Wednesday, April 23, 2008

More of the same, please: PA primary wrap-up

Posted By on Wed, Apr 23, 2008 at 7:03 AM

Well, the results of the primary are in … and at least one thing is certain: People really are sick of Len Bodack.

The big story last night, of course, is that Hillary Clinton took Pennsylvania by 10 percentage points. That's no surprise: This space, for example, predicted nearly a month ago that Clinton would win by 7 to 10 points -- half the margin most polls were calling for. But the airwaves this morning are full of talk about how the outcome proves Obama is "not a closer." Clinton's 10-point win meets -- just barely -- the "double-digit margin of victory" standard that, somehow or other, was set as the bar she had to reach in order to remain viable.

So as this campaign limps out of Pennsylvania, then, the picture is every bit as muddled as it was coming in. Both candidates are claiming victory (Obama because Clinton had been up by 20 points, and Clinton because Pennsylvania is a big swing state, which are the only kind her campaign wants to count). After six long weeks, all Pennsylvania accomplished was prolonging the agony for everyone else.

Good work, voters!

The county-by-county results are what you'd expect. Obama won by two-to-one margins in Philly, and took some of the surrounding area as well. But Clinton narrowly won in the key battleground of Montgomery County, and trounced Obama throughout most of the western and rural central areas of the state. Earlier in the campaign, Gov. Ed Rendell made waves for suggesting that some rural Pennsylvanians wouldn't support a black candidate … I have a feeling some Obama supporters who denounced that assertion will strike a similar note today. Those supporters might also wish to revisit their hope that Sen. Bob Casey's support of Obama would help in the northeast part of the state. Clinton won every county in that corner of Pennsylvania, by margins of two- and three-to-one.

Identity politics and name recognition only went so far last night. In the closely watched 18th congressional district, Monroeville businessman Steve O'Donnell beat Beth Hafer, daughter of Barbara Hafer, a well-known former state official. If Hafer was hoping this would be the year of the woman, she was disappointed. In Allegheny County, voters in the 18th district went for Clinton by a 63-37 margin. But O'Donnell, who like Clinton had the county Democratic endorsement, beat Hafer by roughly 4,000 votes -- enough to deliver the district, which stretches over several southwestern counties.

I'm tempted to chalk Hafer's loss up to a generally lacklustre presentation and the party endorsement. Like her mother, Hafer had a reputation for party-swapping, and O'Donnell used her stint as a Republican committeewoman to good effect in campaign literature. While a moderate face might have helped Hafer in the general election, area Democrats were apparently not forgiving.

Then again, party endorsements also only went so far. Last night's biggest surprise was in state House district 21, where Len Bodack's loss to Dom Costa in a three-person race also featured Brenda Frazier. The conventional wisdom was that the race was Bodack's to lose, since he had the Democratic endorsement and some $60,000 to campaign with at the beginning of the year. If you bought that premise, it seemed likely that Costa and Frazier would split the anti-Bodack vote and send him to Harrisburg.

Instead, Bodack nearly finished last. Costa won with 4,940 votes, whereas Bodack's total of 4,703 edged out Frazier by just over 100 votes. Costa is an affable candidate, but the temptation is to chalk this up to name recognition -- he was one of three Costas with winning positions on the ballot last night -- and perhaps to an anti-Frazier campaign launched by restaurant owners upset about her support of the drink tax. In any case Bodack's loss offers conclusive proof, if any were still needed after he lost his city council seat last year, that he is an indifferent campaigner for anything other than the party's endorsement. You might want to retake that career aptitude test, Len.

What makes Bodack's loss all the more damning is that nearby state House races went as expected. The winners were incumbents or endorsed Democrats: Jake Wheatley trounced Deidra Washington in District 19. Joe Preston beat his nearest challenger, Lucille Prater-Holliday, by three-to-one margins in District 24. (Keep your eye on Prater-Holliday, though. This was only her first run for office, but she has a certain presence, and her background includes work for the community activist group ACORN. I'm guessing we hearing from her again.) And Bodack's former council colleague, Dan Deasy, won a three-way contest down in district 27.

