Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is Democratic fundraiser blowing smoke in Buchanan's face?

Posted By on Tue, Mar 23, 2010 at 11:04 AM

Looks like Democrats are REALLY hoping that Mary Beth Buchanan becomes the Republican challenger for Jason Altmire in US District 4.

A May 5 Democratic Committee fundraiser, after all, will feature two of Buchanan's most prominent targets. According to a press release sent out by the committee yesterday: 

The Allegheny Democratic Committee will be hosting "Laugh Till You're Blue: An Evening of Comedy with Tommy Chong" on May 5 2010 at the IBEW #5, in the Southside of Pittsburgh.

... Dr. Cyril Wecht has agreed to be the guest emcee for this event.

"The announcement that Tommy Chong will headline our event, with Dr. Cyril Wecht as our guest emcee has already generated a great deal of excitement and we are expecting a good crowd." said Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chairman Jim Burn. "In addition to our traditional supporters, we believe that this event will appeal to demographic, particularly young voters, that we do not normally see at our traditional fundraisers."

Chong, of course, was nailed by Buchanan for his role in a bong-selling operation. Buchanan's widely-derided effort to prosecute Wecht, meanwhile, ended up with the charges being dropped. 

I like the in-your-face spirit of this line-up, though I'm not sure this is gonna connect with young voters the way Burn hopes. It's a better way to connect with voters who were young, like, a few decades ago. It reminds me a bit of Wecht's attempt, way back in his 1999 county executive campaign, to shore up his credentials with black voters by appearing with Johnnie Cochran. We know how that turned out.

On the other hand, Burn himself always amuses me. When I asked whether the line-up indicated that Dems wanted Buchanan to win the May primary, Burn said, "I never pull for Republicans to win. I'm hoping for a 0-0 tie."

 

Maybe Burn ought to do his own routine that night?

If you're interested, the fundraiser is slated to start at 8 p.m. (doors at 6:30 p.m.) Tickets are $30.00; for more, drop a dime on the Committee at 412-281-8901.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Trying to find a silver lining for conservatives in healthcare vote

Posted By on Mon, Mar 22, 2010 at 4:02 PM

I'm a liberal, which of course means that I instantaneously side with the downtrodden, the outcast, the loser. (I used to be a Pirates fan for the same reason ... though there's only so much even I can take.) 

So although I'm happy that healthcare reform's victory seems assured, I can't help but feel sympathy for the conservatives who fought against it. All they can do now is await the onset of global socialism ... though perhaps some of them will be raptured by then.

In a gesture of bipartisan conciliation, I've been trying to find an upside for conservatives in all this, and I think I've found one, thanks to lefty media watchdog group Media Matters (motto: "We listen to Glenn Beck so you don't have to"). It comes courtesy of Pittsburgh's own Jim Quinn, who raises the possibility that healthcare reform will be bad for gays. 

Huh. You wonder why Rick Santorum didn't support it. 

Anyway, the folks at MM have been compiling previous right-wing warnings about what would happen if healthcare reform passed, and Quinn's predictions are featured prominently. He alternately warns of and counsels insurrection, and urges "rioting" in protest of the measure.  And then there are the gays. This is what Quinn had to say  in January about their fate:

Wait until what you love starts to impact on their [socialist baby-eating one-world government-run healthcare] system. That's right. Wait until what you love ... whether it's riding a motorcycle, whether it's being a gay man and engaging in gay sex, which is demonstrably -- at least some of it is -- a rather unsanitary act in many cases, and it could impact on our health care system. Now, I can't imagine the health care system coming after a preferred group, at this point, like gays, but you know what? Sooner or later, when the money starts to run out, they are the government after all, and you're not.

So there you have it, conservatives: Healthcare reform could, someday, give you the chance to punish gay people. So you've got that to look forward to, at least. 

Or do you? I mean judging from his caveat, there is some gay activity that Quinn feels is sanitary. Presumably, such activity would be outside government control. With luck, Quinn will devote an upcoming broadcast to that topic. Which I can then rely on Media Matters to listen to for me. 

In any case, Quinn's concern for gays certainly is a welcome change. As MM documents, as recently as 2008, Quinn was arguing that because "gay sex produces AIDS," insurers "should charge homosexuals more for their health insurance than they charge the rest of us."

