Attorney, former county councilor Dave Fawcett joins race for county executive
The race next year to replace Rich Fitzgerald as Allegheny County Executive is getting crowded. But attorney Dave Fawcett may be the only candidate whose pursuit of results prompted him to take part in a lawsuit against the county he hopes to govern.
“I've taken on big fights, and I have gotten a lot done,” Fawcett said.
Fawcett, an Oakmont attorney with the Reed Smith law firm, worked pro bono on a 2016 ACLU lawsuit against the Allegheny County Jail regarding a policy of placing pregnant inmates in solitary confinement. The county ultimately settled the suit by changing its policy to use solitary confinement only when there was a serious risk of someone suffering physical harm.
On issues from environmental sustainability to economic development and criminal justice, “We have big challenges here,” Fawcett said. “And really we need someone who can take on power and also negotiate solutions.”
Fawcett himself has first-hand experience of county government, having served two terms as an at-large representative after voters abolished the county's former three-commissioner system in favor of the 15-member council in 2000. (He was a Republican at the time, but he said the GOP’s increasing polarization prompted him to register as a Democrat more than a decade ago.)
During his time on the council, he said, “We did a lot of things, believe it or not. This was a brand-new form of government,” for which the council had to create an ethics code and craft new processes from scratch. Later in his tenure, council passed an indoor-smoking ban, among other initiatives.
These days, Fawcett may be better known as a litigator, having handled cases of national interest and local impact. He fought a winning battle against West Virginia coal baron Don Blankenship that led all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which handed down a landmark decision — following a ruling for Blankenship by West Virginia’s decidedly friendly top court — that said judges should not hear cases in which a party donated heavily to their election campaigns.
“I tried cases basically all over the country,” Fawcett said, “taking on big corporations who have taken advantage of somebody through their greed or power.”
As the jail lawsuit reflects, Fawcett has become active in criminal justice work as well. He serves on the board of a state Innocence Project, which seeks to free prison inmates who have been wrongly convicted.
If elected, Fawcett said he would want to create a conviction integrity unit to review cases in which local prosecutions may have resulted in a false guilty verdict. Such units exist in other jurisdictions, often under the control of the local District Attorney. But Fawcett notes that the county executive already oversees the public defender’s office and “can either create or insist upon” an oversight unit here.
“I don’t plan on being a voice of protest. I plan on being a reformer, and someone that can get the job done,” he said.
A key component of Fawcett’s vision is a county-wide riverfront park that he first proposed while on county council 20 years ago. It would provide trails along rivers and other waterways countywide.
“It’s a big idea, and it will take a big investment,” Fawcett said. "[But] it’s completely doable. It’s just having the leadership to make it happen.”
The trail would be a natural amenity, a commuting option and “the kind of thing that raises our profile nationally and internationally,” he said, attracting visitors and businesses to “the greatest urban linear park in the world.”
The idea itself links up a number of ideas in which Fawcett is interested, such as the need to encourage development while balancing environmental concerns. He envisions, for example, an office of environmental protection to supplement the work of the county’s health department by providing more long-term direction and priorities.
Awareness of environmental concerns “will rise to another level” with such an office, he said.
Fawcett treads lightly on the subject of property reassessments — an issue that has bedeviled officials for years and will almost certainly dog candidates in 2023. Through the years, property valuations often have been allowed to range widely while elected officials resisted unpopular efforts to recalibrate the taxed value of property — until a court steps in to order a reassessment and chaos ensues.
Fawcett said the matter is “ultimately an issue for the state legislature [which] has left counties in a real jam, an impossible situation,” by not providing hard-and-fast rules to apply. In the absence of such action, he said, he would at least strive “for more uniform and consistent assessment” by county officials.
Fawcett joins a Democratic field that already includes former Congressional candidate Erin McClelland, Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb and current County Councilor Liv Bennett. State Rep. Sara Innamorato is expected to launch her own bid for the office Thursday. Fitzgerald is term-limited after 12 years in office, and with no obvious heir, a once-a-decade transformation of county leadership may be at hand.
Fawcett hails Fitzgerald as the latest in a long line of “good, hard-working executives." But he said, “my goal would be to not just put out the day-to-day fires” but to pursue a vision for the future more focused on sustainability.
As for 2023, “I think this race is all about who has the qualifications to do the job and the experience.”