So what does it all mean? What overarching message can we take from the races up and down the ballot? I'm willing to say just this: In a year where candidates have been campaigning on promises of change, area voters responded largely by asking for more of the same.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Beyond Debate

Posted By on Thu, Apr 17, 2008 at 10:47 AM

After watching last night's insipid debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (see transcript here), I've decided that, yes, the media really IS helping Obama.

Just not in the way Clinton supporters think. 

Predictably, moderators George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson focused on such gripping issues as whether Obama was sorry for suggesting Pennsylvanians were "bitter," and whether anyone could trust Clinton after her Bosnia sniper story proved false. So far, reporters seem more consumed with this stuff than anyone else, but they keep pushing it anyway -- all while asking whether the candidates are "out of touch." 

But either way, I think these questions help Obama -- even when they are directed squarely at him.

Let's take a look at this exchange from last night, which followed Clinton being grilled about "Snipergate":

STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama, your campaign has sent out a cascade of e-mails just about every day, questioning Senator Clinton's credibility.... Do you believe that Senator Clinton has been fully truthful about her past?

OBAMA: Well, look, I think that Senator Clinton has a strong record to run on. She wouldn't be here if she didn't.

And, you know, I haven't commented on the issue of Bosnia. You know, I ...

STEPHANOPOULOS: Your campaign has.

OBAMA: Of course. But the -- because we're asked about it.

From there, Obama urged that we not get "obsessed with gaffes" and instead deal with real substance.

Sadly, there isn't much truth to Obama's pose of becoming reluctance. I certainly never asked about Clinton's Bosnia remarks, and yet the Obama campaign sent me an e-mail about it anyway. It began thusly:

"The Clinton campaign claimed today that Senator Clinton 'misspoke' when she described a supposedly harrowing landing in Tuzla, Bosnia as First Lady in 1996 -- despite the fact that the claim appeared in her prepared remarks. The Tuzla story, now thoroughly debunked, joins a growing list of instances in which Senator Clinton has exaggerated her role in foreign and domestic policymaking."

This isn't how a candidate reluctantly answers a question; it's how he eagerly tries to raise one.

But I'm not saying that Obama bullshits to score political points. I'm saying that Obama takes the bullshit to a higher level ... and that in this campaign, the media's focus on bullshit issues makes it easier. 

Much of Obama's appeal, after all, is his pledge to transcend politics-as-usual. He talks a lot about unifying red states and blue, rejecting partisan distinctions, and so on. Frankly, I find a lot of that rhetoric naive and even somewhat disingenuous. But at least one thing really does unite us: Just about everyone hates the media, and at least claims to despise its focus on "gotcha" moments rather than issues of substance.

One legacy of the Clinton years, in fact, is that many liberals now hate the media as much as conservatives always have. And there's good reason for that resentment, as the inane performance of Gibson and Stephanopoulos last night demonstrates.

Still, as shoddy as the moderating was, I think it helped Obama ... because Obama does a better job than Clinton of rising above the attacks everyone professes to hate.

Clinton too objects to sniping (sorry) press coverage ... but her complaints always make you think she just wants reporters to pick on her rivals. She doesn't seem to mind the style of the attacks; she just wants someone else to be the target. 

Compare, for example, the following passage to the one quoted above. The moderators had just grilled Obama on -- surprise! -- the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's bombastic sermons. After Obama addressed the topic for the thousandth time, Gibson gave Clinton a change to change the subject. Predictably, she declined. 

GIBSON: I'm getting a little out of balance here. Do you want to take a few seconds or do you want to go to the next question?

CLINTON: I think in addition to the questions about Reverend Wright and what he said and when he said it, and for whatever reason he might have said these things, there were so many different variations on the explanations that we heard.

And it is something that I think deserves further exploration ...

And so on. Instead of taking the high ground, she insisted that "further exploration" should be given to a topic everyone is already sick of.  

Politicians have always complained about media coverage, and Clinton does it as much as anyone. And yet there is actually a kind of sympathy between Clinton and the press. Both are treating this 2008 campaign like it was 1996. The Clintons may have lamented the "politics of personal destruction" back then, but it's pretty clear they still think it's a viable tactic now. Like generals in the Pentagon, they are still fighting the last war.

