During his 12-year tenure, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald has led the county through a period of transformation for the Pittsburgh area, but it hasn’t been without difficulties — and occasional political squabbles.
Less than a year before his final term, Fitzgerald spoke to City & State to share his biggest wins, his most challenging moments, and share some advice he has for the county’s next leader.This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Looking back over your last three terms in office, what are you most proud of?
I’ll start with the census numbers. Back in the 1950s, every time the census came out, Allegheny County was losing population. It was all about the height – sometimes double digits, sometimes 5%, 8%, 3%. For the first time when the 2021 census came out, and for the first decade of the century, we actually grew again. That showed me that people vote with their feet and stay. Our young population – the age cohort of 25 to 34 year olds – grew by 20% and thus almost twice as fast as the national average of 11%. The diversity of our population has increased significantly, we have had an 80 percent increase in Asian American population, an 80 percent increase in Hispanic American population, and an over 100 percent increase in multiracial population. We’re getting younger and more diverse, and that’s in large part because of jobs, the economy, the quality of life, affordability — all of those things that we would really work on were something that we could achieve.
Even in the 12 years that I’ve been district commissioner, the amount you paid in county property taxes when I took office — we paid $400, you’re paying $400 12 years later — hasn’t increased. Even with inflation, it’s still the (same) amount. In doing so, we increased our investments in infrastructure, we completed the 400 miles of road we were supposed to build and repaved them all.
We’ve really reduced our bridge maintenance. The 500 (faulty) bridges we own are well down into the single digits. Our fund balance is the highest it has ever been – it’s now over $50 million. When I took office, it was only $5 million – the Rainy Day Fund. Our bond rating is the highest in 40 years from Standard and Poor’s and Moody’s.
What was the biggest challenge you faced during your tenure?
Certainly the pandemic. I would say I’m certainly not alone in that. But we were headed in a certain direction by March 2020. And then of course everything changed, health-wise, economically, pretty much everything we did.
Do you have any advice for the person who will end up filling your position?
The advice starts with: work hard, come to work every day and be active, be collaborative, work with all the partners mentioned.
You are the public sector, but you also have to work very closely with the private sector, with our universities, with the workforce, with the various community groups. I think to maintain the momentum that we’ve been able to achieve over the last ten years will require that kind of collaboration.
In the past you have described yourself as a “pragmatic progressive”. What does that mean for you, and how do you think your ideology resonates with Allegheny County voters?
I think that fits pretty well – because I think we’re pragmatic, which means we get the job done. Let’s face the challenge. Let’s solve the problem, whatever the problem may be. By being “pragmatically progressive” on a social level, (I am) pro-women’s suffrage, the LGBT community, civil rights and diversity, and even economically, to ensure that fair wages – fair working conditions, the pay and wealth gap – we must work to close some of it – the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
I think I’m in favor of investing more in education and skills and things that enable all workers and all people to get ahead, but I’m not necessarily in favor of dismantling the free enterprise system.
I think we’re pragmatic, which means we get the job done.
– Rich Fitzgerald
I think we’re pragmatic, which means we get the job done.
I think the right to collective bargaining is a really important issue. I think that would probably place me a little left of center, but I wouldn’t be all the way left of center, which would do things like shut down the fossil fuel industry immediately, and do it in a very quick and abrupt way.
A unique issue for Allegheny County and western Pennsylvania as a whole has been how to balance the economic benefits of natural gas with climate concerns. How do you manage this balance? How would you rate your job trying to balance those two interests?
A lot of the things you talk about are decided at the state and federal level. In terms of regulation and the initiatives that come out of it, I think we’ve got it pretty well balanced. We are very strict in regulating pollutants. (We have) reduced hazardous pollutants by 80% in the last 12 years. We can be very proud of that because we know there has been a transition away from coal to gas over the last ten years. It has many reasons, many of them obviously economic, but it has certainly resulted in a huge improvement in the carbon footprint in this region, but also at the national level. I think we could probably regulate the industry even better, but we’re not taxing the industry with an extraction tax at this point. That’s something I’m very much in favor of, but I don’t have the authority to enforce it on the ground. This has to be done at the state level.
I think we’ve made some really significant improvements in that direction. We’re going to move towards more sustainability, and we’re a big part of that. I have started and we are building a hydroelectric power plant that will use our rivers to generate the electricity that powers the courthouse, the district office building, the nursing homes that we have, our parks, our prison – all the facilities that we have, powered will be completely fossil fuel free when this hydroelectric power station comes online.
There have been several reports of poor conditions in the Allegheny County Jail. What makes the county jail such a contentious and complicated topic?
I think there is certainly a national movement of national voices that want to speak out about how incarceration is conducted and conducted. There (are) 67 counties in Pennsylvania. We are one of only three in the state to be accredited by the American Correctional Association. We have worked very hard to reduce our prison population. In fact, when I began my tenure, the average prison population was about 2,700 inmates, now it’s less than 1,500 – almost 40% less than what we could do.
A few years ago we had a problem with suicide and prison suicide rates. We consulted a national organization called the National Commission on Correctional Health Care and they made some recommendations that were very helpful in the running of the prison. In almost three years since then we’ve only had one suicide in that time. We’re trying to find improvements in the way fixes are done. Some people don’t like to talk about success. They want to try to highlight failure. This is a political reality that I think many prisons have to deal with. When Governor (Tom) Wolf talked about closing the state correctional facilities a few years ago, we were the first and I think maybe still the only ones in Allegheny County to offer to have our state penitentiary closed, and that came over too. So we’ve been working very hard to make some improvements in that direction. When these improvements occur, certain people become very quiet. But when something obviously goes wrong, they like to trumpet it.
You still have about a year in office – what could your political or professional future look like?
I have had a 30 year career in the private sector which I have thoroughly enjoyed. Now I’ve had a 12-year run — or 11-plus, it’ll be 12 at the end of this year. I’m a Southwestern Pennsylvanian, I’m a Pittsburgh. I live in Allegheny County. That’s where I grew up. That’s where I was born. I raised my family and my wife’s family here. I stay here. I want to be there. I want to do something like university, economic development, human resource development – things like that. Maybe a foundation. Something I can use my talents, energy and desire to continue to connect people to opportunities that will help them improve their lives and keep them here as we try to grow this region.
So I don’t see myself as a lobbyist for any of the private developers or the private industry, but as something in what you would call the non-profit (sector) around economic and professional development.