Are you following this? If the private-sector punishes people for risky behavior (though heterosexual sex can cause AIDS too, Jim!), it's the genius of the free market at work. But if the government does it, it's an absolute goddamn outrage.

But in any case, keep reaching for that rainbow, Jim! 

Healthcare reform passes, political headaches begin

Posted By on Mon, Mar 22, 2010 at 11:05 AM

Is it possible for something to be historic and yet not terribly surprising at the same time? That's how I feel about yesterday's healthcare reform vote in the U.S. House. 

Democrats got their shit together -- OK, I guess it was a bit surprising -- and passed the thing. Predictably, this was met with handwringing by the likes of Republican Tim Murphy, who lamented that, "A long time ago people stopped communicating and doors closed ... [W]e have to make sure this is not a moment that divides America."

(Note to Rep. Murphy: If you're worried about divisivenes, you might want to talk to the Tea Partiers. A Philly-based chapter of the movement sent out a blast e-mail observing that a pollster "has called the partisan vote 'a political Jonestown.'  We think that's an understatement." An understatement? How is alluding to the mass suicide of more than 900 people an understatement?)

Anyway, Democrat Mike Doyle voted for the measure, predictably. And Jason Altmire, predictably, voted against it.

I say "predictably," though a lot of folks were upset by Altmire's decision. But the conventional wisdom is that party leaders gave Altmire a quiet go-ahead to vote "no" on the measure. After all, as Nate Silver notes, the most useful factor for predicting how a Dem would vote on this issue was how Obama did in his or her district back in 2008.

In every district where Obama got less than 40 percent of the vote, the Democrat voted against healthcare reform. In districts where Obama got between 40 and 49 percent of the vote, the odds of a Dem voting against the bill were two-in-five. 

In Altmire's district, Obama took 45 percent of the vote, so he was right on the bubble.

Even if you regard Altmire's vote as cowardly, though, you have to admire the guy's finesse. His statement in opposition to the bill is a masterpiece. It begins with Altmire fretting over costs:

I ran for Congress in large part because I believe we need to find a way to bring down the cost of health care ... [While] the cost of inaction on health care is great, ... it would be an even bigger mistake to pass a bill that could compound the problem of skyrocketing health care costs.

Such bottom-line concerns are utterly consistent with what Altmire has been saying since last summer. Say what you want, the guy didn't flip-flop. (Of course, that's partly because you can't flip-flop unless you first take a position one way or the other.) 

Altmire follows with some blather about how the reform creates "winners and losers" -- as if the current system doesn't do the same thing -- but then hits his stride again. 

It has become clear that the vast majority of my constituents want me to oppose this bill. Particularly hard hit would be western Pennsylvania’s Medicare beneficiaries, which many experts believe would experience dramatic premium increases with enactment of this bill.

That bit about Medicare is a bit of a poser: Medicare recipients could see some improvements in the prescription-drug plan, for one thing, and the American Association of Retired People has been a consistent champion of the measure. But hey, it never hurts to play to the fears of cranky seniors. And truth to tell many of the cost-saving proposals meant to protect Medicare -- like reining in fraud and abuse -- are easier said than done. 

But my favorite part of Altmire's statement is this one:

I am acutely aware that my decision to vote against the health care bill will disappoint some of my constituents and alienate supporters of the bill. The politically easy vote would have been to vote with my party.

So just above, Altmire observed that "the vast majority of my constituents want me to oppose this bill." But taking an overwhelmingly popular position is an act of courage? Not sure that follows. 

Altmire's probably right that there's only lukewarm support for this measure in his district. And he's also consistently said that he couldn't support a measure that his constituents were strongly opposed to. Give him points for consistency, sure. But courage? Ehhhhh ...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My last committee-related post for a while, I promise (with special bonus announcement)

Posted By on Wed, Mar 17, 2010 at 1:50 PM

I'll confess: I've been hitting these committee races pretty hard this week. But I want you to know that I could quit any time.

Starting right after this post. You'll be interested, I swear. And even if you're not, stayed tuned to the end of this blog for a special announcement.

Anway, remember Dennis Regan? In 2006, he emerged as the power behind the throne during the too-brief O'Connor administration, and seemed likely to play a similar role when Luke Ravenstahl took over. But, like a flabby Icarus, Regan rose too high, too fast, and plummeted to earth after accusations that he injected politics into policing. 

