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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Unwelcome Bill

Posted By on Tue, Feb 26, 2008 at 7:25 PM

No one on council wants to speak out against city councilor Bill Peduto's effort to limit campaign contributions, at least not yet. But no one is rushing to vote for it, either.

Peduto's bill, which would limit campaign contributions to local candidates, is discussed at length in this thrilling 3,000-word City Paper account. And it was discussed further, at only slightly greater length, during a Feb. 26 public hearing at city council.

In terms of political drama, the meeting was about as gripping as ... as ... well, as reading a 3,000-word City Paper account about campaign finance reform. Less than two dozen people attended. Most of their testimony was brief, routine, and made by the usual suspects -- pro-reform groups like Common Cause and the League of Young Voters. (A rare spark was provided by Avenging Libertarian Mark Rauterkus, who referred to county officials as "law-breaking scum" for having ignored a law county council passed five years ago to put campaign contributions on-line. In order to prevent the city from similarly ignoring its own limits, Rauterkus suggested adding teeth to Peduto's measure. Contributors found exceeding the limits, Rauterkus recommended, should be denied any chance to receive city contracts or remittances until the officials they contributed to left office. Rauterkus also suggested creating a "Scarlet Letter" list to publicize the name of violaters.)

Only one speaker, representing the Allegheny County Labor Council, opposed the bill, citing fears that limiting labor contributions would stifle the voice of working people.

Ordinarily, you might take the lack of fireworks as a good sign. But Peduto's measure is facing something worse than contentious opponents. He's up against studied indifference.

Only two council members -- President Doug Shields and councilor Darlene Harris -- were actually absent. But it was hard to tell the difference. Throughout the hour-long hearing, only one councilor, Ricky Burgess, asked a substantive question about the measure. (I'd tell you what it was, but trust me: Not knowing is more exciting than the question or the answer itself.)

Other than that, Patrick Dowd asked inquired about the make-up of a task force Peduto had convened on campaign financing in 2004; Bruce Kraus pledged to "do my due diligence" and to be "open to further solutions"; and Tonya Payne groused about how public hearings and post-agendas needed to be scheduled more conveniently. ("Really, you're asking us to bump our calendars," she told Peduto.) Councilors Jim Motznik and Dan Deasy spoke nary a word.

But really, why would they? Why would anyone speak in front of a room filled with supporters of the measure? Who wants to be the person to champion the right of developers to give $5,000 checks to local officials? Even labor, whose lone voice against the bill might be enough to kill it, did so with little fanfare. Labor Council president Jack Shea didn't appear himself; he sent a factotum who spoke along with the other unscheduled speakers. 

Peduto was unbowed, of course. "You can count on one hand" the number of cities that have no limit on campaign contributions, he told his colleagues -- and many cities had measures much stricter than those he was proposing. "It is modest reform; it is not radical reform," he said of his bill. He pledged to hold another special council hearing in the future.

The prospect of another council discussion probably didn't thrill Peduto's colleagues. But the debate figures to get more interesting as time goes on.

I got the sense that the measure's supporters were, in fact, already trying to call out at least one councilor. Julia Nagle, who spoke on behalf of the Peduto-friendly League of Young Voters, seemed to direct many of her remarks to concerns Dowd raised in City Paper's aforementioned thrilling story. She even addressed fears that reformers assume campaign contributions were "nefarious" ... an adjective Dowd used in the CP piece.

I may be reading too much into Nagle's remarks, in hopes that she -- or anyone, really -- read my story. But it's no secret that friction between Dowd and Peduto supporters is mounting by the week. Nor is it terribly surprising, even though Peduto has previously backed Dowd as a fellow reformer. Nearly a year ago, a local political consultant told CP that trouble was likely in store between the two. (Dowd "knows how to work within the system better," he told us, whereas "Peduto's nature is to ... make his call and say, 'This is right.'")

So far the worst fears of Peduto's camp -- that Dowd would support Jim Motznik as council president this year, for example -- haven't materialized. But Dowd has been skeptical of the campaign financing reform, and it's hard to see this issue resolving itself amicably. Peduto clearly isn't going to let it drop, if only because he sees it as a litmus test for who the real reformers are. However we end up financing our politics, a Bill is about to come due.

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