the Roddey team will go negative. They'll go negative fast, and they'll go negative hard."

When Onorato says "go negative," he apparently means that Roddey will launch critical TV commercials. The campaign has long been negative. In the first debate, on Aug. 4, the candidates criticized each other's records and accused each other of distortions. Onorato accused Roddey of suffering from "paralysis by analysis." Roddey quipped, "Despite being a CPA, Dan has a problem with numbers."

And back at the Tonidale, Onorato sure isn't going positive. "A 10 percent tax cut was pledged [by Roddey in 1999] over and over again," he says. "What did we get? A $30 million increase....Economic development is nonexistent in this county....For whatever reason, the county became dormant for four years."

"This guy to me says energy, energy, energy," says Rose Runco, marketing director at Downtown-based On 3 Creative. "Youth. That's his big push. He could be the future."

Onorato's everybody's smarty-pants nephew, and the Tonidale crowd puts him through his paces. What will happen to US Airways? (Onorato fears they'll leave, and would earnestly court other airlines.) How about eliminating some of the county's 11 independently elected row officers? (Onorato would ask voters to approve a referendum to reduce their number to four, but not until 2005.) "Danny, no more Plan B's!" somebody yells. (Onorato says there's no county money available for the new arena sought by the Penguins.)

The crowd is friendly, but not quite afire. "I've heard Roddey's speech, and I'm not really that against him, but I'm going to vote for Onorato," says Louise "Vi" Cavicchia, a Democratic committeewoman from Coraopolis. The reason: Roddey raised many property assessments. "It's not that I don't want to pay taxes on my property, but it's too much," she says. The reassessment, which started before Roddey took office, raised her county property taxes by $38 a year. (The county levy represents about one-sixth of Cavicchia's property tax bill, which also includes school and municipal taxes.) She appealed, but her taxes are still higher than they were in 2000 -- by $1.76 a year for her county tax bill, according to the county Web site.

Onorato makes hamburgers taste like steak burgers.
Or so he'd have you believe. Along with his critique of property assessments, Onorato's campaign has so far focused on the lack of sizzle in the economic development griddle. He says he can spice things up.

Onorato promises to buy, clean up, and then sell to private developers at least 750 acres of abandoned industrial sites. His development plan says he'd "focus on preparing the unused land surrounding the airport and help spur the private development of office, high technology and flexible industrial space." He'd support completion of the controversial Mon/Fayette Expressway. He'd make "concerted efforts" to convince local businesses to expand, "work closely with" universities and technology companies, "coordinate planning and leverage resources."

If much of that sounds vaguely familiar, then perhaps you read Roddey's development plan from the 1999 campaign. He pledged to court local CEOs, give tax breaks for the development of depressed areas, spur building in the airport area, support the Mon/Fayette Expressway, and send "economic ambassadors" out to lure companies from even-less-sexy regions. "We may not be able to attract companies from the glamour cities like Dallas and Atlanta, but we may be able to attract people from Buffalo and Deluth [sic]," Roddey's 1999 Web site predicted.

In fact, one of Roddey's economic development successes is the doubling of the O'Hara Township operations of Lake Region Medical, which is based not far from Duluth, Minn. Another, the attraction of a Siemens-Westinghouse Power Corp. fuel cell plant, actually came after the region beat out glamorous Orlando, Fla., and Fort Worth, Texas -- the latter being Dallas' neighbor. Beyond that, though, most of Roddey's wins have been modest. He's helped some companies move from locations within the county to bigger locations within the county, "retaining" some jobs, creating a few more.

In the Aug. 4 debate, Roddey said that during his watch the county "outperformed Cleveland, Charlotte, Cincinnati and Philadelphia in creation of jobs." That's a marketing technique called benchmarking, says Runco. "It's almost like comparing one stock to another. If your stock hasn't performed [as well as] you expected it to perform this year, but if it to some other gauge, and you're ahead of the game, then you can turn something that may have been a negative into a positive."

