Wednesday, October 29, 2008

East is East, and West is West

Posted By on Wed, Oct 29, 2008 at 1:48 PM

There's an old saying that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in between.

That may be giving Pittsburgh too much credit.

Increasingly, Pennsylvania is Philadelphia on one side ... and then everything else. So if you feel like everyone on your street has reverted to some political cro-magnon state, it's not just you: western Pennsylvania really does appear to be getting dumber. But Barack Obama stands a pretty good chance of winning the state anyway. In fact, he arguably stands a better chance than some of his predecessors.

Some friends of mine are getting a little panicky at the sheer amount of right-wing derangement that they encounter in bars, in grocery-store parking lots, and so on. Since this is the only part of Pennsylvania most of us see often -- and since people assume that the rural portions of the state are filled with nutjobs -- they're getting worried the whole state might be like that. (Polls like this won't help anyone's digestion either. H/t to our friends at the P-G's Early Returns blog.) 

Far be it from me to counsel complacence. Even when I've been known to practice it. The Dear Leader -- as we media types call Obama when we're not suppressing his ties to William Ayers -- is urging the troops not to get cocky. But we shouldn't panic either. Even if everyone in your family or on your block HAS gone off the deep end. 

One ego-deflating truth of statewide political contests is this: the Pittsburgh region matters less and less with every election cycle ... which is one reason Democrats do better and better. 

The Brookings Institute has broken down the "political geography" of Pennsylvania: You'll find a road map here, with a link to a full report.  The bottom line, though, is that the state serves as a bridge between East Coast and Rust Belt -- and the East Coast portions are getting stronger as the Rust Belt wanes. 

Brookings argues that since 1988, "the growing eastern part of the state [has swung] toward the Democrats, producing four straight presidential victories. ... Countering this swing, the declining western part of the state has been moving toward the GOP." But on balance, the math favors the Dems.

Analyst Tom Ferrick here also suggests that Philadelphia -- and the surrounding counties -- are really all that matters on Nov. 4:

There simply aren’t enough McCain votes left in the rest of the state to overcome the 550,000-vote mega-margin Obama will get in the southeast on Election Day.

The bottom line: Obama wins Pennsylvania with ease.

Of course, it's not fun to realize we're being eclipsed by Philadelphia. The upside, though, is realizing that mouth-breathing Jim Quinn fan in the next cubicle is becoming less and less relevant right alongside you. 

Another thought to calm yourself with. If you've been encountering any racial animus, console yourself with the possibility that bigotry in Pennsylvania may be less widespread than you may think. There were rural counties of the state that were quite comfortable giving their votes to Lynn Swann back when he ran for governor in 2006. In some heavily Republican counties -- like Crawford, where I lived for a few years -- Swann actually got more votes than the notoriously white Rick Santorum, who was also running for re-election.

Again: I'm not suggesting anyone take victory for granted. McCain has tried to come up with an "October Surprise" almost every day this October. None of them have stuck, but had Ashley Todd's story broken the night before the election, who knows what effect it might have had? 

But if complacency saps our energy, so does despair. When you're out door-knocking, or arguing with relatives, or gouging a letter "B" into someone's face, you may think you're all alone. You may feel like your efforts have no meaning ... or that they might not even show up on surveillance cameras. At those times, remember that you've got a friend in Pennsylvania -- even if it's on the other side of the state. 

Friday, October 24, 2008

An Apology to Our Readers

Posted By on Fri, Oct 24, 2008 at 1:35 PM

The cover of this week's City Paper features an illustration that purports to depict the "mind of the McCain voter." The graphic suggested that there was little inside the heads of GOP supporters except Hank William's Jr. lyrics, the helicoper scene from Apocalypse Now, and -- near the medulla oblongata -- a nerve center that responds to the phrase "my friends."

Some McCain supporters were angered by the image. And it has become obvious to me that I have underestimated them. For that I apologize.

Because apparently, in at least some cases, their brains also contain a large capacity for fabrication and delusion.

At least in the case of Ashley Todd.

mccainillo.jpg

 

I'm not going to spend much time denouncing Todd. For one thing, I have a feeling she's got some issues. For another, plenty of other people will be doing that in the news cycle ahead, including many Republicans.