Ravenstahl tossed Regan out, and you haven't heard much of him since. But Regan, who now lists his position as "consultant," still serves as the Democratic committeeman for portions of Point Breeze. 

That may be about to change. 

Saleem Khan, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's medical school, has filed to run against Regan in Ward 14, District 16. In recent years, Khan has been an active supporter for Barack Obama -- his house served as a gathering spot for loyalists during Obama's healthcare speech last summer, for example. But he's now taking the plunge by running for the local Democratic committee -- his first run for office.

"I've been an active supporter for the Democrats, and some of my friends are on the committee," says Khan, who was born in India but has been living in Pittsburgh for 30 years. Those friends urged him to run, he says, and "they told me that generally, you're unopposed in these races. But it turns out that this is the only seat in the ward that is being contested."

Party insiders say they tried to ascertain Regan's interest in running for the seat again, but got no response. I've been unable to reach Regan for comment, and will post it if I get one. 

In any case, judging from my talk with Khan, there's nothing personal about this race. Although Khan and Regan live a block apart, Khan professed to be unfamiliar with Regan's background. "I walk my dog through the neighborhood, and I think I've seen him at his house," he says, "but that's about all." He seemed unaware of, and not terribly interested in, Regan's involvement in old controversies. 

Running for committee, he says, merely "seemed like a good way to formalize things I was already doing."  

Even so, if Khan wins, I'll bet some Pittsburghers will take more satisifcation from it than Khan himself will.

OK, and now the promised special announcement. I'm going to be guest-hosting on KDKA Radio tonight -- oops, wait. I screwed up the station ID. Let me try that again: 

"Tonight I'll be guest hosting on The Voice of Pittsburgh, News Radio 1020 KDKA." 

That's better. 

Anyway, I'll be on between 10 and 11 this evening, with a special guest. We're gonna be talking a little about police accountability, St. Patrick's Day, and police demonstrations on St. Patrick's Day.

Please feel free to call. You could be the very first person -- and maybe the very last, depending on how this goes -- who will hear the words, "You're on News Radio 1020 KDKA with Chris Potter." Plus, my mother-in-law will be standing by her phone in case she feels like I'm bombing. And much as I admire my in-laws, I really don't want it to come to that. 

If you do decide to call, the number is ... uh ... wait a second. OK, let me try this again:

"The number here to call is 412-333-KDKA -- or you can get in touch with me by clicking on 'Dollar Bank Instant Access' on our Web site, KDKAradio dot com." 

How was that? Did it sound OK? 

Monday, March 15, 2010

Kevin Acklin is a Democrat now ... and he's likely to be a committeeman too

Posted By on Mon, Mar 15, 2010 at 3:05 PM

In the space of a little more than a year, Kevin Acklin will have gone from Republican stalwart, to independent mayoral candidate, to Democratic committee member.

As reported here late last week, while the upcoming May primary will be dominated by races for Senate and governor, there's plenty of action on the undercard as well. In the South Hills, for example, former city council candidate Anthony Coghill is using elections for the Democratic Party committee to challenge political heavyweight Pete Wagner.

And there's another familiar face running for a committee spot out in the 14th ward's 21st district: Acklin's.

Newly minted as a Democrat, Acklin is seeking to represent his Squirrel Hill neighborhood on the Democratic Party's county committee. And he's facing much better odds than he did running as an independent for mayor last November: This time around, Acklin is the only guy on the ballot.  

"I've finally found a race I can win," he jokes. 

Acklin, who shifted from the GOP to independent this time last year, registered as a Democrat in January. So did his wife -- which, as Acklin notes, translated into "one fewer signature I had to get for my nominating petition." 

Acklin says his party change reflects a mix of pragamatism and political philosophy. Echoing critiques he made in 2009, he says that he's found himself increasingly at odds with the GOP -- largely because of its hardline position on social issues like equality for LGBT citizens. And he's found Democrats to be more accepting.

"One thing I've learned -- and I didn't fully realize this before -- is that the Democratic Party in Pittsburgh is not monolithic," Acklin says. "It's much more diverse than the Republican Party. And locally, the Republicans have given up on the city anyway. To the extent that I want to create change in the city, it's about taking hold and getting involved in the local Democratic Party -- and there are already people in the party trying to do that work." 