Roddey isn't making many promises this time. Click on "Roddey Plan" on his Web site, and you'll find just one proposal: to create a county Department of Homeland Security. It would govern the county police, emergency operations, jail and juvenile detention units, and work with local law enforcement. He has also promised to give voters the option of eliminating nearly all of the elected row offices, the exceptions being the controller and the district attorney. In January, he said that would save the county $15 million, but more recently he's estimated it would trim the budget by $5 million to $7 million.

Roddey doesn't need to make promises. He's a known commodity, a brand name. And he's still got one big promise left over from 1999 -- a 10 percent millage cut. Roddey says that pledge assumed the previous administration would leave with a balanced budget. "I came to office to discover that they had inflated the revenue by $27 million," he says. He had to make up that shortfall, and thus had to postpone his tax cut indefinitely.

Roddey also promised "a fairer assessment system" in 1999. Whether the current system is sufficiently fair is a subject of heated debate (See sidebar, 'Truth in Advertising'). Democrats believe that anger over increased assessments -- which affect county, municipal and school taxes -- could be Roddey's undoing. Roddey says the reassessment, done mostly by Ohio-based Sabre Systems, was far from perfect, but was an improvement over old assessments, some of which hadn't been revised in decades. "It would have cost, we figured, about another $30 million to start [the reassessment process] over," Roddey says. "And [Sabre's work] wasn't $30 million bad."

A candidate, like a product, can handle adversity in many different ways. Johnson & Johnson, for instance, pulled Tylenol from the shelves in 1982 when some bottles were tampered with. "Everyone thought Tylenol was done," says Runco. "They handled it well, they were responsible in terms of their reaction. It was immediate, and it was appropriate. Tylenol has certainly redeemed itself."

Exxon tried a different course in 1989 when its Valdez oil tanker spilled its contents into Alaskan waters. "There was so much vacillating at the beginning of that whole crisis," says Peffer. "It certainly did give them an ugly name for a number of years, just because they weren't as quick to the punch as they probably should have been."

Roddey's handling of the reassessments may be more Exxon than Tylenol. He resisted Democratic efforts to pull the reassessment off the shelf. Under heavy pressure from county council Democrats, he extended the deadline for filing assessment appeals, postponed the next reassessment until 2005, and agreed to give every homeowner a $47 tax break.

Will Roddey's unfinished business hurt his campaign? Will Onorato's promises help him? The answers may be no and no, according to Jack Coyne, president of Coyne Advertising and Public Relations, of Robinson Township. The public doesn't buy what ad pros call "blue sky" promises, Coyne says. "In politics, they all make [promises]. How often do they follow up?...The public's pretty smart. They've heard all of these things before."

Promise her anything, but give her Roddey.
John Brabender isn't much into blue-sky promises. He doesn't like ads in which candidates wear hardhats as a symbol of their commitment to jobs, or make speeches about the importance of families. His firm, BrabenderCox of Station Square, likes to be known as "the people who do political spots that don't always look like political spots," says Brabender.

Remember the commercial for Sen. Rick Santorum featuring kids dancing with umbrellas in a rainstorm? That was BrabenderCox's work. The spot for gubernatorial loser Mike Fisher, showing a vacuum sucking dollars out of the home of a terrified elderly couple? Brabender. The slow-motion footage of then-county Commissioner Larry Dunn, which seemed to suggest that Dunn was dozing at a public meeting? That was Brabender, too, working for Roddey in the 1999 exec's primary. Roddey won, of course, and he has rehired Brabender for his title defense.

BrabenderCox produces ads and handles media strategy in U.S. House, Senate, state legislative, gubernatorial, and county-level races from the east coast to the heartland. It's not afraid to be different, and not shy about going negative. "In a focus group, [people] all say, ‘I hate those negative ads,'" says Brabender. But after they've been shown the ads, he says, "They say, ‘I can't vote for him! Look at all the bad things he did.'"

"Yes, there will probably be negative ads," says Roddey. "But Onorato has already been negative. He's criticized and been very negative about my record."

Brabender says he has four general guidelines on negative ads. First, they can't be personal attacks. Second, the accusations must be relevant to the office sought. Third, they must be well documented. Fourth, they must be aired early enough in the election process that the opposition has time to respond. Otherwise, voters may view the attacks as unfair.