Besides, it's not fair to blame the GOP, or the McCain camp, for this transparent stunt. Anymore than it would have been fair to blame Obama supporters, or black males, if her laughable story had actually been true.

Besides, the problem isn't that kooks and charlatans crop up from time to time. The problem is that in this election cycle, they become cause celebres overnight. There is an entire media apparatus out there willing to give credence to the kooks, no matter how delusional their assertion. 

Predictably, Todd's story immediately became a cause celebre on sites like the Drudge Report, and right-wing talk radio. The gold standard for ludicrousness, though, may have been set by the executive VP of Fox News, Pittsburgh native John Moody. In a blog post whose stupidity is notable even on the Internet, Moody opined : 

If Ms. Todd's allegations are proven accurate, some voters may revisit their support for Senator Obama, not because they are racists ... but because they suddenly feel they do not know enough about the Democratic nominee. 

So let's see: They'd rethink suporting Obama because of what another black guy might have done ... but that's not the same as racism.

On the bright side, Moody also suggested that 

If the incident turns out to be a hoax, Senator McCain's quest for the presidency is over, forever linked to race-baiting. 

God knows there are plenty of reasons to vote against Senator McCain. But this isn't one of them. Moody has actually pulled off the rare trifecta of doing a hack job on everyone involved -- Obama, McCain and most of all his audience. 

Ordinarily, this would be the place where we shake our fingers at the media -- mainstream and right-wing alike -- for seizing on a story whose basic outlines seemed suspicious from right off the bat. Even the Post-Gazette put this thing on the front page, above the fold. (The Trib did too, but what did you expect?) 

But what's the point? This story has already served its purpose: It gave poor Ashley Todd the attention she apparently craves. It gave reputable outlets a hot story for a couple days, and it gave the right-wingers something else to go completely ape-shit about. When Limbaugh comes back on Monday, he'll have moved on to something else. 

Hell, John McCain is still talking about Joe the Plumber, despite the fact that almost nothing about that guy seems to be legit either. We've entered this sort of post-modern phase of politics in which everything signifies something that it's not. Hockey-mom VPs with $150,000 wardrobes I can understand. (Criticisms that the McCain camp should have done a better job of HIDING the wardrobe costs, however, are harder for me to wrap my head around.) We all know how much of politics is just stagecraft and shadowplay.

But what's happening now is this thing where a "Joe the Plumber" can be unmasked -- and get celebrated anyway. The assumption, I guess, is we're too dumb to know the difference, or too amped-up on identity politics to care. Joe the Plumber represents the regular man ... even if he falsely represented himself.

Like I said in this space before, the press, the politicians, and the people have all joined in a sort of endless spectacle, each of them using the others, and trying to appeal to the others in turn. I'm just surprised more 20-year-olds don't go nuts. 

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Plumbing New Depths

Posted By on Thu, Oct 16, 2008 at 4:43 PM

Immediately after last night's final presidential debate, the conventional wisdom was that the winner was ... Joe the Undecided Plumber. (And why not? A day later, there's already a fashion line dedicated to him.)

But the pundits might want to take a second look before giving Joe Wurzelbacher any more laurels.  By his own admission, he's "not even close" to earning the quarter-of-a-million dollars that would make him subject to Barack Obama's tax hikes. Which means that the question he posed to Obama last weekend -- and that prompted John McCain to mention Joe repeatedly last night -- was purely hypothetical. McCain rapped Obama for how his tax plan would supposedly affect Joe ... but in fact if Joe earns in the mid-40s (as the average plumber does), Joe would benefit from Obama's plan.

Oh, and Joe really isn't undecided. He's registered as a Republican, and he's made it pretty clear that he knows who he's going to vote for.

While we're at it, his first name really isn't Joe. It's Samuel.

Other than that, though, his story checks out.

I feel for this guy. The whole world now knows about stuff like the $1,000 tax lien Wurzelbacher apparently has. It's the kind of debt that happens to a lot of good people who are having a hard time making ends meet ... but most of their debts aren't subjected to the scrutiny of a national audience. And few of those people will ever know what it's like to have a bunch of anonymous bloggers try to rip them to shreds.

