Digging a Hole | Pittsburgh City Paper

Digging a Hole

On Election Day, City Paper goes to press before the ballots are counted. But it's already clear who won the Democratic primary for Allegheny County Executive:

The gas-drilling industry. 

There wasn't much interest in the contest between county-council President Rich Fitzgerald and county controller Mark Patrick Flaherty. To the extent that there was a defining issue, it was how the two men would handle the incursion of natural-gas wells seeking to exploit energy deposits in the Marcellus Shale. And even there, the major difference amounted to this: Flaherty wanted to invest county dollars in gas-drilling ventures. Fitzgerald just wanted gas-drilling ventures to invest in him.

Early in the campaign, Flaherty touted making the county an active partner in drilling, directly investing county dollars in gas-well development. Fitzgerald blasted the idea, claiming that Flaherty was a gas-industry patsy whose proposal would put taxpayers at risk.

Flaherty responded by releasing an e-mail that Fitzgerald had sent to energy executives in late January, pleading with them for campaign contributions.

"I need money and I need it fast," the e-mail boldly stated. "It is critical for my viability in the eyes of the [political] world to have money in the bank and have it early.

"I love going to your wine and cheese receptions to hear what a great advocate I am for the natural gas industry," the e-mail continued. "[But] you have the courage to ... stand up for what's right." 

Well, as one political insider told me, "At least he was honest." 

Fitzgerald has long championed the gas-industry, after all. Even his criticism of Flaherty ignored environmental concerns, focusing instead on fiscal issues. And his email was right: In politics, it's not just that money helps put out your message ... money often is the message. Early on especially, it proves your campaign is viable. That's why Fitzgerald loaned his own campaign a half-million dollars at the outset of the race. He needed to show he could hang with Flaherty -- who hails from a famous political family and already had a half-million dollars last year. 

Even some gas-industry critics don't judge Fitzgerald too harshly for shaking down the industry.

For example, Fitzgerald earned -- and on Election Day still had -- the backing of state Sen. Jim Ferlo, a vociferous gas-industry critic. While Ferlo says Fitzgerald and Flaherty are "Tweedledee and Tweedledum" on drilling, "I feel like you can advocate with Rich, and he'd yield to public pressure." Ferlo even surmises that the email might have been leaked to Flaherty because "someone in the industry made a tactical decision that they'd rather have Flaherty as the executive." With Fitzgerald's ads blasting the industry, Ferlo says, "Maybe they saw Rich moving away from their position." 

Before you feel too sorry for Fitzgerald, though, bear in mind he once blew a chance to reduce money's role in politics. Back in 2009, Allegheny County Council pondered a bill to put limits on campaign contributions, a measure like one passed in the city of Pittsburgh. Fitzgerald himself had, in fact, pledged the county would pass a similar measure. But the measure died in the Committee on Government Reform -- which Fitzgerald chaired.

Still, it would take more than campaign-finance reform to reduce the influence of gas-drillers. Shale money helped send Gov. Tom Corbett to Harrisburg last year, and it will supply fireworks to Pittsburgh this July 4th. (Drilling enterprise EQT is sponsoring Pittsburgh's "Fireworks Fantasia" -- an ironic choice, as drillers have created impromptu pyrotechnic displays at wellhead accidents around the state.) Range Resources, another drilling concern, supports everything from the Friends of the Riverfront to the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania's annual awards ceremony.

Geopolitical experts will tell you that fossil-fuel development carries with it a "resource curse." There's so much money to be made by drilling -- and so little need to share it with the broader public -- that leaders cater to special interests while losing touch with everyone else. The results: rulership by political dynasties, and increasingly unresponsive government institutions.

We hardly needed the gas industry's help on that score. But no matter who becomes the next county executive, perhaps the lesson to be learned here is this: When you're in a hole, stop digging.