And too often, that's all our played-out national media is capable of. Of the people in the spotlight last evening, only Obama seems to realize how weary people are of the media's role in facilitating a bankrupt politics. Which is why he repeatedly denounced "the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with."

The media's "gotcha" games are part of what he is running against. Gibson and Stephanopoulos may have thought they were giving Obama a hard time last night, but they just ended up acting as foils for Obama's claims of political virtue. 

Of course, Obama may be a hypocrite -- denouncing such attacks in person while pouncing on them in campaign e-mails. But if he's hypocritical about the politics he claims to want, I'm not sure he's alone.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Down the Rabbit Hole on the Wecht case

Posted By on Tue, Apr 15, 2008 at 4:22 PM

When I first heard that the FBI was contacting the jurors who deadlocked in the trial of Cyril Wecht, I wasn't much surprised. It's not illegal, and when a jury deadlocks, lawyers on both sides often want to talk to jurors before another trial. Getting the Federal Bureau of Investi-freakin'-gation to set up a routine meeting seems a bit heavy-handed ... and maybe not the best use of law-enforcement resources. But we're used to that from US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan by now. This entire fiasco has been overblown, literally making a federal case out of the fact that Wecht (for example) sometimes used a government fax machine for private business. Horrors!

The FBI visits were a bit ironic, though. You may recall that before the trial began, the prosecution and Judge Arthur Schwab's sought to keep the jurors' identities secret. Prosecutors argued that conealing their identities would prevent Wecht from trying to intimidate jurors. Wecht has a habit of sending letters to people he disagrees with. Still, if jurors scared that easily, you'd think the feds would want to protect them from the trauma of being contacted by federal law-enforcement agents. Apparently, you would be wrong. 

And now, I'm wondering if more than hypocrisy is at work here.

What's prompting my doubts is a P-G piece today by the talented and lovely Jonathan Silver. In it, Silver suggests the feds might try to seek an out-of-town jury for a second Wecht trial. Prosecutors haven't formally made the request, Silver notes, and only raise the possibility in a footnote. But in a legal filing, the prosecution suggests that Wecht has engaged in a "campaign to generate prejudicial pretrial publicity over the past week" -- a campaign that could "make it difficult to empanel a jury" from Pittsburgh. What was really out of bounds, the filing said, was "the Wecht team's fierce criticism [of the prosecution], widely reported by local media."

Yeah, who do Wecht's lawyers think they are, criticizing the people who are trying to put him in prison?

But here's the thing. One of the actions Wecht's team and the media have criticized is ... the use of FBI agents to contact jurors. And you have to assume that even before she called out the agents, Buchanan knew doing so would make waves. As she knows better than anyone by now, this is one of the most closely watched trials in local history, with one of the most media-savvy defendants in town.

Which makes you think: What if Buchanan called out the FBI precisely because she knew Wecht would complain about it? Under other circumstances a prosecutor might try to keep a lower profile ... but what if Buchanan has decided that, since that's impossible anyway, she will try to cause as much furor as possible? If she wants an out-of-town jury, any additional outrage will become another exhibit for the allegation that coverage of Wecht's complaints have poisoned too many local minds. 

See where I'm headed with this? Buchanan could be using one hamfisted tactic as an excuse for getting away with another one -- taking the unusual step of getting an out-of-town jury. 

In fact, if Wecht wants to keep the jury local, complaints about Buchanan's tactics could backfire on him. The P-G's coverage about the FBI visits, for example, includes a quote from Michigan Congressman John Conyers, who frets that "such contacts can have a chilling effect on future juries in this and other cases." Imagine how easy it would be for prosecutors to turn that allegation against Wecht. If such complaints are valid, they could argue, then the best way to avoid that "chilling effect" is to get a jurors from someplace less likely to have heard them. And if Wecht's complaints aren't valid, they would say, well ... then prosecutors have a right to find jurors who haven't been tainted by such scurrilous accusations. Heads I win, tails you lose. 