Acklin was recruited to the Dems by 14th Ward chair Barbara Daly Danko. ("I let Kevin know he would be welcome, and I gave him a safe place to land," she says.) And he cites East End progressives like Bill Peduto as examples of serious reformers. "I talked to a lot of people about this," he says.

But as a committeeperson, he hopes to reach beyond the usual suspects. "I'm surprised by how little the various committees talk to each other," he says. "When I was running citywide, I found a lot of people in the South Hills who had the same kind of concerns of people in Squirrel Hill." And changing the city, he says, "means not just being content with having a councilman or two from the East End."

On a personal level, he adds, changing to a Democrat means that "in some way, I'm going back to my family roots." A city native whose relatives have served as city firefighters, Acklin grew up in a Democratic household. And whether it's at family gatherings or political functions, "I don't have to be the guy in the room with the asterisk by his name any more." 

Is this a step toward a future run for office? Well ... maybe. Acklin says that he might run again someday, but for now, "I really don't have any current plans. I'm back making money" -- Acklin recently returned to private practice as a lawyer -- "which is something my wife and family are very happy about."

There's one race he says he won't run for. Although Acklin lives on the periphery of Doug Shields' city council district, Acklin says he will not be running for the seat should Shields step down.

Shields, who relinquished the city council presidency at the end of last year, is widely rumored to be planning such a move, in order to run for a magistrate district judge seat. It's also widely believed that Corey O'Connor -- son of the late and lamented mayor -- is interested in that seat. Acklin appears to be content to let him have it.

"To run for office, you have to dig a well, metaphorically speaking," he says. "And after my run for mayor, my well is pretty dry." 

Friday, March 12, 2010

Political storm brewing in Ward 19

Posted By on Fri, Mar 12, 2010 at 5:48 PM

Anthony Coghill is back. And this time it's personal. 

There is a political maelstrom developing in the city's 19th Ward, the sprawling South Hills district that has long been the preserve of the noted Wagner family. And Anthony Coghill -- whose break with the Wagners helped define last year's city council district 4 race -- is hoping to ride the storm.

As we've noted previously, in addition to races for US Senate and governor, this year's May primary offers Democratic voters a chance to vote for new party committee members. Committee members determine which candidates will be endorsed by the party -- an especially important function in special elections. Typically, though, the committee races attract little interest.

It's a different story in Ward 19.

The 19th Ward has 38 districts, and every district is represented in the party appartus by a male and female member. Of the 76 spots up for grabs in Ward 19 this May, 48 are being contested. 

That's a lot. I mean, a lot.

"Every so often, you'll see some challengers here or there," says Jim Burn, who chairs the county Democratic Party. "But in all my years of doing this, I've never seen anything like this." 

By way of comparison, the last time these committee seats were up for grabs, I count only 5 committee races in the 19th Ward where there was actual competition.

But that was in 2006 -- before Anthony Coghill got pissed off.

Coghill is a lifelong resident of Beechview, the heart of Ward 19. You may also remember that Coghill was a former ally of the 19th ward chair, Pete Wagner. (Wagner's brother, of course, is the state Auditor General and is a gubernatorial candidate. Pete Wagner's daughter, Chelsa Wagner, is a state Representative.) But when Coghill ran for City council last year, Wagner lined up behind Patrick Reilly, a staffer in Chelsa Wagner's office, instead. And things got really ugly during the endorsement vote, when a ballot was cast by a woman pretending to be a committee member who didn't show.

A judge tossed out the vote, but upheld the final result -- in which the party gave its nod to Reilly -- because the margin was larger than 1 vote. (Pete Wagner was named in the lawsuit Coghill filed, but a judge dropped him from it, since no wrongdoing on his part was ever alleged, much less proven.) But both Coghill and Reilly ended up losers at the polls. The winner was Natalia Rudiak -- in no small part because Ward 19's votes were split between Reilly and Coghill

But now Coghill is back for round 2.

Coghill says that "for the past two or three months," he's been recruiting candidates to run against incumbents -- many of whom he faults for being Wagner loyalists. "A lot of these people have never faced a challenge," he says of the current committeefolk. "We're fielding a very strong group of candidates. Some are friends and family; others are strangers that were referred to me."