On the other hand, it's also a little disturbing to see how quickly a person can be elevated to national attention. Wurzelbacher doesn't deserve to have his domestic life picked over by a bunch of bloggers. But he probably doesn't deserve to be elevated to the status of national celebrity either. 

This whole phenomenon amazes me. It is to American politics what that lip-synching girl was to the Beijing Olympics. Considered in context, they are both utterly trivial non-events, sure ... but they reveal an entire machinery of bullshit just below the surface.  Both in China and here at home, you always knew that the politicians themselves couldn't be trusted, and that the media is pretty shaky as well. But stuff like this lets you know just how large the hall of mirrors really is.

I'm not alleging that Wurzelbacher is some sort of "plant" by the McCain campaign, as some suspect. For one thing, there's at least some evidence to suggest McCain may regret ever hearing Joe's name, let alone repeating it a couple dozen times during the debate. 

No, I think what's going on here is weirder than all that. A guy becomes an overnight celebrity, and then a morning-after villain, all for engaging in that most American of traditions: asking a question of a politician. For generations that would have been the start and end of it. But both McCain and the media were anxious to trumpet their ability to celebrate the "common man." (And McCain is apparently out-of-touch enough to think a $250k/year plumber is a common man.) In Wurzelbacher, they each saw a guy who could be exploited for a bump in ratings or the polls. Joe had everything reporters and candidates alike are looking for -- "gotcha" moments, faux-populism, a sort of lottery-winner "it can happen to you" quality ... the whole deal. And Joe went along with it. Which, why not? How else would he have gotten on the Today show? 

Unlike in China, this isn't some sort of top-down deception. Its more organic than that. Because fame is our culture's principal commodity, the lines between public and private have become almost completely blurred. We buy magazines to see celebrities acting just like us, and something as mundane as asking a question of a poiltician can make any of us a celebrity. And so a strange complicity sets in between the politicians, the press, and the people. All three of them join together to create this sort of endless spectacle, each of them using the others. 

I'm not even sure who the joke is on anymore.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Oh God It's the PUMA People

Posted By on Wed, Oct 15, 2008 at 3:24 PM

So for the last 45 minutes, I've been receiving -- at the rate of one every 30 seconds -- e-mailed form letters from PUMA, a group whose acronym stands for "People United Means Action." 

The e-mails are all the same -- and are no doubt all being sent to newspapers across the country. They read in part as follows:

The mainstream media has been reporting rampant and widespread voter fraud by the Obama supported group ACORN. At least ten states have opened or are already pursuing criminal investigations into this system fraud. ... I insist that you instruct your Secretary of State, Pedro Cortes, to open an investigation into the serious and credible allegations of voter fraud in Philadelphia, and that have plagued the Obama-supporting ACORN in a dozen states or more.

I wrote a murkier-than-usual column about the attacks on ACORN, a grassroots organizing group most people never heard of until Republicans started blaming them for everything from the economic crisis to Obama's lead in the polls. The column will be posted on the site tomorrow, so for now, I'll say only this: The notion that faked voter-registration information can sway an election is utterly ridiculous. Imaginary voters don't affect elections unless they actually show up at the polls. Which would be hard to do because, see, they're imaginary.

God knows ACORN has its problems -- as does any group that relies on paid signature-gatherers. (Pennsylvania Green Party candidates can attest to that.) But ACORN has a strong case that: a) they're victims here too, and b) had they not turned over information they thought was faked, they could be in a lot of trouble. It's true that the law prohibits registration of non-existent voters. But law-enforcment also doesn't look kindly at people who pretend to register voters and toss away the materials. Which kind of puts ACORN in a double-bind when a dubious registration form is put before them.

But what's really interesting about all this is that these accusations about phantom voters are coming from a fairly shadowy group. PUMA, which was founded to capitalize on the resentments of aggrieved Hillary Clinton voters, is run by one Darragh Murphy. And while Murphy claims to be a staunch Democrat, her only contribution to a presidential candidate was a $500 gift made in 2000 to ... John McCain.  (Check the FEC Web site and search for Murphy, Darragh in the name fields.) That's more than the $200 Murphy contributed this year to a PAC that supported Hillary Clinton herself. 

