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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dan Onorato's Big Day

Posted By on Tue, Oct 6, 2009 at 7:49 PM

It wasn't supposed to go down like this for Dan Onorato.

Today marked the official announcement of something everyone has known for years: Dan Onorato is running for governor. ("[W]hat you may not know is that everything I have done over the last 20 years has helped prepare me for today," said Onorato in a press release prior to the event. Actually, I'm pretty sure lots of us came to that conclusion on our own.) Onorato had been traveling across the state to make the announcement, and his visit home was going to cap off the big day. 

On the surface, it looked like it was going to be a great event. The crowd was packing the IBEW hall on the South Side. And among the supporters was none other than ... Braddock Mayor John Fetterman. He of the Rolling Stone profile, and all that other publicity.

Fetterman is a hero to many progressive types who don't care for Onorato, or for his protege, Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl. But he was foursquare behind the county exec.

"I'm making a full-throttle endorsement," Fetterman told me. "Dan has done a lot for the disenfranchised people in the Mon Valley. How many years did the Carrie Furnace site [a historic remnant of the old Homestead Works, now slated to become the keystone of a national historic park] sit idle until Dan came along?

"If anyone doesn't think much of Dan, I think they're mistaken. He's trying to make the Mon Valley a real showcase for revitalization."

But even as Fetterman was crowning the exec with laurels, there were signs of trouble. As the crowd filtered in, I noticed at least a half dozen faces familiar from protests in the wake of the G-20 summit. Several had appeared at a recent protest at the University of Pittsburgh. There, they denounced police tactics on Sept. 24 and 25 as heavy-headed. Among them was Naomi Archer, a veteran protester involved with the Three Rivers Climate Convergence. 

"Are you here to support Dan?" I asked. 

"Oh yes," she said. And then added, with heavy irony, "The leadership Dan has shown has really been inspiring. And one thing I like about him is he really knows how to put boots on the ground." 

Not long after, Onorato took the podium. And so did Archer. Just as Onorato was beginning his remarks, she leapt to the stage, and gave him a hug. Onorato gestured to security off-stage as Archer said into the microphone, "I just wanted to let you know that the G-20 protesters ..."  She was dragged away before she finished the thought, to applause from the crowd.

But it wasn't over. Moments later a group of Pitt students, standing on a riser to the side of the podium with duct tape over their mouths, unveiled a banner reading "What Happened at Pitt?"

One of them, Jonathan LaTourelle, was soon clapped in handcuffs because he refused to leave. (The IBEW hall is, after all, private property.) But even before the police arrived, the students were scuffling with the attendees standing behind them -- a group of steelworkers. 

LaTourelle was taken out of the hall and put into the back of a police cruiser. He was later joined by five of his colleagues, including Archer. They were released not long after -- once Onorato's speech wrapped up -- and were given citations for defiant trespass. 

For LaTourelle, it was the second offense in a week: He'd also been charged for failure to disperse in Oakland on the night of Sept. 25. But what seemed to bother him even more than the charges was the behavior of the steelworkers -- who protesters said took their "What Happened?" banner.

LaTourelle, a member of Pitt's chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, told me, "I have asked the Steelerworkers to come into my school. I support the Employee Free Choice Act. I've supported labor all of my political life. And it was the Steelworkers who first took our signs."

Protesters saw the event as PR coup. "The message is going out," local gadfly Albert Petrarca told me. "Right here in his hometown, Onorato is having trouble. And that's going to be the message. This was a public-relations disaster for him, because this is going to be the lead story tonight." 

Some seemed worried that Petrarca was right. One Onorato supporter urged media not to focus on the arrests. "The real story is inside" where Onorato was speaking, he said. The protest, he added, "is just poor manners."

"So is imposing a police state," Petrarca shot back. 

I caught up with Onorato briefly after his speech. 

"The protesters wanted to know what happened at Pitt," I said. "What do you think happened?"

"I'm not even going to comment on that," Onorato said. "We can talk about that some other time, but not tonight."

I asked if he had any concerns about the G-20 summit, or if he'd watched Youtube video of the events in Oakland.  "No," he said. "I'm not going to comment."

We shifted to less contentious ground, and discussed the upcoming campaign. No doubt I'll be reporting on this down the road, and Onorato was short on specifics, promising a slew of policy papers down the line. But two things that might be of interest to Slag Heap readers: 

-- Onorato's campaign literature noted his support of gun-ownership for hunters and people who want to have a firearm for self-defense. But he's not a Second Amendment absolutist. He says as governor, he would support legislation like Pittsburgh's controversial "straw purchase" bill, which would require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms.

-- Onorato's literature also touted Allegheny County's recently-enacted LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance. (Allegheny is "one of the only [counties] to enact legislation that protescts the rights of all -- regardless of their race, sexual orientation or gender identity," says his advance statement.) And it also takes pains to address "the mischaracterization of my positions" on abortion. Onorato identifies himself as a "practicing Catholic [who is] personally opposed to abortion. But as Governor I will not change Pennsylvania's current laws." 

But what would Onorato do about marriage rights for same-sex couples? Here he had less to say -- while he believes that "marriage is between a man and a woman," he did not spell out his position on civil unions. That plank of his platform would be forthcoming later, he pledged.

Did the protest trouble Onorato's big day? Hard to say. Statewide media was in attendance, and maybe the ensuing coverage will alert some folks in places like Philly -- where Onorato is a largely unknown quantity -- that not everyone out west is enthralled with the county executive. (Actually, if folks in Philly really want to get an earful about Onorato, they should talk to the bus driver who drove me to tonight's event.)

Then again, voters out in Crawford County might feel better about a candidate opposed by college kids.

I will say, though, that when I went to a favorite watering hole after the event, the bartender asked me, "What the hell happened at Onorato's thing? The TV had it up as 'breaking news -- Onorato event disrupted'!"

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