When he found interested candidates, Coghill says, he gave them packets of information, including street lists of the voters in each voting precinct, eligibility requirements, and sample petitions. If  enough friendly committee members get elected this May, Coghill could earn their votes and be chosen ward chair. If that happens, he'll have toppled one of the most prominent political names in the city. 

"If you would have told me five years ago that I'd be running for ward chair, I'd say you were nuts," Coghill says. "I had no interest. But after what happened to me? I spent $1,500 to apply for the endorsement. And you saw what happened."

What kind of changes would Coghill bring about as ward chair? For one thing, he says, the fiasco that marred last year's endorsement would never happen on his watch. "It's about leadership," he says.  But are there bylaws he would change, or party reforms he would support? "I'd have to look at that," he says. But ousting Wagner "would be a good start" to reforming the party, he adds. 

The 19th Ward "is their house" he says of the Wagners. "It's everything to them." 

I have a call in to Pete Wagner to get his response to all this. Should he respond, I'll be posting that as well, with a link here.

Is some of this about political payback? You bet. But Coghill maintains that there are broader reasons for discontent. The Wagners have been around a long time, he says, "But look at Beechview. Has it been getting any better? How many years do you need to really make an improvement?" 

There will inevitably be speculation about the politics here. Coghill is tied to state Sen. Wayne Fontana, a Wagner foe, and his council campaign was backed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. As Coghill acknowledges, "People wonder who is behind this. But it's really just me."

Nor, he says, is he trying to set the stage for another shot at city council. "I don't have any political ambition at this point other than to be the ward chair -- and to right a wrong." 

You'll note the language "at this point." Could Coghill imagine running for Natalia Rudiak's seat at some point in the future? "I never rule anything out," he says. "But I gotta tell you that this is where my focus is. [Rudiak] is a nice person; I'm confident she's smart, and I hope she'll do a good job."

What does Burn, the county chair, make of all this? "It was a mystery to me why there was all this activity in Ward 19," he says. "But if Anthony has stepped up and taken credit, that answers a lot of questions right there. I've heard rumors." And, he says, "If this is an organized approach -- as it appears to be -- it is an incredibly well-coordinated effort." 

Coghill allows that he can't take credit for all the challengers in Ward 19 -- just a lot of them. And he acknowledges that not all the incumbents are Wagner loyalists. "There are a handful of good ones," he says.

For Burn, what's most important is "the issues that are going to emerge in the days ahead. For as much effort as is being put into this, it has to be about more than last year's city council race. So I'll be listening to hear what sort of platform emerges." In the meantime, he says, "You do want people to get involved and engaged in the party committee." 

Ironically enough, in fact, one of the Ward 19 incumbents being challenged this May -- by Coghill's campaign treasurer in 2009 -- is Erin Molchany, the director of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project. Among PUMP's latest initiatives? Getting more people to run for party committee slots

Thursday, March 11, 2010

PR Watch: Conservative front group targets Altmire, health care reform

Posted By on Thu, Mar 11, 2010 at 9:58 PM

It's not easy being Congressman Jason Altmire. Lefties hate him for not supporting Democratic healthcare reform proposals. Meanwhile, he's now being targeted in an ad that is trying to kill off the reforms entirely.

The ad, which is highly similar to this one, uses lots of storm imagery -- hurricane satellite photos, lightning strikes -- to warn that "Americans are in the middle of economic storm. And an even bigger crisis is brewing." If Congress passes healthcare reform, it informs us, we'll be sunk in trillions of dollars of debt, and economic catastrophe will befall us all. Also, apparently, we will be beset by massive hurricanes. The ad ends by urging viewers to call up Altmire and share their views with him.

The ads are sponsored by the Committee to Rethink Reform, which bills itself as a project of the Employment Policies Institute (EPI). And who is EPI? Why, they are "a non-profit, non-partisan research organization dedicated to studying public policy issues surrounding employment economics. EPI sponsors non-partisan research by independent economists at major universities around the country."

As we've seen before, anytime a think tank sounds this innocuous, you know they're up to something. And sure enough, EPI turns out to be a front group created by Richard Berman.

