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Mel and John Weinstein’s long ascent to the crest of local power

Updated: Apr 27

Photo: Submitted by Mel Weinstein; Photographed outside the polls in 1993 are John Weinstein, then 29, and Mel Weinstein, then 54. The father-son duo are now aged 59 and 84, respectively.

Like Father, Like Son

By Elizabeth Perry and Jamie Wiggan

It’s a big year for father and son politicos Mel and John Weinstein — the elder is coming up on his 50th year in power, and the younger is running for the top spot in county politics.

John was 9 years old when his father first ran for Kennedy Township commissioner in 1973. The thrill of campaigning seized the youngest Weinstein child, who shadowed his dad around the trail, stuffing envelopes and greeting voters.

“From that point on, [John] was right at my side,” Mel recalls. “He was like my tail.”

Mel finished that race on top and knocked out an incumbent to secure a seat on the township’s five-member board, where he served for several decades before switching roles to treasurer and tax collector.

Mel Weinstein is pictured with his third-grade classmates and Teacher Mrs. Buttercoffer at Davis School in Stowe. Can you guess which one is him?

After arriving in office, the former steel executive says he was quickly disillusioned by his colleagues’ lack of business know-how. He instituted management reforms, and as each election cycle rolled around, he challenged his former running mates with hand picks he felt were better suited to the task of local government.

Weinstein rose up quickly, earning the board president’s gavel within two years, but he continued feuding with rivals for about a decade until his faction won out.

“I knew I was making some enemies,” he says of the period. “From that time on it was Mel Weinstein and company.”

Fifty years later, John, his former shadow, is the current Allegheny County treasurer and the frontrunner in a heated contest to succeed outgoing Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. Mel remains the top powerbroker in the West Hills suburb of about 9,000 where both live in neighboring homes on a quiet cul-de-sac.

An image from Mel Weinstein’s high school yearbook.

At 84, Mel, tall and wiry, still embodies much of the youthful “athlete” he described in his 1956 high school yearbook. He speaks slowly and hoarsely, but with an understated force that doesn’t alter when he’s agitated or angry.

John, meanwhile, is shorter and less angular, but he talks with energy and alacrity, and his polished phrasing suggests years of public relations training.

John says he wouldn’t be where he is without the example of his father — his “best friend,” as well as a crucial mentor and sounding board.

“I spend a lot of time talking with him, and talking about ideas and initiatives and things like that,” John says. “And I've learned so much from him over the past 50 years that he's been in office.”

For father and son alike, the ascent through local politics has garnered loyal supporters as well as some fierce enemies. John set out his bid for Allegheny County executive during a packed launch party early January where a swarm of strategists, labor leaders, and wealthy donors parted with a suggested $1,000 cover fee to gain admittance. By then, he already commanded a formidable campaign chest from years of fundraising, and in the following months, he consolidated his frontrunner status as endorsements trickled in from powerful unions and party committees.

Democratic endorsement

But since picking up the county’s Democratic Party endorsement in March, his campaign has taken a battering from local media.

Among the more pointed accusations, reporting in early March claimed John was removed from the board of environmental organization ALCOSAN amid an FBI investigation, and subsequently sought to strike a “secret deal” with an allied politician to regain his position there.

During the same week, he was also identified in a corruption lawsuit for supporting the campaign of a judge who now employs his stepson and another close associate. Subsequent reports have since surfaced criticizing his campaign spending and other aspects of his 24 years in public office.

John was quick to denounce these accounts in a statement, where he labeled them together as “rumors, outright falsehoods, and innuendos slung by competitors.” During an interview for this story, he suggested the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which broke the reports on ALCOSAN and the alleged deal-making, was retaliating for his union support while the paper is embroiled in a six-month labor strike.

The Post-Gazette has qualified its reporting with the acknowledgment that, “Mr. Weinstein has not been charged with any wrongdoing or publicly identified as the subject of any investigation.”

Mel, no stranger to critical media coverage, says he primed his son for some kind of backlash but was unprepared for the protracted scrutiny.