Saturday, April 30, 2011

Gun-rights standoff at NRA convention

Posted By and on Sat, Apr 30, 2011 at 5:40 PM

The holidays are extra painful for Jacqueline Graham, one of more than 200 people protesting the National Rifle Association convention being held in Pittsburgh this weekend.

Graham's daughter, Shalane, was killed two days after Thanksgiving in 2009. And her little sister, Michelle, was killed on Easter Sunday in 1985. Both died of gunshot wounds from the bullets of guns purchased illegally on the streets. Though the shooters have been convicted in those deaths, Graham wants to put a stop to those who get guns illegally on the street and use them to commit crimes.

"The African American community is loosing a whole generation," Graham, of the Hill District, says. At a protest Saturday afternoon, she held the hand of Khlaya, her 4-year-old granddaughter -- Shalane's daughter, whom she is now raising. "You've seen the numbers. It's not just young men dying anymore. Young women are dying.

"The bullets don't discriminate."

Graham was part of a Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network rally that began in the Hill District. Before marching to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, where members of the NRA had gathered, protesters stood at Freedom Square to hear speakers discuss the need to stop gun violence and tighten gun restrictions.

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"It's not about the Second Amendment," Pittsburgh Police Chief Nate Harper told demonstrators. "It's about common sense ... We're the best country in the world, but we don't act like it when it comes to guns."

"Stop the illegal guns, and get our background checks fixed," demanded Lori Haas, whose daughter survived two shots to the head during the 2007 Virginia Tech University shooting that killed 32 students and faculty. "The gun violence has got to end."

As protesters began their march to the convention center, the bell atop St. Benedict the Moore Church, across from Freedom Corner, started ringing -- the first of 600 tolls meant to signify the 600 people killed by guns in Pennsylvania in an average year.

Demonstrators, many of whom held signs displaying the names of those who have died by gun violence, marched down Centre Avenue, past the NRA flags at the Consol Energy Center and through Downtown. A large white truck held up the rear, with a sign addressed to the NRA: "An Invitation to the NRA's Wayne LaPierre: Let's Talk."

Organized by the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network and CeaseFirePA, the police-escorted march went fairly smoothly until it approached the convention center. There to greet them was a NRA supporter, wearing a holstered gun, holding a sign that read "gun control = racism."

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As protesters began reading the names of victims of gun violence, NRA attendees began to fill the sidewalks -- some looking on, some heckling. "Go home, ya bums!" one man yelled toward the demonstrators. "Guns don't kill people, people do," said another.

One group of NRA members, had their own coordinated response. "On three, a group finger!" one man yelled from the sidewalk in front of the convention center. "One, two, three!"

In unison, five men raised their middle finger toward the protesters.

Not all NRA members were so confrontational.

"Everyone's got their own views," said Shawn Swafford, a 19-year-old Army serviceman from Texas. "I don't see an issue with" the protest."

Nearby, the Damianos, a self-described "NRA family" from Buena Vista, New Jersey, watched from across the street.

"[The protesters] are all talking about protecting children. I love my son and I want him to learn to protect himself and learn how to use guns properly," said Shelly Damiano as her son, Jim Boy, stood by her side. "The NRA is all about education. We are all about education."

"My parents taught me how to use guns safely, not the NRA," Jim Boy added.

Damiano believes that tragic incidents like the shooting in Tuscon, Ariz., or Virginia Tech, are inevitable, with or without more regulations or background checks. "You'll always be able to get guns. They just don't get them legally. But organized crime will always be there as long as there is a demand."

Convention attendees like Rick Our, from Olean, N.Y., believes anger at the NRA is misdirected.

"There's so much neglect out there of the youth. There needs to be a focus on education in all aspects," Our said. "Guns are out there. But the trouble is with the drugs and stuff like that in our society."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Ceoffe leaves state job to campaign full time in District 7

Posted By on Fri, Apr 22, 2011 at 5:51 PM

Entering the final weeks of the campaign for Pittsburgh City Council District 7, challenger Tony Ceoffe Jr., is going to have a lot more time to hit the streets and get his message out to potential voters.