That has, of course, prompted all manner of speculation that Murphy, and PUMA, are really just trying to sow seeds of dissension amongst Democrats. I'll take no position on their motivations, but I think this interview proves that if they aren't trying to wreak havoc amongst Democrats, then what they are doing makes no sense at all. 

So what you've got is a group that may well have an invisible agenda attacking against another group for registering invisible voters. Welcome to the 21st century's virtual politics.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Has Pat Dowd Just Been Out-Dowded?

Posted By on Tue, Oct 14, 2008 at 4:54 PM

City Councilor Pat Dowd has been a controversial figure, but one thing both his critics and his supporters can agree on: He is a big believer in transparency and due process. A few months back, for example, the Pist-Gazette opined that the big problem with Dowd was that he was TOO obsessed with obeying the letter of the law, and didn't pay enough attention to the spirit. 

"Dowd has demonstrated he will stand on the letter of the law to the detriment of justice," blog author Char observed. 

(Speaking of which, where ARE you, Char? Your blog hasn't been updated in months -- though this didn't stop the Post-Gazette's Cutting Edge blog wrap-up from quoting it last week.)

So, yeah, love him or hate him, Pat Dowd is stickler for details.

But now there's a new sheriff in town.

City councilor Darlene Harris, whom Dowd defeated in the school-board run that launched his political career five years ago, turned some heads early this morning by releasing, well ...

This.

It's a SEVEN-PAGE, nicely-crafted legal opinion that casts doubt on Dowd's  proposed process for renaming streets in the city of Pittsburgh. 

OK, I'll grant there are more compelling things to argue about than how the city should go about renaming streets -- even if there are situations in which similarly-named streets can slow up emergency responders. But come on! Harris cites such landmark cases as H.A. Steen, Inc. v. Cavanaugh, Filler v. Commonwealth Federal Savings and Loan, Commonwealth ex. rel. v. Scully and the immortal Kolb v. Tamaqua Borough. And that's just in the first two pages! 

But it's not all just a bunch of citations: Harris boldly stands up for the proposition that the city should preserve its unique flavor -- except where confusing street names pose a safety threat, the city should hold onto the traditions that made it great. Or as Harris writes:

As a city which is proud of its idiosyncrasies ... we should not simply [surrender to] needlessly applied "modernity," the application of which may cause more harm than good.

What's that you say? The city's street patterns are so confusing that the city's 911 dispatch system has a hard time keeping up? Harris has an answer for that too:

"[W]e must look at another or additional provider of software for 911, rather than changing the world to comply with the software which serves it." 

Suck on that, Mr. Blackberry User!

I haven't been the biggest fan of Harris, and I think much of her tenure on the school board was pretty disastrous. But this ain't bad at all. And I'm guessing that Dowd -- who recieved this letter via e-mail, along with his colleagues -- is probably wondering, "Where did this closely argued, highly technical series of objections come from?"

Which is, of course, not much different from the questions that have been asked about Dowd himself. 

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Broder Hits the Road

Posted By on Tue, Oct 14, 2008 at 7:32 AM

The Washington Post's David Broder deigns grace us with his presence.

Well, not "us," per se. Broder visited the Philly-area suburbs, where conventional wisdom says Pennsylvania's presidential election contest will be decided. But instead of dwelling amongst the peasantry in Pennsylvania's rural and post-industrial villages, as so many national reporters have done, Broder visits Montgomery County instead. 

Broder's conclusion: "It's hard to see how John McCain can overcome [the] odds in Pennsylvania."

Montco, as pundits are wont to call it, is one of those exurban counties which has attracted increasing numbers of white-collar types. Some of these folks may benefit from a cut in capital-gains taxes, but they're also watching their 401(k)s evaporate. And they tend to believe in things like, you know, science. Broder's article makes clear that if McCain set out to alienate such voters, he couldn't have made a better vice-presidential pick than Sarah Palin.  

One Obama backer laments the fact that Palin "drops her g's constantly" -- which seems about as CELEBRATING the fact that she drops her g's constantly. But even a GOP voter admits that, "The thought of Sarah Palin being a heartbeat away is terrifying."

