Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Intramural Games

For some unfathomable reason, a 2-to-1 Republican majority was elected to the Allegheny County Board of Commissioners in 1995, and under the new home rule charter four years later, a Republican was elected as the first Allegheny County Executive. The incumbent lost his reelection bid in 2003, so it's back to normal for Allegheny as Democrats hold all of the top countywide (as well as citywide) offices.

What's a Democrat to do with no big name Republicans to pick on? Cannibalism, my friend. Eat your own. This has been a staple of Democratic primaries for over two generations in Pittsburgh. Just look at the last two mayoral races between Tom Murphy and challenger Bob O'Connor. Republicans field token opposition in the October general elections, but the races are generally decided in May.

This past week, the big local political news concerns the so-called "feud" between District Attorney Stephen Zappala and County Coroner Cyril Wecht. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Dr. Wecht's private consultation activities are the basis of a criminal investigation by the D.A.'s office, based on state and federal ethics laws against using public office for private gain. The main complaint involves a $5000 payoff for his participation in a lawsuit filed by the family of a man who died in 2002 during a scuffle with police. The payoff came after Dr. Wecht had recommended that the cops be charged with homicide.

Dr. Wecht is and has been, for decades, the most respected forensic pathologist in America. He has been called on as an expert witness in many high profile cases over the last forty years. One nationally syndicated show -- the name of which I forget -- from about twenty years ago introduced him as "a real-life Quincy". That's high praise coming from a celebrity-sodden late afternoon interviewer. Respect for Dr. Wecht also crosses party lines; in the early 1980s, when he was elected County Commissioner, Wecht chose a Republican to succeed him as Coroner, basing his choice on merit rather than political affiliation. (Naturally, the Republican lost in the next general election.) When Wecht ran for Coroner again a few years ago, the Republican nominee graciously bowed out of the race, due to his respect for Dr. Wecht's proven abilities. Even local radio host Jim Quinn has found enough common ground with Wecht to interview him as though he were chatting with an old and dear friend.

Dr. Wecht has a dark side, though, which usually comes out in the form of letters to the editor. If he does not like you, he lets you know in no uncertain terms, especially if you have penned an editorial criticizing him. It's even worse if you are the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the more editorially conservative of the two local papers. He might pen a calm, rational letter giving his opinion that Yassir Arafat died of AIDS. No argument with that; but it all goes downhill from there. For instance, there is his defense of remarks he made that can be interpreted as religious bigotry. He certainly doesn't handle criticism well, based on his odd response to another letter writer's criticism two years ago. On the subject of consolidation County "row offices", antiquated elective positions whose jobs could be done perfectly well using computers and a minimal staff, Wecht told a critic that he hopes to perform an autopsy on him. In 2002 Trib editor Colin McNickle (of THK "shove it" fame) reported that Wecht apparently had a "road rage" run-in with a neighbor after getting upset with comments by Pat Buchanan that appeared in the paper the same day.

This all makes Dr. Wecht sound like a raving lunatic, but there is no one that I would rather have slicing up my dead body, should it come to that. He had a good idea, so many years ago, about keeping the Coroner out of politics. He certainly functions better when he leaves politics aside.

Since this present feud is between two Democrats, I can honestly say that I don't have a horse in this race. But if anything ever happened to Dr. Cyril Wecht, Allegheny County politics would become really boring.

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