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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Could campaign-finance reform happen here?

Posted By on Wed, Mar 25, 2009 at 8:27 AM

Believe it or not, it's possible -- maybe -- for the city and county to pass a decent campaign-finance reform bill. 

I'll explain why I think so at the bottom of this post, but I'll admit you  couldn't see much sign of hope from yesterday's city council hearing on the proposed reform. At the outset of the hearing, city councilor Jim Motznik and county council president Rich Fitzgerald agreed they'd support the reform ... but only if both the city and the county passed the exact same measure.

That requirement has also been stressed by mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Dan Onorato when they first proposed the bill a few months ago. And some nattering nabobs suspected that requiring each legislative body to agree to the measure is a means of hamstringing them both. 

In fact Fitzgerald, who was invited to the meeting along with representatives from Onorato and Ravenstahl's offices, made clear yesterday that there wasn't necessarily "broad-based support" for the bill in the first place. And further objections to it emerged yesterday.

City councilor Tonya Payne, for example, depicted the issue as a civil-rights matter.

"People can keep their heads stuck in the sand if they want to," she said, but "white males can outraise any of us." Payne, who is black, predicted the measure would pass with or without her, but "I'm just saying upfront, you're squeezing me, you're squeezing [councilor Darlene] Harris, you're squeezing [councilor Theresa] Smith. Any other woman, any other African-American, you're squeezing us... I believe it's not fair."

I'll confess that I found the objection murky. If white males can outfundraise everyone else -- and no doubt they can -- wouldn't the smart move be to deprive them of that advantage by limiting contributions wherever possible? Ensuring black customers could sit at lunch counters seems far more noble than demanding black politicians, too, can get access to unlimited cash at the campaign trough.

Then again, Payne said she favored action at the state level. Given Harrisburg's track record for killing such reforms, that's not much different from saying you don't favor action at all. But if big cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia (which already has contribution limits) are the only ones who pass such measures ... that arguably does hurt the prospects for black candidates, who tend to launch their careers in urban areas.

But all this paled compared to the drama of city councilor Patrick Dowd -- who did you know is a mayoral candidate? -- grilling Ravenstahl aide Gabe Mazefsky.

Dowd noted that Ravenstahl had vetoed a campaign-finance bill passed by the city last year, and that many of Ravenstahl's objections to that bill could apply to this one. For example, Ravenstahl complained that the measure would put city politicians at a disadvantage in races for state office, where they might face suburban politicians who hadn't been cramped by the rules. Dowd noted that the same objection could apply to this rule as well.

"Why is the mayor suddenly flip-flopping?" Dowd asked.

"I think 'flip-flopping' is a campaign term ..." Mazefsky began.

"OK," said Dowd, "why has he changed his position out of convenience?"

"I believe on the school board, on which you served ... did you propose campaign finance reform?" Mazefsky shot back. 

The answer is no. And Dowd's cross-examination of Mazefsky was met with some knowing smirks by Dowd's peers. "I can't believe mayoral politics was intruding in these chambers," one later told me in mock surprise.

But actually, mayoral politics may be the best chance this bill has of getting passed. Notably circumspect during this hearing was Bill Peduto, the city councilor who has done more to push this reform than anyone else.

Peduto knows better than anyone that Ravenstahl's reform is a flip-flop. And as sponsor of the vetoed bill, he has the most reason to be upset about it. Still, Peduto kept his remarks fairly brief. He noted the more strident limits put in place by other cities, and said the veto had a "devastating" impact on reform efforts at the state level. But he also emphasized his willingness to work with the mayor (and by extension the county executive) to get a bill passed, expressing a willingness to negotiate some points with them. 

So it's possible, at least, that we could see a repeat of Peduto and Ravenstahl's compromise on installing energy-saving bulbs in city streetlights. Peduto and Ravenstahl have often been at loggerheads, but their willingness to negotiate this issue gave Ravenstahl a campaign boast, and it gave Peduto a notch in his belt as an environmentalist. It also left Dowd -- who also touts environmentalist principles, but who has long been on the outs with Peduto -- in the cold. 

The situation here seems similar: Ravenstahl would no doubt love to put this reform issue behind him, to neutralize Dowd and anyone else who might pop up as an independent challenger down the road. Peduto would no doubt love to pass a bill, period. And he doesn't have much interest in helping Dowd either.

Like I say, it may not come to pass. But I have a feeling that in Pittsburgh, the only way to fight old-school politics is with old-school politics. 

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