In any case, the story is worth a read because it offers up anecdotal reasons for why the GOP, after signalling a desire to go after Obama on trumped-up "character issues," now seems to be backing off. That stuff fires up the right, but this year, it's not playing with undecided voters, who are the key to McCain's diminishing hopes. 

Broder introduces us to Lois Coar, who by all rights should be voting for McCain: She tells Broder that she backed GOP candidate Mitt Romney earlier this year, and says she can't see herself voting for Obama "not because he's black, but I just can't put it in words." So why isn't she backing McCain? Because "I can't understand why he keeps talking about this Ayers guy."

This space had doubts about whether McCain's strategy of going negative would work. Now, apparently, McCain has decided they won't. Since playing politics-as-usual hasn't panned out for him, he's going to argue that he's not the sort of candidate who plays politics-as-usual. Since his attempt to cater to the base is hurting him, he'll insist that he's only ever been interested in bipartisanship.

Sincerity: the last refuge of the scoundrel. 

Monday, October 13, 2008

God Help Us All

Posted By on Mon, Oct 13, 2008 at 7:17 AM

I don't know what else to say about this. Except that no matter who we end up with as president, we're still stuck with shitheads like this as citizens.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

In Dubious Battle

Posted By on Tue, Oct 7, 2008 at 8:13 AM

Two things are clear about how the final weeks of the Presidential campaign will play out: It's going to consist of a whole new line of GOP attacks on Barack Obama, and Pennsylvania voters are going to be in the crossfire. 

As NBC and its political correspondent Chuck Todd have repeatedly said in recent days, "If there is one blue state the McCain campaign may never give up on, it's the Keystone State. Of all the Kerry blue states, it's the most competitive -- even right now at a time that appears to be Obama's high-water mark. Of the remaining blue states in play, Pennsylvania may be the most culturally sensitive and may explain why the McCain folks want to shift the debate a bit to character."

What this means for Pennsylvania is: We're going to see the candidates -- McCain especially -- at their worst. And the world will probably see the worst of Pennsylvania.

Being a swing state, after all, means having the national press descend upon your gritty, hardscrabble communities and point out how some of the people living in them aren't too bright. We've seen this from the Washington Post and other papers in the past (coverage expertly lampooned by the Tube City Almanac). And it's already started again.

Yesterday, NPR sent a correspondent from village to dell, talking to the just-plain-folks out there in the rusting mill towns and backwoods crossroads. One undecided voter said that Obama "scares me. He's got the right answer for everything" -- and he meant this as a criticism.

I'm afraid that if there are too many folks like this one, John McCain may win the state -- he's probably locked up those voters who want the wrong answers from their politicians. And the conventional wisdom here is that rural whites who express misgivings about Obama are racist, and are predisposed to swallow attacks on "character." 

But I'm not giving up yet. For one thing, I went to college in small-town Pennsylvania, a community that could easily be the poster-child for Pennsylvania's blend of post-industrial/rural resentment. And yet the number of interracial relationships in that town was so large that my soc/anth professor -- an African-American woman from big-city Chicago, no less -- pondered conducting a study on it. So while McCain will certainly do better in the rural areas than elsewhere, I won't be surprised if Obama holds his own there. 

Pennsylvania's primary in April offers proof. McCain's surrogates may try to dredge up the film footage of Jeremiah "God damn America" Wright again, for example. But the first time that stuff came up was in the weeks before the Pennsylvania primary contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton.  This was also when Obama's famed remarks about "clinging to guns and religion" surfaced. As I wrote at the time, Pennsylvania was going to be a proving ground to see whether voters could get "past guilt-by-association attacks." And based on the outcome, I think the answer is "yes."

Of course, Clinton won the state, by a little more than 9 percentage points. But bear in mind that polling shows she'd been up by 20 points or more in 2007 and early 2008. In other words, Obama cut her lead in half, even as Pennsylvania Democrats were confronted with the most damaging allegations against him. And Pennsylvanians have seen all this stuff before, thanks to the Clinton campaign (which, by the way, probably did Obama a favor by helping to innoculate them against the attacks this time around). 

