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Friday, May 20, 2011

The 2011 primary: more important than you think

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2011 at 12:13 PM

So. What did this week's primary election results really mean, in the cosmic sense, for city government? 

The simple answer is: We won't really know until 2012, when Corey O'Connor is sworn in. Since all the council incumbents who ran for re-election won, the only change is in District 5, where O'Connor replaced outgoing councilor Doug Shields. Shields, of course, was part of the a 5-to-4 council majority lined up against the mayor. So the future of both the mayor and his critics may well be decided by a guy who doesn't belong to either. And because O'Connor's election, fueled by a ton of cash and name recognition, was a foregone conclusion, he doesn't owe anything to any of them.

Even so, these elections mattered a bit more than some current punditry would have you believe.


Let's start with Tim McNulty, who  offers up this learned perspective at Early Returns:

There is a lot of crowing going on by Ravenstahl's critics after his challengers went 0/3 yesterday, but ... Pittsburgh's mayors have never been very good at getting their people onto council ...

Council races are not referenda on a mayor's performance, but rather about distinct issues and personalities. That's especially true in the district era (council members were elected at-large until the late 1980s) but it was true before then too.

... Councils have been driving mayors crazy for decades, and somehow they figure out a way to (sort of) work together.

McNulty's post cites a handful of examples in which particular mayoral favorites failed to win their election fights. 

I can't dispute any of that. (And a follow-up story in the Post-Gazette expands on the idea.) Hell, I used the election results from May of 2009 to reject the "coattails" argument. But I think something is different this time around. 

For one thing, those historic examples are cases where a mayor tried to affect a single race in a given election season. Ravenstahl's failure this time was much more sweeping. He  tried to oust three incumbents -- Darlene Harris, Patrick Dowd, and Bruce Kraus -- and failed all three times. One reason his coattails seem so tattered, in other words, is that he wore them so many places.

What's more, Ravenstahl's chosen candidates often did try to make this race about the mayor. A repeated talking point this spring was to bemoan the deterioriating relationship between council and the mayor -- and to blame the problem on the uppity council incumbent.

Consider, for example, this attack on Kraus by rival Jeff Koch -- the mayoral favorite in that district:

It is impossible to pass meaningful legislation without compromise. It has long been the case that childish fighting and disagreements have left the city of Pittsburgh with a government that doesn’t work ... With pension problems, budget gaps, and other economic challenges facing the city, residents deserve a strong working relationship between council and the Mayor.

This appeal did not succeed, obviously. And this is where things start getting funny. Ravenstahl's guys first tried to make this election about mayoral/council relations. And when they lost, Ravenstahl's guys began insisting the election wasn't really about the mayor at all.

Witness how Paul McKrell, Ravenstahl's former campaign manager, takes McNulty's consolation-prize blog posting and runs with it on Facebook. Lady Elaine at the Burgh Chair captures McKrell's take for those of us without access to his Facebook page:

Tim McNulty's right. In the end, Pgh is by definition a "strong mayoral form of government." With respect to some great people who make up the majority of council, that isn't bitter/obsessed with becoming mayor, & that will be augmented by an independent voice from the 5thCD, a Mayor doesn't need council to govern. Never has. Never will. But it sure does help to be able to have a conversation."

Actually, McNulty's post says nothing about a "strong mayoral form of government," and it's not clear who McKrell is quoting there. McNulty, in fact, was writing purely about politics -- the mayor's ability to affect elections. McKrell is turning that into an argument about policy -- the mayor's ability to govern. 

Which brings us to his baffling statement that "a Mayor doesn't need council to govern."

O rly? So how come council was able to thwart Ravenstahl's signature issue of 2010 -- the effort to privatize the operation of public parking garages?

Pittsburgh's charter, it's true, gives a large share of government power to the executive branch. But McKrell seems to think that because Pittsburgh has a "strong-mayor" government, every mayor must be strong. Which we've now seen isn't true -- either in politics or policy. 

Which brings us to the real impact of the 2011 primary.


The other striking thing about McKrell's post, as you may have noticed, is that it marks an early overture in the attempt to seduce Corey O'Connor. He is, of course, that "independent voice" McKrell is praising. You can already hear the sweet nothings that are going to be whispered in O'Connor's ear between now and when he takes office. 

Oh Corey ... you're so strong and ... and independent. You don't want to listen to those other councilors ... they're just bitter. You can show your independence by joining us. 

It might even work. O'Connor is, quite smartly, playing his cards close to his vest, promising to work with everyone. And God knows Ravenstahl's foes have miscalculated alliances before.

But here's the key point that I think is getting missed here. A lack of mayoral coattails is an old phenomenon. But as I wrote previously, there's also a new phenomenon at work: the rise of a rival progressive powerbase, a party-within-a-party that has its own resources and infrastructure to draw on.

Just a few years ago, I used to hear progressives mutter darkly about the Democratic Party "machine" ... the shadowy influence of guys like John Verbanac ... a whole host of forces that conspired against them at every turn. 

I've never been too impressed by that argument; belief in an all-powerful party machine, for one, rarely survives an encounter with an actual gathering of committeepeople. I always felt it was more an excuse for progressive failures than anything else.

But the progressives, it seems, increasingly don't need excuses.

Kraus, Dowd and Harris all had to run without the party's endorsement. And the Mysterious Mr. Verbanac and his pals threw cash into these races for the first time in anyone's memory. The machine took its best shot -- and failed.

2010 began with the mayor flailing in a fruitless attempt to stop prevailing wage legislation; the year ended with council rejecting his parking lease plan. Last year, then, council's majority has proved it could drive policy. This year, it has proved it can thrive politically.

That's not to say it's clear sailing from here on out. Despite breaking sharply with Ravenstahl on numerous issues, Dowd has squabbled with council's majority as well. That seems likely to continue, since he has earned a mandate to keep on keeping on. And it's not like the 2013 elections are a foregone conclusion. Both city controller Michael Lamb and progressive councilor Bill Peduto are clearly pondering mayoral runs ... raising the specter of the two men splitting the opposition vote, just as they did in 2005.

So yeah, this could all end in tears. In the end, O'Connor may not decide to line up with that majority. But when you take a look at the election results from 2009 ... and Ravenstahl's failures on the pension issue last year ... and this past week's results ... it's obvious that there's a new game in town. And when you're deciding what kind of player you want to be, that's a big deal. 

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