Updated: Apr 27
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.
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.
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.
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.
“When he started, I said ‘John, you need to run a positive campaign … now beware because you’re going to have people out there who look for dirt,’” he says. “I never thought that they would reach as low as they have — and they have reached low.”
Mel is spry and alert for his 84 years. He awakens each morning at 5.30 a.m. and says a prayer before setting to township business. Every day brings upward of 80 emails and 20 voicemails, he says.
Fueling this work ethic is, in Mel’s words, an abiding love for the community he’s called home for nearly six decades.
“Why would Mel Weinstein want to serve 50 years in a community he loves so much?” he asks of himself. “It’s in those words, ‘a community he loves so much.’”
As elected tax collector and appointed treasurer, Mel wields less formal power than Manager Greg Clarke, but his influence looms over all township affairs — not least in the naming of the Mel Weinstein Municipal Center, the township’s formal place of business.
He opens each monthly board meeting with a prayerful invocation, and during the business portions that follow, commissioners gush with praise about Mel's leadership and achievements. Dissension is rarely seen among the five members.
With a political structure built around one man without an obvious successor, Mel says the fate of the community beyond his watch “keeps me up at night.”
“My greatest fear is leaving,” he says. “And someday I’m going to have to.”
Not everyone appreciates his level of influence, though.
Starting in the late 1990s, a group of residents formed the Kennedy Township Committee for Community Awareness. What started as an organization to stop a housing development from being built in Kennedy later shifted to a focus on bringing transparency to local government.
During the height of their movement, two former members, Colleen McMillan and Bonnie Parent, raised voter fraud allegations over discrepancies in the 1997 election. The Allegheny County Board of Elections investigated the claims and presented evidence of voter fraud to the district attorney that allegedly implicated Mel and John, but charges were never brought.
Bonnie’s husband, Kevin Parent, once a member of the committee, says at the time he was frustrated by the lack of dissension and the lock-step consensus among the board.
"Nothing changes. You'll get new faces on the board, [but] have you ever heard an argument?" Kevin Parent asks.
Mel counters that the loyalty shown by commissioners reflects his astute leadership.
“Everybody I brought in agreed with me,” he says.
When, two decades ago, she was active in local Kennedy politics, McMillan would get regular emails complaining about Mel’s dominance, she says.
"They wanted you to fight their battles. When I said ‘why don't you just go to the meetings yourself,’ they'd say, 'I might need Mel for something,'" McMillan says. "Because you're fearful, you're giving him the power. Because you're not willing to stand up, you're giving him more power."
Mel says the critics come with the territory.
“You’re always going to have the naysayers,” he says. “They killed Jesus, come on.”
John disputes any suggestion that his father is feared among the community, saying instead his power stems from generosity and public service.
“I think he's influential because of how he treats people and the results that he produces.”
Characteristic of this neighborly devotion, Mel says he attended 59 funerals last year. The year before, he went to 78.
"Because I touch so many people's lives,” he says. “And John is the same way."
Campaign records show funeral flowers and related items are a regular expense of the Kennedy Township Democratic Committee campaign fund that Mel chairs. This, according to ethics experts, isn't illegal, but locals say it reflects a familiar mode of old school politics.
Old school politics
Former McKees Rocks mayor David Hershman, who maintained power from 1944 to 1968, set a defining tone in local politics that, some say, spilled over into surrounding communities. Hershman ran a tight political machine and was known for helping out residents when he could with store credit and other assistance, but he expected loyalty and votes in return.
Mel has also been known to give out food baskets at holidays to residents and township employees. During a recent municipal meeting where he addressed critical coverage from a local newspaper, he brandished a wad of letters and cards he’d received from satisfied residents over the years.
“These are all thank yous,” he said. “Thank yous for what we’ve done, thank yous for how we’ve helped someone.”
Not everyone in town, though, is quite so enamored.
During the 1999 primary election, Mel was accused of being inside the voting site while the polls were open. Bonnie Parent, a poll worker, reportedly asked him to leave. According to a contemporary report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Mel said she called him a vulgar name.
Around the same time, Margie Parent says she insulted John's educational background at a public meeting.
Bonnie and Margie Parent both received summons after the incidents, which would have carried a $350 fine each, but the charges were later dropped.
Kevin Parent said his family suffered, both from the incidents involving the summons and the lack of action after the ballot investigation. He no longer participates in Kennedy politics.
Against the critics, Mel and his peers say the township’s low tax rates, public parks, and well maintained roads speak only of his devoted public service.
“We're talking about a gentleman who has been here serving Kennedy Township for 50 years,” Commissioner Fred Kauffman said during a recent public meeting. “And when you look up and down, it's gonna be pretty tough for you to tell which that person is, but I want to tell you, if you don't know, it's Mr. Weinstein.”
John began his career at a trucking firm in Beaver County where his father knew the owner. He was laid off after several years during a contraction and took a job in the county treasurer’s office in 1991.
Seven years later, he made his own run for treasurer. He won office and has secured reelection five times. He credits his father for the leg up.
“The base that I had was from Kennedy Township and from the western suburbs,” John says. “It was my dad that afforded that opportunity.”
In a crowded field of county executive candidates, John is touting his decades of political experience and a pragmatic moderate message under which he hopes to unite the county.
He says the recent scrutiny has only made him more determined to take the reins of county government — a goal now brought into focus by a vision of the future he hopes to leave for his children.
“My father has been my entire inspiration for my career,” John says. “Now, shifting gears, going from the treasurer's office to the executive's office, that has come to me from my kids. I have twins, I have a little boy and a little girl. They’re my whole life, and they have motivated me to run for this job.”
This feature, co-published by Pittsburgh City Paper and Gazette 2.0, was made possible with financial support from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly named Margie Parent instead of Bonnie Parent as one of two Kennedy residents who raised voter fraud allegations in the 1997 election. The error has been corrected online but remains in a printed version of this story.