Last week, Ceoffe -- who is squaring off against District 7 incumbent Pat Dowd -- resigned his position with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry after his request to continue working while running for public office was denied. Ceoffe says any state employee running for public office has to have "authorization" from the state. 

He then appealed the decision, but that, too, was denied. He doesn't think the move was personal, in fact he heard of it happening to other state employees involved in campaigns. 

"Once I lost the appeal I was given the option to either resign my position or withdraw from the race," Ceoffe says. "I'm very passionate about this and honestly, I feel like I'm the person best suited for this job and can best help the district with the quality of life issues facing them."

Dan Egan, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Office of Administration, says Ceoffe, as are all state employees running for public office, filed a request for supplemental employment to run his campaign. 

State employees aren't automatically barred from running for office while employed, but they must get authorization. Egan says employees are typically allowed to run for part time political office like school board or township supervisor while working.

But usually, Egan says campaigns for full time positions, like Pittsburgh City Council, require an almost full-time candidacy.

"You can't run a serious campaign in your spare time after work," Egan said Thursday. "It's not practical to think that campaigns for full time positions won't spill into a person's day job."

Because of that, he says, employees running for office like Ceoffe must give up one or the other. Egan says the policy even withstood an employee's legal challenge in 2008.

This past Monday marked his first day as a full-time candidate. Prior to leaving his job Ceoffe -- who is married with a 14-month-old daughter -- was campaigning nightly for three to four hours and roughly another 10 hours or so on the weekend. He says being a full-time campaigner will allow him to spend more time in the community attending more events and speaking with more residents.

Ceoffe says his decision to resign his position is indicative of how he would act as a city councilor. He says public officials deciding to seek another office should always resign their current position to do so. In fact, he says, the current council had a chance to support legislation in recent months from City Councilor Ricky Burgess that would have made that a requirement.

He's also quick to point out that Dowd challenged Mayor Luke Ravenstahl during his first term in office. Although Dowd did tell the Post-Gazette that he had no intention of running for  mayor in 2013.

"I have pledged to the people and neighbors of this district that as your councilman I will not run for another seat," Ceoffe says. "If I ever decide to run for another office, I would resign my council seat."

"This seat is way to important to entrust to someone who's not in it for the long term. I think resigning my state job shows how serious and committed I am to becoming the council representative for this district. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Charges dismissed in traffic case involving off-duty police officer

Posted By on Thu, Apr 21, 2011 at 4:22 PM

Criminal charges were dismissed today against a Carnegie man accused of leaving the scene of an accident with an off-duty Pittsburgh police officer.

Blaine Johnston walked out of the courtroom in the municipal courts building downtown, raised his arms in the air and exclaimed: "I'm free!".

Johnston had been charged with leaving the scene of an accident around 4 a.m. on Nov. 18. According to police, officer Garrett Brown -- who did not show up in court Thursday morning -- reported that Johnston rear-ended the back of his pickup truck while he was sitting at a red light at the corner of Baum and Melwood avenues. 

Brown said that he pulled up beside Johnston's donut delivery truck to exchange information, but Johnston sped away, Sgt. William Kunz wrote in the report. Days later, Johnston received a summons for leaving the scene of an accident, a third-degree misdemeanor.

As City Paper first reported in March, Johnston and his passenger, Matt Mazzie of Brookline, claim another version of events took place. According to Mazzie's and Johnston's versions, Brown, in a series of confrontations, threw coins at their window, punched their van, threatened to fight Johnston and rammed the van with his truck. 

Mazzie and Johnston filed a complaint of misconduct against Brown with the Citizens Police Review Board where the case is pending. A investigation is also pending against Brown with the Office of Municipal Investigations, according to a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. 

This was the fourth preliminary hearing for the case, and for the third time, Brown did not show to testify at a preliminary hearing. Judge Robert Ravenstahl apologized to Johnston for his "aggravation" and dismissed the charges, but warned they could be re-filed. 

Mike Manko, spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala said he couldn't comment on the possibility of charges being re-filed.

After the hearing, Johnston said he was relieved. "I feel great. This has been too much to bear since November," he said. 