Pennsylvania Republicans may weigh these character questions differently on Nov. 4, naturally, just as NBC suggests. But there are two reasons to be optimistic. First, because of the way this election is different from every other one. And second, because of the ways in which it is the same.

What's different, as others have said, is that we're facing an economic crisis unlike any since the end of the Second World War. Even pundits, who as a rule can't tear themselves away from a good juicy attack, say that wedge issues or guilt-by-association tactics don't resonate as well when there are actual, you know, issues to deal with. 

The other reason I don't think McCain's tactics will work is because we've heard them so many times already. Every four years, the GOP trots out this line that the Democratic Presidential candidate hates the country he wants to lead, and strives to weaken it from within. They make this charge whether a Democrat was a "draft dodger" or a decorated veteran. Which means that at some point, the accusation begins to wear kind of thin. 

Don't get me wrong. I've been waiting for the attack ads for months ... I can already imagine the montage of Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, photos of Obama with his hand not over his heart, not wearing a flag pin ... And I'm sure such an ad would titillate the tinfoil-hat brigades. But those people will be voting Republican anyway. An independent voter is going to be less impressed with these attacks, because of all the over-the-top attacks in the past: "Yeah, yeah, Democrats coddle terrorists and want to weaken their nation from within ... what else is new? What else have you got."

I could be wrong. But I'd rather err on the side of overestimating Pennsylvania voters. Especially because John McCain is clearly willing to do the opposite.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Beyond Debate

Posted By on Fri, Oct 3, 2008 at 8:00 AM

I'm a geek, so perhaps it's no surprise that for me, the high point of last night's vice-presidential debate came during an exchange over a highly technical point about the bankruptcy code. But bear with me, because while everyone is crediting Sarah Palin with, I guess, not breaking down onstage, this moment shows just how badly Joe Biden hammered her on actual substance.

The moment came when Biden was talking about a proposed homeowner-friendly change to the bankruptcy code:

Biden: That would keep people in their homes, actually help banks by keeping it from going under. But John McCain, as I understand it -- I'm not sure of this, but I believe John McCain and the governor don't support that.

There are ways to help people [that] are not being supported by -- by the Bush administration nor do I believe by John McCain and Gov. Palin.

Moderator Gwen Ifill: Gov. Palin, is that so?

Palin: That is not so, but because that's just a quick answer, I want to talk about, again, my record on energy versus your ticket's energy ticket, also.

I think that this is important to come back to, with that energy policy plan again that was voted for in '05. When we talk about energy, we have to consider the need to do all that we can to allow this nation to become energy independent. It's a nonsensical position …

It certainly is.

Here's what I think happened there. I think Biden set Palin up by pretending not to know what McCain's position was on a policy issue. And he did this because he knew that Palin didn't know McCain's position on the issue. And he figured there was a good chance for Palin to flub it.

Palin didn't flub it, but only because she simply changed the subject to something she wanted to talk about. This happened over and over again, as every conscious human being watching the debate-- even some of the pundits --  must have noticed. At one point, Palin tried to turn this into a virtue:

I may not answer the questions that either the moderator or you want to hear, but I'm going to talk straight to the American people and let them know my track record also.

Which, roughly translated, means, "For all intents and purposes, I'm going to dodge any question I either don't want to answer or am incapable of answering." Here, we see Palin trying to pretend that refusing to answer a question is a form of "straight talk."

None of these tactics are surprising. It's well documented that Palin comes from the Newt Gingrich school of debating: If you don't like the question you're asked, mutter a few words that sound responsive, and then answer a question you like better.

But what was surprising is that most of the pundits I saw on the major networks let her get away with it. In fact, they praised her for refusing to observe the basic principle of any debate, which is that you answer the question put to you. Katie Couric of CBS, for example, credited Palin for being a good debater -- not despite but because Palin sidestepped questions.

Palin clearly benefited from the soft bigotry of diminished expectations, at least as far as the commentariat was concerned. But instant polling by Couric's own network -- as well as by CNN -- showed that by double-digit margins, voters thought Biden won the debate. Most commentators I saw, by contrast, called it a draw, or at best suggested that while Biden's answers were more substantive, Palin "won by not losing."

