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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Election Day thoughts

Posted By on Tue, May 21, 2013 at 10:27 AM

Today is, obviously, a potentially historic day, pivotal for the future of our region. It's the day that Pittsburgh's men and women, workers and retirees, students and citizens of all kinds, go to the polls and ask themselves the question at the heart of our republic:

"Who the fuck are these judicial candidates?"

But there's a mayoral race too, as you may have heard. Later today, around the time the polls close, we'll be having updates and analysis all through Wednesday morning: A good place to follow the action might be my Twitter account, where I'll be posting updated incoming returns and who is getting drunk at the election-night parties. (Which, by the way: both the Wagner and Peduto campaigns are holding events on the South Side ... a few blocks away from each other. Add in the ever-present possibility that Luke Ravenstahl may drop in out the Rowdy Buck or some such, and it's a recipe for a vibrant bar scene. can't wait!)

In the meantime, to tide us over while the voters are busy having their say, a few thoughts about the campaign season that brought us to this point.

Thought #1: When you add up the negatives, they don't amount to much. One thing the campaigns had in common was a tendency to engage in a tiresome amount of pearl-clutching over the other side's negative ads. But while I may be just cynical, I didn't think the ads were actually so awful. Yeah, yeah, Luke Ravenstahl is a big poopy-head for bringing up years-old votes in ads, and Bill Peduto took some of Jack Wagner's years-old statements out of context too. But if you want to see what a negative campaign looks like, look at the recap of Wagner's 1993 mayoral challenge to Tom Murphy in this article. Murphy was calling out Wagner for stuff his brothers did, while Wagner was dressing down Murphy as a "flower child." I don't think either side resorted to that kind of attack this time around. Yeah, attacks were launched and may have taken people's voting record out of context ... but the attacks were focused on voting records, and actual job performance.

Obviously, both campaigns played up the other's attacks -- and I actually think Peduto had more success with the tactic, because many of the attacks launched against him came from Ravenstahl, whose own public credibility seems to be eroding by the day. But I think part of why these ads did such a giant clunk with people is ... we haven't really had a contested mayoral primary since 2001. People have sort of forgotten what a spirited race is like, and so they're just not USED to seeing this stuff on the local level.

Thought #2: Our sacred democratic traditions were perverted by big money in this election ... and we may never have it so good again. Obviously, a pivotal moment in this campaign was a judge's decision to throw out the city's campaign-finance rules in the mayoral race. That opened the floodgates for contributions of any size -- and many were even larger than contributions made in the years before the rules were created. (To cite just a couple of examples: Wagner and Peduto both cited $25,000 contributions from union sources in a single day just weeks before the election: Wagner got that amount from the IBEW, and Peduto got his from political committees supported by the Laborers -- and that was just one chunk of what the Laborers gave him.)

When Judge Joseph James tossed out the limits, he expressed hope that the finance rules be rewritten, to tighten up some of the language. I'd prefer a different approach, one that rethought the rules from the beginning.

The problem with the finance rules is that they are a 1990s-era model that will be increasingly irrelevant in 21st century politics. What we've seen on the national level, obviously, is lots of "dark money" spent on advertising by 501c4 groups that don't have to report their donors. It may seem crazy to think that such organizations could take an interest in local elections, but as I first reported a month ago -- and as local nonprofit journalism outfit PublicSource amplified in a more thorough piece last week -- such groups are active at the state level. Why shouldn't we expect to see them at the local level next time around?

Remember: If six months ago you'd have asked people whether Luke Ravenstahl would set up a committee just to launch attack ads on politicians he dislikes, people would have thought that was crazy too. And while his "Committee for a Better Pittsburgh" files campaign-finance reports so you can track its spending and sources of income, how hard would it be for Ravenstahl -- or anyone else -- to create a new group that didn't have to disclose spending?

Thought 3: Peduto was helped by his choice in enemies -- maybe as much as by his network of friends.

This is purely anecdotal, I realize, but I have a sense -- one backed up by some footsoldiers in his camp -- that Ravenstahl's attack ads backfired badly. Maybe it was because these ads too seemed a product of the 1990s, a reminder of politicians and battles we've moved on from. Maybe it was because people heard about Ravenstahl's ties to them. But they just seemed to have not only fizzled, but helped Peduto. Not Ravenstahl's intent -- nor, I'm sure, was it Wagner's hope -- but as Tolkien once said, the treacherous weapon is ever a danger to the hand.

The other thing is that much of the grist for these ads -- and for some of own Wagner's attack lines -- seemed as if they'd been minted in the office of Ricky Burgess, Peduto's biggest foe on council. Peduto was blasted for opposing a senior high-rise project in Homewood, Burgess' district. Wagner would talk at great length about the need for federal community-development money to be used in addition to local capital-budget spending, rather than instead of it -- another cause dear to Burgess' heart. Burgess has repeatedly used the living wage as a cudgel to beat Peduto over the head with -- and Peduto's vote to shelve the living wage in 2002 vote appeared in Ravenstahl's ads. Those ads also used Burgess' own likeness to illustrate the bevy politicians Peduto allegedly couldn't work with.