"We feel this was the right outcome. He didn't do anything wrong," said Johnston's attorney Gerald O'Brien Jr. "Charges should have never been filed in the first place."

Johnston and O'Brien said they would weigh their options on whether to pursue a civil action against Brown. This March, the city finalized a $150,000 settlement in a civil-rights case arising from another late-night traffic encounter between an off-duty Brown and Texas man Leonard Hamler in January 2008. O'Brien represented Hamler in that case.

"I haven't discussed a [civil suit] with my client," O'Brien said." I can't say it will be or won't be filed." 

Johnston said that while he's glad his criminal charges are dismissed, he'd like to do something about Brown's alleged behavior. "I'm relieved it's over for me but I wouldn't want for someone else to go through this." 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Political Math

Posted By on Tue, Apr 19, 2011 at 2:05 PM

So yesterday, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl held a press conference with Allegheny County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty to announce that, yes, the city and the county will be consolidating their financial-management systems.

I'll just pause so you can reflect on the historic nature of this moment.

Did that sound snarky? I apologize. Truth to tell, this is a good thing. Consolidation has been held up by disputes over the release of state gaming revenue to help pay for it. And when the new system is released -- which should happen by early next summer -- it may save money and even make city finances a bit more transparent.

Some in government have, in fact, speculated this is the real reason for the delay. That seems snarky even to me, but political considerations are clearly on people's minds these days. Flaherty is, after all, running for county executive, and I'm told by our very own Lauren Daley that at yesterday's press conference, Ravenstahl was asked whether his appearance constituted a show of support for Flaherty. Ravenstahl said he was staying out of that fray. 

As interesting as who was on hand for the signing, was who was not. County exec Dan Onorato -- once Batman to Ravenstahl's Boy Wonder -- wasn't there. (Perhaps not coincidentally, he's backing Flaherty's county exec rival, Rich Fitzgerald.) Also conspicuous in his absence was Flaherty's Pittsburgh counterpart, city controller Michael Lamb. Lamb would, after all, be administering the system on a daily basis once it becomes effective in 2012.

Lamb did send out a statement of his own at 1:40 p.m. yesterday -- minutes after Ravenstahl's presser began. See if you don't detect a little passive-aggression here:

The City Controller’s office has been working with Allegheny County for the past 3 years on a joint financial management system. Joining with Allegheny County will save City taxpayers millions, and will make City government more transparent, effective and efficient. I am glad to see that the City’s administration is finally on board with this proposal and that this project is finally moving forward. The City Controller’s office looks forward to a smooth and successful implementation.

Of course, as Ravenstahl pointed out at the event, there was no need for Lamb, or other city officials to be there -- city council had previously agreed to the consolidation, as had their counterparts at the county level.

On the other hand, as I've noted previously, while Lamb is running uncontested for another stint as city controller this spring, he sounds a hell of a lot like somebody gearing up for a mayoral run in 2013. And it could be that Ravenstahl is, as I suggested in January, watching his back.


Speaking of the political landscape, some endorsements to bring you up to speed on:

Within the next day, the Sierra Club's Allegheny Chapter will be formally announcing two endorsements in city council races. The environmental group is backing Patrick Dowd in District 7, and city council president Darlene Harris in District 1. (The group has previously backed incumbent Bruce Kraus in city council district 3, and Lucille Prater-Holliday, one of two challengers running in district 9.)

In recent days, Dowd has also picked up another endorsement from the anti-smoke crowd: the Pittsburgh firefighters union has backed him. That makes Dowd a bit of an outlier: Not only did Dowd oppose a parking-lease program backed by the union as a way to keep its pension fund solvent, but the firefighters have mostly supported mayoral-backed candidates. In district 1, the union backs Harris challenger Vince Pallus; in district 3 it supports former councilor/current challenger Jeff Koch against Kraus, Corey O'Connor in district 5, and Ricky Burgess in district 9.

