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Poll gives Onorato a slight lead | TribLIVE.com
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Poll gives Onorato a slight lead

Democrat Dan Onorato holds a slight lead over incumbent Republican Jim Roddey in the Allegheny County chief executive race, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review poll shows.

The poll of 500 likely voters shows Onorato, the county controller, with an edge of 44 percent to 39 percent over Roddey, the county’s first chief executive. About 16 percent of voters are undecided. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38 percent.

The poll, conducted Monday through Wednesday by Harrisburg-based Susquehanna Polling and Research Inc., indicated voter concern over property taxes, economic conditions in general and the city of Pittsburgh’s financial problems. But no single issue emerged as dominant, said pollster Jim Lee, Susquehanna’s president.

The race is still a toss-up, Lee said.

“It’s encouraging for the challenger whenever an incumbent is under 50 percent,” Lee said. “On the other hand, Onorato is still not over 50 percent. That’s why the key question for both candidates is how those undecided voters will break on Election Day.”

Roddey, 70, a businessman from Squirrel Hill, is seeking a second four-year term. Onorato, 42, an attorney from Brighton Heights, served eight years as a Pittsburgh city councilman in the 1990s. He was elected controller in 1999 and is running for chief executive instead of seeking re-election. The election is Nov. 4.

While the poll revealed some positive aspects for both candidates, it raised red flags for Roddey, Lee said.

A sentiment for change in the county is particularly strong among Democratic voters — Onorato’s base. In a county where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, Roddey managed a narrow victory in 1999 by drawing crossover Democrats.

Asked whether Roddey has done his job well enough to deserve re-election, 41 percent of the respondents said yes. Forty-three percent felt it is time to give a new person a chance, and 15 percent were undecided.

“This election can go either way, with a cautionary note that the numbers reflecting people’s desire for a change are favoring Onorato,” said political analyst Joseph Sabino Mistick, a Pittsburgh attorney with ties to the Democratic Party.

Roddey can take heart in a favorable rating of 56 percent among all voters. But his unfavorable rating is relatively high, at 29 percent, and 14 percent say they have no fixed opinion about the incumbent. Fifty-three percent look favorably on Onorato, while 13 percent have a negative view of him.

Both campaigns called the poll results encouraging.

“We feel confident the voters are receiving Dan’s message of change and new leadership for the county,” said Kevin Kinross, Onorato’s campaign manager. “This poll is another piece of evidence that message is getting through.”

Kent Gates, Roddey’s campaign manager, said the results underscore the fact that Roddey is in a tight race for re-election even though voter registration in the county heavily favors the Democrat.

“As voters continue to learn about Jim Roddey’s record of accomplishments, compared to Dan Onorato’s failed record in the city of Pittsburgh, we’re confident they will re-elect Jim,” he said.

With little more than a month remaining before the election, one crucial finding of the poll is that 30 percent of voters have no opinion of Onorato.

“The key for Roddey is to define Onorato with that 30 percent before Onorato does, in which case Roddey can drive up his negatives on why Onorato is not fit to be county executive,” Lee said.

The Democrat is in a different situation.

“The key for him is to continue to take advantage of that anti-incumbent sentiment, particularly among voters in his own party,” Lee said.

“The challenge for Onorato is to maintain that momentum and positive image in the last five weeks as these campaigns continue their air wars,” he said, referring to television and radio advertisements.

Overall, Roddey’s strongest support came from Republicans in the North Hills and South Hills, areas where he led Onorato among all voters. The challenger showed a commanding lead in the city of Pittsburgh, a traditional Democratic stronghold. The candidates were about even in the Mon Valley and the eastern suburbs.

A majority of Roddey’s supporters are male. Onorato has slightly more women than men among his backers, the survey found.

John Macko, 67, a Democrat who lives in West Mifflin, was one of the survey participants who plans to vote for Onorato.

“I’ve been a Democrat all my life. I don’t think Roddey has done anything for the county,” he said in an interview Friday. “We need to give someone else a chance.”

Cynthia Scharf, another survey participant, said she’s supporting Roddey because he is a better manager than Onorato.

“The main issue to me is downsizing government. I think Democrats don’t typically do that,” said Scharf, 46, a Republican from Mt. Lebanon.

From a tactical standpoint, the poll shows that no hard-edged problem jumped out as a “wedge issue” that could decide the election.

Asked what they would call the county’s single most important problem, 30 percent said taxes; 24 percent expressed concern about the economy, jobs and unemployment. Other problems mentioned included Pittsburgh’s budget crisis and education.

Onorato has hammered on the property-reassessment issue, accusing the Roddey administration of a “backdoor tax increase” through the court-ordered reassessment. So far, the strategy hasn’t completely worked, Lee said. The percentage of those concerned about taxes is high, but not high enough by itself to determine the outcome, he said.

“It doesn’t tell me that it is an issue they have laid at Roddey’s doorstep and said, ‘Hey, this is your fault,'” Lee said. “That doesn’t mean that over the next five weeks Onorato won’t try to make that the case.”

ABOUT THE POLL

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s poll was conducted by Susquehanna Polling and Research, Harrisburg. The poll randomly sampled 500 likely Allegheny County voters Sept. 22-24. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38 percent.


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