They were, in other words, given Palin for looking poised, for not getting flustered. Palin essentially said, "I'm not answering your questions. I'm just going to talk about whatever I want." The response from most commenters I saw was "Attagirl!" But if you think about it, that's not just an insult to the moderator; it's an insult to the entire premise of a political debate ... and really, of politics itself.

Of course, Palin tests as more "likeable" than Biden, no doubt due to her folksy one-of-us appeal. (Which I found increasingly grating as the night went on. But then hey, I'm one of those liberal snobs you hear about.) And her performance was poised -- if by "poised" you mean "utterly shameless about simply refusing to engage the issues at hand." But at bottom, her talking-points driven responses made a mockery of the whole idea of a political debate. Just as McCain's selection of her made a mockery of his nostrums about experience.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Blue Ribbon Blues

Posted By and on Wed, Oct 1, 2008 at 11:11 AM

You'd expect a press release heralding the mayor's plan to improve transparency in city government to be a little more, well, transparent. But the item that popped up in reporters' Tuesday afternoon was anything but:

"Mayor Luke Ravenstahl tomorrow will announce plans to create more transparency in City government," it read.

Transparency is a good thing, obviously -- especially in an administration that requires reporters to call the mayor's office to get permission to speak with the heads of city departments like zoning, planning and public works. the meeting could be about anything. An administration whose authorities have come under fire recently for giving contracts to politically connected high bidders. An administration where an outgoing development official, former Urban Redevelopment Authority head Pat Ford, had leveled accusations about a "culture of deception and corruption" before leaving under a cloud.

And the administration's response to those developments was similar to its response to previous controversies: Create a commission to look into the problem -- while maintaining there really isn't a problem at all -- and give it a l-o-o-o-o-o-n-g time to report back.

On Tuesday the mayor, with Councilor Ricky Burgess by his side, announced the formation of the "Pittsburgh Contracting Best Practices Commission" to focus on the "key themes of transparency, efficiency and opportunity." The commission, Ravesntahl pledged, will work with a third-party consultant to review the city's and authority's current procurement processes, along with the best practices in the private and public sector. Based on those findings, the commission will make recommendations on how to improve the city's procedures.

The new commission which will feature Burgess and fellow councilor Patrick Dowd, along with representatives of local companies like Duquesne Light and U.S. Steel, authority heads and other appointees of the mayor. These luminaries will meet within 30 days and provide recommendations within six months of its first meeting. Additionally, the mayor signed an executive order requiring that all city contracts must be backed up with a "justification form" that would explain "why the contractor was selected." That form will be posted on the city's Web site.

Like most reform initiatives these days, this one comes with some caveats. Ravenstahl noted while he will urge city authorities to use the form, those agencies are "technically independent" and wouldn't necessarily have to do so. Ravenstahl also said that despite the fact that he had just convened a commission to look into how winning contracts are selected, he didn't "believe any selection was done" improperly. But the use of "an independent, reputable third party will ensure that future decisions will follow the best practices."

Fair enough. So what about best practices when it comes to campaign financing? Earlier this year, City Council worked  to pass a campaign finance reform bill that would not only have required donors to disclose whether they or their immediate family members had won any city contracts. Some councilors have long held that there is a "pay to play" component to the awarding of city contracts. Burgess and Dowd voted for the bill, and Dowd told City Paper at the time that he thought campaign-contribution information should be posted online "in a real-time, readily accessible format."

When asked about whether this panel would study those types of disclosures, Ravenstahl said he didn't know if that was something the commission would look into. Members would "define their own scope," he said.

Then again, when Ravenstahl vetoed the campaign finance measure June 9, he pledged to, well, work for "an open and transparent" process over just such questions.

"We must share which donors are doing business with the city to end unfounded suspicions of a pay to play culture… Let us continue to work together on this issue."

When asked by CP Tuesday what he had actually done toward that end, Ravenstahl said he had been working on a plan, but wasn't sure when it would be done. "Hopefully by the end of the year," he said.

(An earlier version of this blogpost wrongly stated that Councilor Dowd voted against campaign finance reform. Sorry, councilor!)

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