Berman is occasionally referred to as "Dr. Evil" by his opponents. He's sometimes said to be the real-life equivalent of Nick Naylor, the affable-if-morally-vacuous spinmeister anti-hero of Christopher Buckley's book Thank You For Smoking. Just to give you an idea, USA Today has reported that in the 1990s, Berman "used Philip Morris money to fight the move to put no-smoking sections in restaurants."

Berman specializes in creating "non-partisan" think tanks, and other such "astroturf" action groups that are designed to mimic grassroots movements. Those allow his clients to maintain an arm's length distance from their own propaganda. Berman isn't obliged to reveal his client list, so it isn't always clear whose interests he's acting in. But you can make some pretty educated guesses. Some of Berman's opponents have created a Web site dedicated to identifying these groups, which have such delicious names as "PETA Kills Animals." 

It probably goes without saying that the "Rethink Reform" spot makes some pretty debatable arguments. For example, it suggests that most Americans oppose healthcare reform. Polling indeed shows that the issue is divisive. But it also suggests that many Americans are wary of current reform proposals because they don't think the proposals go far enough, or because they simply have tuned out the discussion.

The ad also warns that, in a time of economic crisis when deficits are already mounting, healthcare reform would be an economic "disaster." But the Congressional Budget Office has found that the Senate's healthcare reform proposal would actually reduce deficits that would be incurred if Congress did nothing.

Of course, there's plenty of debate about those findings. But we ought to be able to agree on at least one thing: A guy who opposed non-smoking sections in restaurants may not be the best source of information on our health.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Lawyers step in where angels fear to tread: Another online post prompts legal action (UPDATED)

Posted By on Wed, Mar 10, 2010 at 10:33 AM

In the latest sign of an emerging trend, the Pittsburgh Media Scoops and Gossip site has apparently been served with a subpoeana to provide information that could identify an anonymous commenter. The site has publicly notified the commenter of the subpoena, and given him/her 30 days to respond. 

The subpoeana comes as part of a lawsuit being filed by a former employee of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Karen Roebuck.

Roebuck alleges that she was "seperated from her employment" at the paper while on sick leave more than a year ago -- and that her departure became the subject of libelous commentary on the site. Roebuck's attorney, John Newborg, is seeking to identify one of the posters who commented on Roebuck's departure, as part of a libel suit.

The thread in question can be found here. From what I can tell, the posts at issue have been removed, but they are featured in a motion filed for the case. The poster -- who commented under the pseudonym "none" -- accused Roebuck of abusing the paper's sick leave policy. Earlier posters had decried the departure of Roebuck and another staffer; this poster asserted that "The folks in question were abusing the system. They certainly were not losses, and the newsroom is better off for their departure."

Roebuck's lawsuit seems to assume that the anonymous posts were made by a Tribune-Review employee. She is filing suit against the Trib and the "John Doe" who posted the remarks.

I make no representation about the merits of this case, and in its own legal filing, the Trib gripes that Roebuck waited nearly a year before commencing legal action. It asserts that the paper has no connection with the Web site, and no way of knowing who posted the comments. Even if the poster was a Tribune-Review employee, the paper argues, he or she would not have been acting at the behest of the company or its supervisors. 

In any case, though, these developments represents another example of a trend I've noted before: people filing suit on the basis of comments made on Web sites.

Under the federal Communications Decency Act, a blogger or online chatroom cannot be sued over what other people post there. (City Paper, for example, can't be held liable for what other people post in the comments section of our Web site.) But the host of a site can be required to furnish IP address and other information to help identify the commenters. That's the request Roebuck is making here.

And so far, the Roebuck case seems to be following a pattern established in earlier cases. The Web site is publicly notifying the author of the subpoeana, and giving the author 30 days to respond with a motion to quash it.

But at least two things make this case unusual right from the start. First, it's a journalist undertaking the lawsuit -- usually our tribe is on the other end of libel actions.

Second, the Media Scoops and Gossip forum is a site that has given local journos plenty of cause to grit their teeth, or roll their eyes. Anonymous commenters there routinely take shots at local newspapers: Tribune-Review staffers are routinely derided as "Trib-Kiddies" doing the bidding of publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, while favorite Post-Gazette targets include TV critic Rob Owen, columnist Samantha Bennett and editor David Shribman. (I've taken a drubbing or two over there myself.) Some reporters, like the P-G's Dennis Roddy, have occasionally been moved to post replies -- responses that have generally also been met with derision. 

