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County Exec Candidates Raja and Fitzgerald Face Off in RMU Debate

D. Raja and Rich Fitzgerald each try to impress voters before Nov. 8 general elections.

With general elections looming, Allegheny County Executive candidates D. Raja and Rich Fitzgerald sparred over the future of the county's drink tax, job creation and other issues Thursday night in a debate at .

Raja, a Republican from Mt. Lebanon, and Fitzgerald, a Democrat from Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, also discussed their views on property taxes, Port Authority transit and Marcellus Shale drilling, hoping to make an impact on voters by the Nov. 8 election.

Although the event was billed as a debate and began at 8 p.m., Raja answered questions alone for 30 minutes because Fitzgerald was tied up at another event and had not arrived.

Before Fitzgerald walked into the university's Academic Media Center, student moderator Justin Downs asked Raja about job creation, health care and the future of Port Authority, which has curtailed routes and service.

Raja said that he believes that increasing competition is the best way to create jobs and lower prices for consumers. His plan for Port Authority would allow for greater competition from other transportation companies, he said.

"Competition has always made my company sharper," said Raja, referring to the software engineering company that he founded in the South Hills area in 1992.

That philosophy also would drive him to recruit more health care companies to the region, he said.

When Fitzgerald arrived, the event heated up.

Downs asked the candidates if they would repeal the county's tax on sales of alcoholic beverages, supported by outgoing County Executive Dan Onorato and passed in 2007 to raise funds for the struggling Port Authority.

Raja said that he is committed to getting rid of the controversial tax, for which he received applause from the audience. He also promised not to raise property taxes.

Fitzgerald, who voted for the drink tax as President of County Council, argued that it is necessary to generate county funds. He said that the county cannot repeal the drink tax without raising property taxes to compensate for the lost revenue.

When asked, both candidates said that Marcellus Shale drilling will bring jobs to the area and that some sort of extraction tax will be necessary.

That agreement on policy didn't last for long, as Raja and Fitzgerald began to attack each other on personal levels and changed the tone of the debate.

Both candidates contended that their opponent's campaign was first to bash the other in ads, forcing each to respond.

"I am concerned with the policies, not the personal life, of my opponent," Raja said, adding that Fitzgerald aired negative advertisements about him from the start of their campaigns.

Fitzgerald, in turn, reiterated accusations raised in a television commercial that criticized Raja of suing a former employee whose mother had cancer.

The moderator allowed for a series of 30-second rebuttals in which the accusations continued, drawing awkward laughter from the audience.

Off-air, after closing remarks, the tension continued as Raja and Fitzgerald immediately parted ways.

"I'm not particularly impressed by either candidate," Robert Morris student Kara Seashore, 24, said after the debate. "I just found the whole thing sort of comical."

Seashore's classmate, Tiara Neal, 22, agreed.

"I don't, necessarily, even have an opinion after all of that," Neal said. "I just knew it would get heated, and it did."

RMU's Media Management class organized and filmed the event—Executive Decision: 2011—as a class project. Students also streamed it live online to offer an opportunity for county residents to observe and learn more about the candidates.

Click here to view the debate, and check back for more Patch coverage on Nov. 8 elections.

This article originally appeared on the .

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