Dowd wasn't quite so lucky with Democracy for Pittsburgh, a local outgrowth of Howard Dean's Democracy for America insurgency, gets behind the council members most likely to drive Ravenstahl crazy. The group backs Harris in District 1, Kraus in District 3, Chris Zurawsky in District 5, and Prater-Holliday in District 9. The group made no endorsement in the Dowd/Tony Ceoffe Jr. match-up in district 7; an endorsement requires a 70 percent supermajority. 

To me, that suggests some flagging support in some progressive quarters. But on balance, you'd have to say Dowd is having a pretty good run here.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Taking Tim Murphy's temperature on Ryan budget bill

Posted By on Thu, Apr 14, 2011 at 12:42 PM

Whatever else Paul Ryan's throw-grandma-from-the-train budget proposal accomplishes, it may put our very own Tim Murphy on the spot.

As this space has documented before, the talented Mr. Murphy has a gift for justifying extremist votes with moderate-sounding rhetoric. But a recent Politico story suggests Murphy may beamong a number of GOP reps uncomfortable with Ryan's budget proposals -- which would essentially privatize Medicare and cut Medicaid while offering yet another tax cut  for the wealthy.

Murphy's sprawling 18th district encompasses constituencies on both sides of that proposal. On the one hand, it includes prosperous suburbs like Upper St. Clair, Mt. Lebanon and Peters Township -- voters who would benefit from further tax cuts. On the other hand, Politico notes, more than one resident in seven is over the age of 65. Ryan's plan pledges not to affect any of today's seniors, but elderly voters tend to be unimpressed by such promises. 

So perhaps it's little surprise that when Politico contacted Murphy about the merits of Ryan's proposal, his office hedged: 

Susan Mosychuk, Murphy’s chief of staff, said it’s a "high-profile vote" that they are "still taking a look at."

Murphy surely wouldn't be the only rep to feel a bit skitish: Ryan has admitted that Democrats could hammer Republicans who took on the popular Medicare (a program that George W. Bush expanded on with a massive drug benefit, by the way). As the Politico piece notes, "Privately, rank-and-file offices on Capitol Hill are whispering that the Republican leadership is asking its members to take a tough vote on a bill that has no chance of becoming law -- Ryan’s budget is dead on arrival in the Senate, still ruled by Democrats."

Still, it's instructive to compare the tepid response from Murphy's office to, say, that of freshman Rep. Mike Kelly, who hails from Erie and told Politico:

"I think it's more thoughtful than anything I’ve ever seen. It's more realistic, and it makes common sense to folks. They know they’re on an unsustainable path with the deficit. I think the congressman's effort is well taken."

His office, meanwhile, has also issued an equally unequivocal statement of support.

And here's Pat Meehan, another GOP rep from Pennsylvania:

"I intend to support [the Ryan budget]. I see it as a framework that will begin a debate on the important issue of how we deal with the long-term unsustainability of our spending. It begins to lay out a framework. I agree with parts of it; there are parts I’m concerned about."

Where will Murphy fall in this debate? We shouldn't have long to find out: a vote on the Ryan budget is slated for Friday. In the meantime, a couple days ago Murphy soliciting feedback from voters. And it's worth noting how his online survey frames question.

Here, for example, is how he describes the changes to Medicare: 

The Ryan proposal does not make any changes to Medicare for people 55 and older. In an attempt to institute a framework for long-term Medicare sustainability for citizens age 55 and younger, the Ryan budget plan would provide premium support so individuals could purchase a Medicare-approved insurance policy. Similar to the way that the Medicare prescription drug benefit is administered, this new premium-support program would be adjusted so wealthier beneficiaries would receive lower subsidies while the sick and low-income seniors would receive greater support. Starting in 2022, Medicare eligibility would increase by two months per year until it reaches 67 in 2033. Do you support making the Ryan reforms to Medicare?

Not surprisingly, the word "privatization" doesn't appear here, though that's what the program amounts to. Murphy also doesn't note that the "premium support" would be capped -- and that the caps are all but certain to trail inflationary increases in healthcare costs. 

Similarly, here's how Murphy is describing changes to Medicaid:

The Ryan House budget proposal increases Medicaid spending on a year-by-year basis, but reduces the rate of growth of the program. In addition, the plan would allocate money directly to states and allow flexibility to structure Medicaid in a way that best meets the state needs. Do you support changing the Medicaid system by slowing the growth of the program and allocating funds directly to states? 