Of course, it's quite possible that I've simply become deranged in trying to figure out a logical justification -- any justification -- for why this idiotic trial lingers on. The dizziest conspiracy theory makes more sense than the prospect of another trial. In today's filing, prosecutors complain of a "parallel fictional universe created by defendant and amplified by the media"; perhaps I've fallen through the rabbit hole, just like the prosecution suggests, by trying to find an explanation for their behavior? 

Then again: What if I'm right? What if Buchanan is counting on people like me to raise sinister accusations about her behavior, so she can achieve the truly sinister goal of getting a jury from elsewhere? That would mean I've become part of the conspiracy to get Wecht, without even knowing it. Worse, I'd become part of the conspiracy merely by pointing the conspiracy out

This blog post is my only hope of escaping the trap. Judging from comments posted on previous entries, hardly anyone in Pittsburgh bothers to read this blog ... but Clintonistas and Obamaniacs from across the country can't get enough. So what better place to thwart Bucahan's efforts?

This post will either notify the rest of the world of Buchanan's secret agenda OR expose it to my deranged imaginings. Either way, potential jurors from all over the country will be tainted by what I have written. The local jury pool, meanwhile, will remain in blissful ignorance of what I have said here. Pittsburgh will be the one place where Wecht can be tried. 

And justice will, at last, have been served.  

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Media Sirk-us

Posted By on Wed, Apr 9, 2008 at 11:35 AM

By now you may have heard about this profile of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl from the Washington Post. It's exactly what you'd expect: It documents his rise to power, and some of his more notable gaffes. Then it cites Ravenstahl's tender years as proof that his support of Hillary Clinton is "an effective rejoinder to the idea that Sen. Barack Obama ... has a lock on young voters" in the upcoming presidential primary.

Well, if you say so, Washington Post. Most of the young voters I know think of Ravenstahl as the World's Youngest Living Good Old Boy. (That's when they think of him at all: You'd be amazed, Washington Post, how few young voters give a damn who a mayor endorses.) But I guess you know best, being the high-powered national journal that you are.

If I'm Ravenstahl, though, the line that worries me the most in this story was an attempted compliment:

"His youthful good looks have helped make him a sort of crossover celebrity -- the Britney Spears of Pittsburgh, his spokeswoman says."

Um, Britney Spears? The celeb whose self-destructive tendencies and bizarre public behavior have made her a laughingstock? The one whose fresh-faced youthful appeal quickly faded in the harsh glare of the spotlight? Is THAT the Britney Spears mayoral spokeswoman Alecia Sirk meant?

Is there something you're trying to tell us, Alecia? Our lines are open.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Free the Wecht 11!!!

Posted By on Thu, Apr 3, 2008 at 4:50 PM

For a while there, some of us thought the prosecution of former county Coroner Cyril Wecht was politically motivated. We thought our ambitious US Attorney, Mary Beth Bucahanan, filed trumped-up charges against the promiment Democrat to further her own career. We thought federal judge Arthur Schwab -- a Bush appointee who once worked in the law firm bearing the name of Buchanan's husband --was trying to railroad Wecht with a series of prosecution-friendly rulings. And all of this, we darkly surmised, was part of a shadowy Republican effort to subvert the rule of law, and criminalize political opposition.

Apparently, we were giving these people too much credit.

Earlier today, the jury in the Wecht case announced it was deadlocked on all 41 of the charges Wecht faces. All of them. 

So much for our conspiracy theories. If Karl Rove really did have anything to do with this, they would have gotten Wecht for some damn thing or other. Improper use of a postage meter, tearing the tags off a mattress ... some goddamn thing.

Think about how dumb this is. If you walked down the street and accuse a total stranger of 41 things at random, you could be almost sure that: a) they were guilty of at least one of your accusations; and b) that with the awesome powers of the federal government and its trillion-dollar deficits, you could make those charges stick.

But not so for Buchanan and her lieutenants.

Bear in mind: Wecht's team presented no defense. Before the trial began, Schwab put Wecht's attorneys on notice that they couldn't raise questions about the prosecution's motives or conduct. Since casting aspersions on the investigation was at the heart of their defense strategy, Wecht's team chose not to present a defense at all. They rested their case immediately after the prosecution did. 