I'm not going to argue the substance of Burgess' position here, except to say I have varying levels of sympathy for it. (I, for one, am still not fully satisfied with the account of Peduto's vote against the living wage in 2002.) The question here is how much any of this stuff resonated outside Burgess' office. I guess we're about to find out, but I'm not sure how exercised a voter in Brookline is really supposed to get about a high-rise in Homewood.

Thought #4(a): Yes, yes, Bill Peduto has indeed created a new coalition...Polls show Bill Peduto is very likely to win today's election. If he does so, I think it'll be because, while his chief rivals were late entrants in the race, Peduto had years to build a network of friends.

One of the more telling moments in this campaign, at least for me, was an April 25 presser in which Peduto was surrounded by dozens of backers, including elected officials from the school board level to the state. The event wasn't all that "newsy" -- most of those in attendance had previously come out for Peduto or were widely known to support him -- but it was telling just the same. Here was a guy whose previous mayoral run had shown dismal support in black neighborhoods -- and yet there was school board member Mark Brentley, and state Rep. Ed Gainey. Here was a guy who'd previously been derided -- by myself on occasion! -- as the perennial mayor of the East End. And he had support from all corners of the city. (Well, almost all: For whatever reason, the West End still seems resistant to his charms.)

From the outset, Peduto's campaign seemed aware of its weaknesses, and took steps to address them. You think it hurts your standing in black communities to hire Sonya Toler, a name many black voters remember from a byline in the New Pittsburgh Courier, as your press secretary? The Courier itself endorsed Peduto -- and as you read that editorial, it confirms the sense that while Peduto certainly doesn't have anything resembling a lock on the black vote, he's worked the hardest to bridge the gap. And win or lose, you have to respect him for that.

Back in 2007, when Peduto aborted his run for office, a lot of people accused him of gutlessness, even as he asserted that the movement he was building wasn't strong enough to stand on its own should he be blown out of the water. And standing here today, that 2007 withdrawal seems like a very shrewd strategic retreat. It gave him time to assemble a coalition that has made him the frontrunner today. Even if he doesn't win today, the fact that he's built such a base is an accomplishment. The challenge of a one-party town is that it's hard for a loyal opposition to have a base for operation. Peduto has built that. And while it's possible that both he and close ally Natalia Rudiak lose today, I wouldn't bank on it. Or on the movement disappearing.

Thought #4(b): ... But in fighting monsters, one should take care not to become monstrous. To paraphrase a criticism I've heard countless times from Peduto's foes ... one man's "new coalition" can easily be another man's "political machine." Whether that's a false equivalence or not will depend on what Peduto does after Election Day.

I mean, look: The Laborers have given $100,000 to Peduto directly. That is just a huge number, maybe even unprecedented in local politics. And if you've ever cast aspersions about what some contractor expected in return for some $10,000 contribution to the mayor, you're obliged to be at least a little troubled by that sum.

What's more, as I reported last week, that doesn't capture the full amount of Laborer's support. The union is also financing a fledgling group called "African Americans for Good Government," which is door-knocking an phone-banking for Peduto. It'll be interesting to see what this organization -- which has ties to Rep. Gainey -- does in the coming months and years. (And while the organization's leaders have not returned phone calls, I'm going to suggest that Ricky Burgess may want to watch his back.)

There's also Peduto's ties to Fitzgerald, of course, which would be less bothersome if it weren't for Fitzgerald's own somewhat high-handed impulse to undermine the independence of appointees to boards and commissions. (This is the only part of the Post-Gazette's justly-derided endorsement that made any sense.) Yes, Fitzgerald backed down on demanding undated letters of resignation from appointees, which gave him the ability to yank those appointees at a moment's notice. That speaks well of Fitz's ability to hear reason and change course. But if board independence matters to you, what do you make of Peduto's professed intention to demand every sitting appointee on a city board or commission resign upon his being sworn in? Is that a necessary move to clean out the detritus of a failed administration? Or another form of high-handedness? (Wagner, by the way, has disavowed any such intentions himself.)

Again, I don't want to be naive about this. Politics is the art of the possible, and the line between "pragmatism" and "cynicism" isn't always easy to find. Peduto once allied himself with Beaver Rep. Mike Veon, who later got caught up in the Bonusgate scandal: But while that move didn't pan out so well, I applauded it at the time (this was pre-indictment, of course) as a sign that Peduto wasn't letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

For that matter, people wax nostalgic about Tom Murphy these days -- several years of Ravenstahl will have that effect -- while forgetting that Murphy allied himself with Frank Gigliotti, another state rep who was later disgraced himself.

And if you're a Peduto backer, battling out there in the trenches ... there's at least one part of this story you're hoping to repeat today -- the part where Wagner loses.

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