From what I can tell, the site used to attact more attention than it does now: It generally delivers more sniping than scoops. But there used to be a bit of speculation about who created the site in the first place: The blog's host is also anonymous. (And in legal filings, Roebuck complains that previous attempts to get information from the site did not receive a response.)

So I've got a feeling that no matter how the lawsuit proceeds, there'll be a few local journos smiling about how it's playing out so far.

UPDATE (3/11): A short time ago, I spoke with John Newborg, the attorney representing Roebuck in this suit. While this is a libel action (Roebuck is challenging her termination in another case, Newborg says) the lawyer wanted to make clear that he wasn't trying to dispense with the First Amendment. Roebuck's health history and employment status at the paper are "purely private," he told me. He added that he wouldn't have taken on the case had she been, say, a politician trying to squelch dissent. 

I asked Newborg to respond to the Tribune-Review's argument -- that even if the person who posted the comment is a Trib employee, the post was made by his or her own volition, rather than as part of official job duties.

"We're investigating the role that management plays on the site and in responding to the comments," he replied.  

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Note to campaign workers: See if you can hire on with "None of the above"

Posted By on Thu, Mar 4, 2010 at 10:46 AM

I've sort of put off writing about the latest round of Quinnipiac University polling, because the narrative is pretty firmly established.

Once again, it turns out that for the most part, voters have no idea who the candidates for statewide office are. Yes, state Attorney General Tom Corbett will be the Republican nominee ... and yes he leads the Democratic field ... which, yes, is currently led by our very own Dan Onorato. 

But if I were a political consultant, I'd be calling up "undecided" and seeing if there's a spot on that campaign team. 

Briefly: three out of five voters say they don't know who they want to vote for in the Democratic primary. Among those who have some vague clue, Dan Onorato leads with a less-than-overwhelming 16 points. But right now, the match-up in November looks the same no matter who the Democratic nominee is. Whether Tom Corbett is facing Onorato, state Auditor General Jack Wagner, or Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, Corbett wins by almost exactly the same margin: By about 42 percent to 30 percent, give or take a point.

"The Democratic candidates for Governor are almost invisible men as far as the voters are concerned," Pollster Peter Brown says. "[A]t this point they are so closely bunched together and such mystery men ... that any result is possible."

Somewhat amusingly, the Onorato camp looked at Brown's numbers and came to a different conclusion. In an e-mail to supporters, his campaign boasts that "a Quinnipiac poll confirmed [Onorato's momentum], finding Dan to be the undisputed front-runner for Governor."

Uh-huh. 

On the Senate side, Quinnipiac has found that incumbent Democrat Arlen Specter is currently up on his Republican challenger, Pat Toomey, 49-42. He leads Democratic challenger Joe Sestak 53-29. That's good for Specter -- earlier polls showed him tied or trailing with Toomey. But this race too is a question mark, because no one knows these guys either. Nearly three-quarters of voters don't know enough about Sestak to have an opinion; nearly two-thirds say the same about Toomey. 

And Specter can't get complacent: By a 52 - 38 percent margin, voters say Specter doesn't deserve another Senate term. Also, the poll suggests that Specter's challengers benefit the more people learn about them: "Among Democrats who have some opinion of both Specter and Sestak, Sestak leads 54 - 37 percent."

If true, that would lend support to my long-stated belief that Sestak has the bigger upside, because he appeals to the liberal base, and because people already know all they're going to know about Specter. But the hour grows late. The percentage of voters who say they haven't heard enough about Sestak is statistically the same today -- 74 percent -- as it was in a poll conducted back in May of 2009 -- 76 percent. What ought to worry Sestak isn't the current crop of numbers; it's the lack of movement.

And while I'll admit that this is anecodtal evidence at best, some inertia may have set in even at places like DailyKos, the liberal Web site whose founder was an early adopter where Sestak is concerned. For example, Bill Halter, who just launched a Sestak-style challenge of Arkansas Democrat Blanche Lincoln, has garnered 73 articles on the site in just the past few days. Sestak has earned 113 in the past year.