And yet still: The jury couldn't be convinced of a single charge that prosecutors spent weeks making.  

This is the courtroom equivalent to playing a game of basketball with a friendly referee, and the other team doesn't show up ... yet you still only manage a tie score. 

Apparently, prosecutors will need overtime to avoid being beaten by themselves. The jurors have all said that they remain hopelessly deadlocked on each count, and that no amount of time will change that. Schwab's response: Take some time to think about it.  He dismissed the jury for the week, but with instructions to try again after the weekend.

Why bother? At this point, there's every reasons to think prosecutors will refile the charges anyway -- if not as a matter of justice, then as a mater of pride.  If this is a conspiracy, it's the judicial equivalent of the CIA's efforts to kill Castro: the sort of thing they still wince about in Bohemian Grove. 

Give it up, Ms. Buchanan it's over. One juror in the Wecht case has already been dismissed due to health reasons. The others have lives to get back to. Haven't they suffered enough?

Haven't we?  

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Board Games

Posted By on Tue, Apr 1, 2008 at 4:17 PM

High drama in Pittsburgh City Council today, and for once it didn't have to do with billboards or who gets to drive city vehicles home from work. 

It came when -- in a gripping moment of political intrigue -- Councilor Patrick Dowd named a new member to the Pittsburgh Cable Communications Advisory Committee.

I know, I know. You're breathless with anticipation, right?  

True, the PCCAC, as its legions of admirers refer to it, is not the city's highest-profile body. The organization's purpose, as its Web page so lucidly explains, is to "promote and develop the best use by the community of the cable system as a tool for community communications." (Presumably, they achive their lofty goals by using the word "community" a lot.)

So Dowd's choice didn't exactly shake the very foundations of government. But it might have sent shivers up a couple of spines. His nominee, after all, was B.J. Leber.

Leber is an eminently qualified choice, of course: For many years, she was the spokesperson and public face of WQED Channel 13. But she was ALSO the chief of staff to Mayor Bob O'Connor -- until she was ousted in a 2006 putsch while O'Connor lay in the hospital.

Along with city solicitor Susan Malie and budget director Paul Leger, Leber was on the losing side of a power struggle that took place in O'Connor's absence, and that began reshaping city government even before he passed away. And who was the big winner in that battle? Yarone Zober, who is now the right-hand man of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

What makes this all very interesting -- or at least interesting for a PCCAC appointment -- is the timing. Dowd's move comes as some councilors are seeking the power to make appointments to other, more powerful, entities.

The PCCAC is one of the few appointed bodies with members chosen by council. (Each councilor gets to choose a representative; the mayor picks two other board members.) At most of the more powerful agencies, like the Urban Redevelopment Authority or the city's Planning Commission, the mayor alone makes appointments. 

That ability is one of the key powers that defines Pittsburgh's "strong mayor" form of government. While such entities are supposed to be independent, the ability to appoint their overseers means a mayor wields a significant amount of control. (It's worth noting, incidentally, that after Leber was ousted in 2006, she was compelled to resign her own position on the URA board.) As I've written elsewhere, almost every mayor has been tempted to use and abuse that power. But few mayors have done so quite as crudely as Ravensathl.

As a result, some councilors are suggesting they should be able to name appointees too. At the very least, they say, Ravenstahl should name Dowd and the two other rookie councilors to boards. It's customary for each city councilor to sit on at least one board, but Ravenstahl hasn't extended the courtesy to Dowd and his new colleagues.

Ravenstahl has responded by saying he would "potentially" be willing to appoint Dowd and Co., "but not if they're considering or calling me unethcial." If that's the criteria being applied, Mr. Mayor, you're going to start running short of qualified candidates any day now.

But look at it from the administration's point of view. Here's Patrick Dowd, who has been increasingly critical of the URA's budgeting and governance. And when Dowd uses the tiny bit of appointing power he has, who does he choose? The former rival of the mayor's closest advisor.

Zober's power play got Leber off the URA board once already. How likely is it that he'd give council the power to put her -- or anyone remotely similar -- back on it?

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