Editor's note: This post has been UPDATED. See remarks at the bottom.
One of the things that's so weary about negative political ads is that very often, everybody is right -- the people who air the ads, as well as those who denounce them. Take, for example, a negative ad condemned by supporters of mayoral candidate Bill Peduto in a press conference this morning.
The ad in question -- you can see it yourself here -- began airing this week, and argues that Peduto doesn't care about anyone outside his own relatively prosperous council district. As we were the first to report on Monday, the spot was placed by a Republican firm that had previously worked with such noble causes as the Swiftboat Veterans for "Truth" (quotation marks mine). And as the Post-Gazette later nailed down, the committee who paid for the ad, the heretofore-mysterious "Committee for a Better Pittsburgh," is being run by Peduto's nemesis, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
Today's conference was organized by unions who support Peduto: SEIU 32BJ and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 23. And it was convened, said the SEIU's Sam Williamson, "to set the record straight" and remind voters "who has been on the side of working people consistently in this town."
Williamson and other speakers were largely concerned with the impression created by one sentence of the ad: "Peduto voted against a living wage, hurting low-income workers citywide." To dispute that characterization, they cited a 2009 fight over an ordinance establishing a prevailing wage. Under that measure, if grocery stores, hotels, and office buildings want public subsidies for their projects, they must pay workers the prevailing wage for workers doing similar work elsewhere. (The idea is to ensure that city money isn't used to undercut the wages of the existing workforce.) But Mayor Luke Ravenstahl opposed the measure -- to the point of chaining the doors of office closed to keep wage supporters at bay. Peduto, by contrast, "welcomed us with open arms," said Tony Helfer, the head of UFCW 23, at today's event. And despite a whole series of fifth-floor shenanigans designed to thwart the bill -- including an 11th-hour bid by Ravenstahl to sandbag the measure, it eventually became law.
It is, of course, ironic as hell for Ravenstahl -- who did everything he could to stop prevailing wage -- to be calling out Peduto for not doing enough to support workers. And Ravenstahl's spot was roundly denounced at today's gathering. Ken Love, a Presbyterian minister, called it "an outright lie coming from the powers of darkness," and tied it into a millennia-long history of oppression dating to the time of Moses. Helfer spoke a bit more prosaically, calling the ad's tactics "crap," and lauding Peduto for having "proven that he stands for working families."
But for the most part, the speakers were talking past the claim made in the ad, which focused on a different vote, one Peduto cast not longer after taking office.
The ad's claim is based on Peduto's support for a bill council passed in the spring of 2002. The bill basically put a 2001 "Living Wage" measure -- one that mandated a higher minimum wage for any employer receiving tax dollars -- on hiatus, delaying its effective date until the county passed a similar measure. Technically speaking, the 5-4 vote didn't kill the living wage ... but it did effectively put the measure into a coma. Because no one had any illusions that the county was likely to pass such a measure anytime soon; county officials had rejected a county living wage only a few months before.) Years later, as city council aide/Peduto scold Shawn Carter has noted, the state pulled the life-support from the city's comatose ordinance, by preempting any local wage bills not already in effect.
Despite today's sturm und drang, there's not much question about the vote Peduto cast in 2002. For the record, he explained the vote thusly:
We have 130 municipalities in this County but yet only one is being asked to create a Living Wage. Why isn't anyone going to Mt. Lebanon? Why isn't anyone going to Sewickley? Why are they going to one of the poorest communities in this County and asking the taxpayers of that community to carry the ball for this entire County?
...I haven't seen anything that says how much this will end up costing the City of Pittsburgh. I can't support something when I don't know what the final cost is going to be. The office-space condition that once something is built out that we have to then have a Living Wage placed on every person who works within that office ...
Placing a condition then on the people that will be working in those buildings that they have to be paid a certain wage or else it doesn't happen is going to make it ... very easy for places like McCandless to take those jobs away.