The proposal amounts to offering "block grants" to states -- and here too there is widespread concern that these year-to-year increases will lag healthcare inflation. (And you sort of have to wonder, is this really a place where states need "flexibility"? Don't people in Pennsylvania need the same treatment for, say, prostate cancer that folks in Ohio do?)

But hey, who is gonna disagree with the idea of offering "flexibilty" -- or "slowing the growth" of the Medicaid system? I'd almost vote for that myself, especially if I only had a couple days to think about it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

County HRC frustrated by domestic-partner benefit delays

Posted By on Fri, Apr 8, 2011 at 1:14 PM

The county's Human Relations Commission continues to play the waiting game with county officials on the implementation of domestic partner benefits.

During its monthly meeting yesterday, commissioners signed off on a letter to the county solicitor, citing the one-year anniversary of County Executive Dan Onorato's request for the commission to make the recommendation. The letter urges the administration "to take steps to extend these benefits without further delay."

The letter comes on the heels of commissioners meeting with county labor attorney Bob McTiernan, County Solicitor Michael Wojcik and County Manager Jim Flynn to discuss the implementation. According to HRC members, county administrators planned to then meet with Onorato and report back to the commission, but no timeline has been set.

"We moved quickly," HRC Chairman Hugh McCough said at the meeting. Last year "was a political season and we were patient. But people's lives are involved and I know there are people who are affected by this. They are not coming forward but if you look at the pace of what's transpired in the past, you can understand why."

"Onorato asked for this. He's in charge. He needs to make the decisions. There's no reason to kick it down the road," said commissioner Stephan Broadus.

As City Paper first reported last June, the volunteer commission has been pushing county administration a measure to allow same-sex couples to receive family health insurance just as married couples do.

The measure has met some obstacles, particularly in terms of who can get the coverage immediately. The county has about 6,500 employees covered under a Highmark health plan; all but 1,500 are represented by unions. Of those represented by 22 bargaining units, roughly half are in the middle of four-year contracts. The benefit would have to be negotiated into those contracts.

If the commission had its druthers, the benefit would be extended to non-union represented county employees immeidately. But the county administration has said the plan is to maintain consistency by offering the benefit to union and non-union workers at once.

Commissioner members say they hope they don't have to wait for the next administration. As the Early Returns blog noted, a county executive candidates recently addressed the issue at a Women & Girls Foundation event on March 06, which was moderated by HRC commissioner Sara Davis Buss.

Only one candidate for county executive, Rich Fitzgerald, outright pledged support for the issue that has, so far, defined the HRC.

The commissioners' letter to the county also cited a 2006 report that was the basis for Pittsburgh Public Schools extending domestic-partner benefits. According to the district, 16 individuals are enrolled in that program. The city of Pittsburgh also offers the benefits to 65 employees.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How about a Bullshit Prevention Act of 2011 instead?

Posted By on Wed, Apr 6, 2011 at 10:38 AM

I'm always sort of amused by US Rep. Tim Murphy. On the one hand, his Congressional bio brags on his academic accomplishments -- he's a child psychologist with a Ph.D. Reading over his CV, you might think he had some respect for the scientific process ... until you get the part about his friendly ties to the natural-gas industry. No doubt that helps explain why we find this learned official standing beside some of the biggest know-nothings in Congress. 

Murphy is among 95 cosponsors of House Resolution 910, the "Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011" being discussed in the House today. As such, he joins such devotees of reason as Michele Bachmann and Joe Barton, the guy who apologized to BP after the gulf oil spill. This is not great company to be in, especially on matters of energy policy and science. 

The upshot of the bill, in fact, is to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from acting on the science of climate change. Specificially, the bill bars the agency from issuing "any regulation concerning, tak[ing] action relating to, or tak[ing] into consideration the emission of a greenhouse gas to address climate change."

Got that, EPA? Republicans don't even want you thinking about carbon dioxide, or the potential impact of increased CO2 levels -- which are caused by burning fossil fuels, among other things. 