There is at least one amusing note in the Quinnipiac poll, though. Pollsters asked Pennsylvanians whether they trust federal government to do the right thing: only 11 percent of voters said they trusted it to do so either most or almost all the time. Thirty-five percent said it "hardly ever" can be trusted. Amusingly enough, even the politicians in Harrisburg do better: 18 percent voters say Harrisburg can be relied on to do the right thing most or almost all the time, while only 21 percent are jaded enough to say state government can "hardly ever" be trusted.

We're all used to polls that show Congress is less popular than lawyers, people who kick puppies, or even journalists. But to be compared to state politicians and be found wanting? That's a new low.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

More hot data-crunching action with Ricky Burgess

Posted By on Wed, Mar 3, 2010 at 4:11 PM

So, you couldn't get enough of my wonkery on councilor Ricky Burgess' efforts to overhaul city council's use of CDBG money, could you? Back for more already. 

Well, I've got the cure for what ails you: a closer look at an alternate funding formula based on my last thrilling post. 

The background: As fans of long-winded internet screeds know, city council gets $675,000 a year in federal Community Development Block Grant money. That money, which is to be spent on community needs, is divided up evenly among the 9 city councilors, who each get $75,000. 

Burgess advocates changing that system. City councilors should get money proportional to their districts' needs, he says. He'd base the allocation on how many economically distressed census blocks they have in their district.

Earlier this week, I pointed out that the population in census blocks varies widely: If the goal is to help poor people, I argued, Burgess should base his formula not on the number of census blocks, but on the number of people living inside them. 

Well, Burgess' office went ahead and compiled some stats using my approach instead. And the result? If Burgess incorporated my criticism of the Burgess Plan, the biggest winner would be ... Ricky Burgess.

But of course, listening to me is always a mixed bag. As it turns out, another winner under the Potter scenario would be Bill Peduto, a Burgess rival.  

Here's the district-by-district breakdown, as calculated by Burgess' office. Column "A" is the council district number. Column "B" is how much money each district would get under Burgess' original, block-based, formula. Column "C" is how much the district would get under my popluation-based formula. The last column shows the change between Burgess' plan and mine.

 

Dist# Block-based $ People-based$ Change
1 $89,742.56 $91,328.90 1.77%
2 $39,078.95 $33,821.94 -13.45%
3 $127,894.74 $108,941.83 -14.82%
4 $20,852.40 $20,277.69 -2.76%
5 $33,827.23 $26,168.01 -22.64%
6 $141,024.03 $129,474.78 -8.19%
7 $82,173.91 $76,276.30 -7.18%
8 $27,803.20 $57,363.86 106.32%
9 $112,602.97 $131,346.69 16.65%

(Note: Sharp-eyed observers will note that the numbers in Column B -- the ones spelling out Burgess' original plan -- have changed from earlier this week. That's because Burgess' staff, after taking another look at the data, had to adjust the number of census blocks under consideration.) 

As you can see, the big winners under my approach would be districts 8 and 9 -- those represented by Peduto and Burgess. Allocations to Peduto's district would be more than twice what he'd get under Burgess' plan.

Well, I'm a uniter, not a divider. (Though either formula would give Peduto well below the $75,000 he has under the status quo.)

Why the big improvement for Peduto? Burgess' numbers suggest that Peduto's CDBG-eligible areas have much higher population densities -- and more people per census block means more money for the council district. Burgess's hard-luck neighborhoods are also more densely populated: In fact, he'd get more money than any other district under the new approach. (Under his original proposal, he'd finish third.) 

The funny thing is that the specific concern of my earlier blog post was with districts 2 and 4 -- the south-of-the-rivers neighborhoods represented by Theresa Kail-Smith and Natalia Rudiak. My approach does nothing to help either of them, and actually puts an additional hurt on Smith's constituents.

There's a lesson in there somewhere about unintended consequences, I'm sure. 

Which brings me to a final thought. This whole discussion presumes that councilors only give money to organizations within their district. That's the whole premise of the Burgess plan, right? If councilors get money in proportion to the needs within their district, they ought to spend that money on their district's needs. 

In practice, though, councilors sometimes do give to deserving groups that lie outside their district, and there's no rule against doing so. If Burgess is going to tie allocations so closely to the district's plight, maybe there should be. On the other hand, when councilors do focus only on their own backyards, it isn't always necessarily a good thing

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