Five years ago, when Bruce Kraus first ran for city council in a special election to replace Gene Ricciardi, I often felt he was campaigning by saying as little as possible. During one interview, I recall, he objected to my use of the phrase "bully pulpit" -- because he thought the word "bully" had negative connotations.
Things have changed since then. Kraus lost that race, but won a regular election the following year. And now, three years into that term and facing re-election, no one can fault him for not speaking his mind.
"Love me or hate me, no one will ever accuse me of not taking a position," he says.
Indeed, Kraus now faces three rivals. And two of them, Gavin Robb and Jason Phillips, have complained already that he's been too divisive, that his strong advocacy has contributed to a communication breakdown among city leadership.
On one level, Kraus acknolwedges that he is "an independent voice, and I relish that independence." That stand has often put him at odds with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Even so, he says, "Part of the role we have as councilors is to advocate for our neighborhoods. So when I see things that aren't in the best interest of my constitutents, do I speak up? Yes, I do."
Moreover, Kraus can point to a series of accomplishments on council.
Kraus has been a core member of a council majority -- which includes Bill Pedtuo, Doug Shields, Natalia Rudiak, and president Darlene Harris -- that often lines up against the mayor. But that majority hasn't just sought to thwart Ravensthal's agenda; it's successfully pushed an agenda of its own.
Citywide, Kraus helped press the case for a campaign finance reform law, which limits the size of campaign contributions to city office-seekers. He also joined with the council majority to pass a prevailing-wage bill applying to grocery, hotel, and other workers whose employers get local tax subsidies. He's backed a citywide ban on drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, and a measure requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms.
Kraus says more than a third of the shootings that take place in the county happen in the poorer "hilltop" communities of his district. "It was huge for this council to take a public stand" in the face of opposition for gun-rights groups, he says. (Though he stresses his own position was not about curtailing those rights, but insisting on "responsible gun ownership.")
Some of these measures may be more effective than others. As we've previously reported, for example, the gun ordinance has yet to be used by police. Kraus' opponents, meanwhile, seem likely to try tarring him with the council majority's less-than-inspiring performance on another issue -- financing the city's depleted pension fund. Council, which rejected Ravenstahl's plan to fund the pension with proceeds from leasing city parking garages, came up with its own solution: Fund the pension with a promise to devote future tax revenues to it. Essentially, council's plan is the equivalent of writing an IOU, and hoping the state will accept it as a cashier's check.
It remains to be seen if the plan will work -- and in any case, council's effort involved a series of 11th-hour machinations that ended only hours before a state-imposed deadline on New Year's Eve. But Kraus -- who notes that he played a comparatively quiet role in that debate -- bridles at criticism of council's handling of this issue.
"What you saw was a council that was dotting it's i's and crossing the t's to make sure what we were doign was 100 percent responsible," he says.
But ... wouldn't the responsible thing have been to complete all that due diligence before the final days of 2010?
"It's an imperfect world," Kraus acknowledges. But he says his rivals have little grounds for criticism: "We had 19 public meetings on the pension issue, and there was ample opportunity to e-mail or call in to the offices of city council. Neither of the [rival candidates] you've talked to chose to do that."
On the neighborhood level, Kraus also touts a series of initiatives, including a satellite office in Arlington to address neighborhood concerns. And new initiatives will be bearing fruit in the months ahead, he says -- like a "spray park" for summer use at the Warrington Recreation Center, and an off-leash area for dogs in the South Side's Riverfront park.
But the issue getting all the attention, of course, is Kraus' ongong effort to clean up the Carson Street bar scene.
Kraus has pursued a variety of solutions, including passing an ordinance prohibiting public urination and defaction -- and adding a seperate fine for those who "fail to clean or remove the material deposited immediately."
It's not clear what impact such measures have had -- Kraus was unsure about whether anyone has been cited under the urination/defecation ordinance since the measure was passed in 2009. But at the very least, he says, "The positions I've taken have sparked a broader conversation about responsible behavior in the public space."
And while rival Gavin Robb acknowledges not having a "silver bullet" to solve the problem, Kraus boasts "I do have a silver bullet" -- and tosses a copy of an 88-page 2009 proposal onto the table.
Titled "Inviting, Safe and Cohesive," the document makes a host of recommendations, ranging from disount "sleep it off" rates for drunken partiers at area hotels to Breathalyzers in bars, police "party patrols," and the creation of a "community covenant" that bars and other businesses will agree to, in consultation with residents.
Kraus plans to continue pushing that initiative. Nor is he cowed by facing no less than three challengers in the May primary. His predeccessor, Gene Ricciardi, once gave him a bit of advice, he says: "Gene told me that if you aren't making a wave or two, you aren't doing your job."
I love Mel Packer!