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Monday, June 9, 2008

Political Payback

Posted by on Mon, Jun 9, 2008 at 7:24 PM

In a move that notably failed to cause the pillars of power to tremble, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl vetoed a campaign-finance reform measure today.

Ravenstahl’s move will likely kill the bill, which would have limited the amount contributors could donate to candidates for local office. But somehow, I can’t get too upset. It’s what we all expected, for starters. And there are plenty of thoughtful reasons to be wary of contribution limits anyway.

Arguably the best argument -- advanced by skeptics in a story I wrote early this year -- is that in politics, money is like water: It’s going to find a way around whatever dam you set up. And the current system of influence-peddling has the advantage of being completely blatant, and thus easier to monitor.

So a politician could oppose this reform in good faith.

Predictably, however, Ravenstahl chose not to. He took the low road instead, even though the high road would have gotten him there just as quickly.

Ravenstahl's veto message notes that the reform’s sponsor, councilor Bill Peduto, once received a $50,000 campaign contribution from William Benter, who Ravenstahl describes as "a wealthy private citizen whose business specializes in outsourcing work to Asia." Ravenstahl then asks us to imagine a world in which instead of being content with making scads of money running a medical-transcription business, Benter

decided to seek higher office, running on an anti-labor platform and self-financing the entire campaign. Under the current bill, the labor community, whose funds are raised at the small dollar level from working men and women, and distributed through PACs, would be forced to find 50 PACs to contribute at the maximum levels proscribed by this bill to match the wealthy, anti-labor candidate.

But before you let your fears run away with you, ask yourself: Why would someone like Benter -- this alleged exploiter of the global economy -- be content running for a post in local government? There is, after all, a dearth of millionaires on council today. (Which is maybe too bad -- at least the rich can afford to buy their own mink coats, unlike some former councilors we could mention.) The explanation for that is simple: One way you get to be a millionaire in the first place, presumably, is by being able to do a little math.

Look at it from a millionaire's point of view. As a city councilor, Bill Peduto barely makes much more in a year than Benter contributed to his campaign. So for a rich guy, it makes more economic sense to purchase a legislator than it does to replace him. And that's the problem -- purchasing legislators -- that campaign-finance reform addresses.

So Ravenstahl has used a problem that doesn’t exist -- wealthy capitalists running for local office -- to avoid dealing with a problem that does: wealthy capitalists purchasing local officeholders. And by substituting a fake problem for a real one, Ravenstahl can pretend that perpetuating the status quo will help working people.

What's funny, though, is that he could have done all that without making things personal. Maybe the most interesting question about his veto is … why use it to attack Peduto?

Last week, Peduto took himself out of the running for the 2009 mayor’s race. He's the one local politician Ravenstahl shouldn’t feel threatened by today.

And while lots of us think Peduto is a good guy and a skilled legislator, there was a notable dearth of teeth-gnashing when he decided not to run next year. The reason isn’t just his abortive 2007 effort: There's a general sense that many of the things that make Peduto such a bad campaigner -- his inability to gladhand and so on -- are the flipside of the qualities that made many people support him in the first place.

But Ravenstahl keeps trying to make this into a schoolyard fight -- bullying a guy who's already walked away. And in the process, he does a better job making Peduto look like a serious contender than Peduto himself does.

A more confident mayor wouldn't have called Peduto out. He would have pointed to the rise of Swift-boat like 527s on the federal level, and argued that we don't problems like that in Pittsburgh. And he would have stopped there.

Instead, Ravenstahl stuck it to somebody who just turned his back on the fight. And you can't help wondering why.

The political explanation is that Ravenstahl is already laying the groundwork to help someone challenge Peduto for his council seat in 2009. The psychological explanation is that beating up opponents is an easy way to feel like you’re succeeding. Sometimes, you get the feeling that advancing an agenda isn't good enough for Ravenstahl's crew. They need to shove it down someone's throat, too … even if sometimes (as in the Lamar billboard fiasco) that risks jeopardizing the initiative itself.

Either way, though, the big campaign money is going to roll in for awhile. Maybe Ravenstahl could spend some of it on some Dale Carnegie courses. Someday, mayor, you may wish you had.

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