Runco offers another guideline: "If you're going to take on the competition, you'd better have the pocketbook to back it up."

In last year's gubernatorial race, Brabender didn't have the pocketbook advantage in his efforts on behalf of Fisher. The Fisher campaign went negative early and often against Democrat Ed Rendell. Rendell's team responded with waves of ads accusing Fisher of negative campaigning and distorting the facts. Rendell outspent Fisher nearly two-to-one, and won the election by 9 percentage points.

The guy who coordinated Rendell's counterpunches, Neil Oxman of Philadelphia, is now Onorato's media consultant. Oxman declined to be interviewed. Brabender says this is actually the third time he's squared off against Oxman. The first was in 1996, when Fisher (with Brabender) beat Democrat Joe Kohn (who hired Oxman) to become attorney general. "Their style is certainly different from mine," says Brabender. They "have 30 seconds and they say their piece very concisely and clearly."

"I like what [Oxman] did on the Rendell campaign," says Onorato. "I like the fact that he's gone up against the same team last year, Brabender and [Roddey campaign manager Kent] Gates. So he knows them."

Doesn't your dog deserve Onorato?
To hear Onorato field director Marty Marks describe it, the challenger's campaign strategy isn't much more highbrow than a typical Alpo ad. Marks tells the crowd at the Tonidale that he expects about 346,000 people to vote for one or the other county executive candidate. (That's about 4,000 fewer than voted in the rain-drenched 1999 race.) Of those, 222,000 will be Democrats, roughly reflecting the county's voter registration margins. "If we get the Democrats to vote for our candidate, we're going to win," says Marks.

"The voters that we're targeting, we're going to call lazy Democrats," Marks continues. "They voted in one out of the last four elections." He says there are 68,000 such Democrats in the county, and they vote, on average, about 22 percent of the time. "If we can raise that to even 32 percent, it's going to be an incredible victory from the top to the bottom of the ticket."

Told of Onorato's "lazy Democrats" focus, Brabender scratches his head. "I guess what that's saying is, [they] feel [their] supporters are likely to be the ones who've paid the least attention."

Brabender says he's going after people who vote regularly but who don't automatically go for their party's candidate. They make up about a quarter of the electorate, he says. "You're really trying to reach a very small group of people."

Brabender's target audience presumably includes the 10 percent of the county's electorate that is registered as independent or with a small party. He probably can't win without the usual high turnout and strong party loyalty of local Republicans. And Roddey's two-percentage-point victory in 1999 depended on wins in Democrat-heavy areas like Collier, Crafton, Monroeville, Robinson, Scott, Shadyside, Shaler and Squirrel Hill.

Roddey spent $1.5 million in the five months leading up to the 1999 election, and his Democratic opponent, Cyril Wecht, spent $1.4 million. This year's spending race is expected to be similarly close -- but nearly twice as expensive.

On Dec. 31, Onorato's campaign had just $373,000 in the bank, while Roddey's had $1,254,000. Through June 9, though, Onorato raised $1,050,000, versus $577,000 by Roddey. Roddey spent more during that time, leaving them with nearly identical bank accounts of about $1.3 million.

"We hit 'em where they thought we were weak: the money," Onorato says. "We're tied."

Onorato did it by avoiding a primary election battle, and by milking the unions; half of his top 10 donors are labor unions (See sidebar, 'Send Check or Money Order'). Roddey tapped some of the same financial heavies that funded his 1999 campaign. Tribune-Review publisher Richard Scaife, for instance, has given $75,000, and Roddey's long-time business partner, Henry Posner Jr., has given $50,000.

Roddey's a legendary fund-raiser. But like most politicians, he says dialing for dollars is among his least favorite campaign tasks. "The system is bad," he says. He's short on solutions, though. "I think you could perhaps limit the amount people could give, but that would have to be statewide....You could limit the time period" for campaigning. Can the county do anything about it? "I think the state would really have to take the lead on that."

That's something the two candidates agree on. Which means that when we do this again, in 2007, the ad wars will probably be Bigger! Bolder! Better than ever!...even if the candidates aren't.

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