After today's press conference ended, Williamson was asked how to square the 2002 vote with claims the ad was false. Wiliamson said he was "not going to discuss anything that happened in 2002." Instead, he said the ad falsely created the impression that Peduto was hostile to working-class Pittsburghers, when in fact "for many years now ... Bill Peduto has [stood up] for working families."
Similarly, Peduto spokesperson Sonya Toler says that after the living-wage bill went down, Peduto "was adept enough to redirect his efforts toward the prevailing wage bill." (Adept enough that devising an alternative took seven years? "Everything he's done," she answered, "seems to be an issue to fight.")
So here's the fact-check. Peduto did vote to shelve living wage in 2002 -- a vote that everyone knew would put the bill on ice for an indefinite period. But since then, Peduto has also taken steps to boost the wages of low-income workers -- over the objections of the mayor now attacking his record. You can see why Williamson and others are outraged, and why they feel the ad creates a false impression. But Ravenstahl's ad may not exactly "rewrite history," as Williamson claimed, so much a offer a highly selective reading of it. And such readings are part of every election.
But Peduto's rival, Jack Wagner, ought to avoid chortling too loudly. Because by the same token, one can imagine an ad denouncing Wagner for, say, his own 1980s-era opposition to a city-council measure banning anti-gay discrimination. In later years, Wagner supported similar legislation on the state level. But if selective history is good for the goose ...
UPDATE (5:28 p.m.): Since this post originally went up, I've had what the diplomats call "candid discussions" with union and living-wage folk. They contend that Peduto was, in fact, doing the living-wage movement a favor by voting to put the ordinance on permanent hiatus. As Williamson said in an e-mailed statement: "All of the votes on the prevailing and living wage that have been taken by Bill Peduto have been in the best interest of getting better wages for working people in Pittsburgh. Bill Peduto's 2002 vote on the living wage was supported by the Pittsburgh living wage campaign and the labor movement. Living wage advocates at the time felt the vote furthered the long-term goals of raising wage standards for Pittsburgh's working families. The living wage campaign felt that tying the city and county together would raise wages for the most people possible. As is often the case in long-term struggles for justice, the living wage campaign paved the way for subsequent fights to raise wages, including the eventual passage of the prevailing wage ordinance."
I can already hear critics -- s'up, Shawn? -- shouting "NOW who's trying to rewrite history?" And some obvious questions present themselves, such as: "If the goal was to tie the city and county together, why wasn't such a linkage included in the original version of the bill?"
On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that this isn't just a matter of historical revisionism. I give you the words of then-councilor Jim Motznik, who spoke in 2002 shortly before Peduto made the remarks above:
"[P]eople that wanted to go for the Living Wage ... realized the same thing that the Mayor now realizes -- that if the County doesn't go along with the Living Wage, it is probably not a good idea for the City until it is a regional thing. I have received phone calls from the same people that lobbied us to pass a Living Wage first hoping that the County would, now those same people are calling me asking me to support the Mayor's Bill [to shelve the measure] because they realize that we can't do it alone. (Emphasis added)
So where does that leave us? It actually doesn't change many of the words written above: Peduto did indeed vote to shelve the measure, and everyone knew it was likely to be shelved for a very, very long time. (What's more, his explanation for doing so strikes a much different tone than Motznik's.) But Peduto's supporters are saying that while Peduto did what he did and said what he said back in 2002, it happened in a much different context than the earlier version of this post indicated.
The original version of this post suggests that Peduto took a vote that ultimately doomed the living wage bill, but later took steps to advance the cause of working people. Peduto's supporters, though, are saying that his vote was itself consistent with that cause, not some early departure from it.
Or at least I think that's what they're saying, and if so, that's fine. It's not the message they were emphasizing this morning. (In fact, Williamson explicitly declined to discuss what happened in 2002 when asked about it by myself and the Post-Gazette's Tim McNulty.) But obviously, that doesn't make it false.
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