Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Rich Fitzgerald’s out of office, but not out of work

It has been just under six months since Rich Fitzgerald walked into the Allegheny County Courthouse, something he did daily for over a dozen years as the county’s chief executive, usually with a phone in his hand trying to manage a crisis.

But today was different. Today he was there to attend the unveiling of his portrait, along with the portraits of the other two former county executives, Dan Onorato and the late Jim Roddey, honoring their place in county government as the first three to hold that office since 1998, when the county switched from three commissioners to a county executive and 15-member council.

After the new county executive Sara Innamorato unveiled the three portraits and they were ceremoniously placed on the courthouse walls, Fitzgerald walked briskly out the door, not as a 64 year old man heading towards his sunset, but as a man who needed to get to Oakland for a memorial honoring Roddey and then to Greene County for a public meeting on the Transportation Improvement Project (TIP), in his new role as the executive director of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission (SPC).

The long time Democrat, a Garfield native and father of eight, got his start in politics running for county council in the late 90s. He said he jumped at the chance to lead an organization whose mission is to lay out a blueprint for development at the most granular level for the region’s ten counties.

Counties, Fitzgerald told me, that are part postindustrial, part rural, and all in need of meaningful economic development and infrastructure to grow their most important treasure: the people.

Meat and potatoes politics
It is five o’clock on a sweltering Monday evening, yet several dozen people have gathered in this PennDOT maintenance facility to discuss Greene County’s transportation future. The people here are true stakeholders in the community: residents, township supervisors, mayors, the three county commissioners, as well as representatives from both the local members of congress and the governor’s office and Fitzgerald. No local press, print or television, attends a meeting that affects most people and businesses here.

The meeting starts off discussing the work being done by PennDOT to make state route 21 less dangerous. It’s the kind of meat and potatoes stuff that Fitzgerald loves — and hoped he could do after he retired as county executive. After nearly two decades of Democratic politics, he wasn’t sure he’d even get the position, since most of the SPC county commissioners who decide who gets the position are Republicans.

Republican Greene County commissioner Betsy McClure is the first say how thankful she is he runs the SPC. “I didn’t care what party that he came from,” she said. “I cared that he had a vision and understood and recognized the importance of regional economic development. We want our young people to have a reason to stay here and Rich understood that need.” She added: “He is a game changer.”

In Fitzgerald, many there see a man who doesn’t just get the importance of regional development. They also see someone who can bring in the money, expertise and hope for a county that doesn’t see why because of its proximity to interchanges with Interstates 70, 68 and 79 that their future prosperity could not look any different than Cranberry Township’s, where I79 and the Pennsylvania Turnpike intersect.

Fitzgerald says a lot of people do not remember, but it wasn’t all that long ago that the Butler County township went from a sleepy farm outpost with no proper downtown to a boomtown of retail shops, corporate headquarters and residential development that has made it one of the fastest growing areas in the region.

“Nothing is impossible. I do think with growth and economic development around gas and hydrogen and production, and partnering not just with the universities in Pittsburgh but also partnering with WVU in Morgantown, there are opportunities here for substantial growth,” he said of Greene County’s proximity to that many interstates. “We’ve got to push it.”

In 1981, Fitzgerald found himself entering the work force at 22 after graduating from college as the region’s economy was collapsing. The steel mills had shut down, along with every business that supported them. The unemployment numbers hit nearly 20% by 1984 and in the next decade nearly 200,000 people would be forced to leave their families and their roots to find work and stability elsewhere.

“It was a loss of our greatest treasure, our people, that shaped me in politics,” Fitzgerald said. “It is an unmooring of community I understood the people felt across the region and why I really wanted to take on this job to help draw development here but also keep our young people here as well as draw in new young people,” he said.

Keeping the people here
Being finished with elected office, he wanted to find a way he could help the region, using his knowledge and experience and skills to continue to improve the economic climate and quality of life. “Those things, I really think are what going to keep people here, draw people here, and grow our region.”

He could have gone on to other things. “I really didn’t want to go to Washington. I really didn’t want to go to Harrisburg. This is my home,” he said, adding with a broad smile, “I like being home at night to see my kids, see my grandkids, my wife.”

For the next week he would be at the Lawrence County public meeting on the Targeted Industry Programs in Neshannock, a robotics factory in Lawrenceville, at three successive Environmental Protection Agency meetings in Fayette, Westmoreland and Washington counties to discuss federal initiatives to support displaced energy workers, and Indiana County for a discussion of economic prosperity in Homer City one year after the coal fired power plant was shut down.

The first time he met Fitzgerald, Austin Davis told me, he was in college and Fitzgerald had just gone through his umpteenth “body man” — the person who drives the candidate around, often for 12 hours a day — for his campaign for county executive. The University of Pittsburgh college student from McKeesport took on the role.

He would go on to become Fitzgerald’s executive assistant and one of his most trusted advisors. When a state house seat became open in his home district in 2018, Fitzgerald urged him to run for office. He won, becoming the first Black state representative in the state to win a majority white seat. Three years later, when then state attorney general Josh Shapiro asked Fitzgerald to recommend a good running mate, he had only one answer: Davis.

“I can tell you from working with him, he is a perfect fit for SPC,” Davis said. “He’s had a strong focus in his time as county executive on making sure we have a strong infrastructure here in Pittsburgh.”

“I think we redid almost every county bridge. He was really good at working with elected officials to get resources back to this region for transportation,” said Davis. Fitzgerald developed a “really strong relationship” with Republican governor Tom Corbett and then Republican congressman Bill Schuster, who chaired the powerful House Transportation Committee.

Both relationships produced necessary funds for transportation needs in the county. “That is why I think SPC is just really a natural fit or a natural extension of the work that he’s been doing for years,” said Davis.

He doesn’t miss being in office
When in office, Fitzgerald had a reputation for wanting to get things done and being more pragmatic than his fellow Democrats. That worked well for the county’s residents, but caused consternation within his party, particularly as he often butted heads with leftwing county councilwoman Bethany Hallam.

Does he miss being in office? Especially as this end of the state will be a focus for his party’s efforts to reelect President Joe Biden? “I don’t miss much, to be honest with you. … And I certainly don’t miss the constantness of it.”

The politics is all behind him now. For a man who until the late 90s never once thought about politics, to go from indifference to the leader of the second most populous and politically powerful county in the state and then back to a more dispassionate position suits him just fine.

View the full story at post-gazette.com.