HR 910 is, in fact, all about the power of positive thinking. It seeks to void a series of previous EPA actions, including a 2009 finding that  "greenhouses gasses ... endanger both the public health and the public welfare of current and future generations." HR 910 formally deems that this finding is "repealed and shall have no legal effect."

Poof! Problem solved! In the unlikely event this bill became law, the EPA couldn't regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, because the scientific basis for doing so would have been repealed. 

Really, it's too bad Murphy didn't hit on this solution during his medical practice. He could have solved all his patients' maladies, just by tearing up the diagnosis. Would have gotten him on the golf course hours earlier.  

OK, I'm being a bit unfair here. HR 910 does kinda, sorta recognize that scientists are worried about climate change. It just adds that we shouldn't really do anything about it. 

After eviscerating the EPA's ability to address the problem, the bill's sponsors try to convince you that they actually do give a shit.

In a "sense of the Congress" provision tucked in at the end, the bill asserts that in fact, "There is established scientific concern over warming of the climate system." That concern, it admits, is based on documented trends that include increasing average temperatures. (Apparently, the Republicans haven't quite gotten around to repealing thermometers yet. Give them time.)

What's more, the bill graciously concedes, "[T]he United States has a role to play in resolving global climate change matters" -- provided the resolution is handled through international diplomacy. Which suddenly Republicans are for, I guess. (Presumably, they'd favor a go-it-alone approach if we could solve climate change by bombing the ice caps into submission)

But the bill has a key caveat. Congress should only address climate change, the bill continues, by proposing "policies that do not adversely affect the American economy, energy supplies, and employment." 

Right: We're going to solve a massive, global problem a century-plus in the making -- without losing a single job anywhere along the way. 

Clearly none of this can be taken at face value. Even the title of the bill -- "The Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011" -- is absurd. The EPA doesn't have the power to tax in the first place. The argument, I guess, is that regulations may increase costs to producers of greenhouse gases. So regulations are just taxes, for talking purposes.

You can see where such evasions are useful to  Republicans: Any initiative they don't like can be considered a tax. And taxes are, obviously, very bad things indeed. (Note to Congressional liberals: Want to withdraw from Afghanistan now? Just draft a resolution with a title like "The Reduce Taxpayer Dollars Spent Overseas Act.")

Such doubletalk is, of course, doubly useful to someone like Murphy.  

For a rep Bachmann, actual facts are beside the point. (This is the same woman who lauded the founding fathers for ending slavery, after all.) But Murphy's a Pitt alum -- he's got a reputation to uphold. So rather than come right out and deny climate change, he shrugs his shoulders about the exact nature of the threat, while vaguely asserting that, well, something should be done about it:  

Now I am not a climatologist or a physicist and I am not here to argue about any of the things people do discuss with regard to climate change and its causes and what that might come to be. But, I have a background in health and ...  we do want a clean planet with clean air, and clean water, and clean soil.

By acknowledging there's a kinda sorta problem here, Murphy defends himself against the charge of being a science denier. What's more, kinda sorta problems only require kinda sorta solutions. Which is what Murphy gives us. He's for more conservation! And ... uh ... innovation! And did I mention natural gas? 

I'm for conservation and innovation too, of course. But even if you assume they're enough to reverse the disastrous environmental changes taking place -- a dangerous assumption -- Republicans clearly aren't very serious about fostering them.

Back in 2009, when Murphy was opposing "cap and trade" legislation to solve the problem, he proposed an alternative: an "Apollo project" to spawn new technologies. In 2011, though, it's impossible to imagine Republicans supporting the kind of government initiative that JFK inspired. Some more tax cuts for BP are the best you can hope for. A phrase like "Apollo project," then, merely invokes the government activism of the past ... to justify government inaction today.

HR 910 is the same kind of thing. And it proves you don't have to deny the problem to oppose a solution. Just acknowledge there might be an issue here ... but it's not serious enough to warrant hurting the energy industry's bottom line.

No wonder Republicans want to hamstring the EPA: Everything they're doing is a smokescreen.

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