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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Belated election analysis: city council district 9 reflects Burgess strength, progressive weakness

Posted By on Tue, May 31, 2011 at 2:16 PM

A bit of belated election analysis from city council district 9, where Ricky Burgess won a three-way race in which he got exactly 50 percent of votes (not counting a handful of write-ins).

I haven't said much about the results here, mostly because I figured Burgess to win this race ever since it became clear he'd be running against two female challengers, both with hyphenated last names: Lucille Prater-Holliday, and Phyllis Copeland-Mitchell. If you were deliberately trying to split an opposition vote, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better scenario. And at first blush, election results appeared to confirm that Burgess squeaked by because the two women split the opposition vote in two, with Prater-Holliday getting the much larger share. 

But I took a second look at the race after being pointed to this Pittsburgh Courier piece by Louis "Hop" Kendrick, long a fixture of black political life. In Kendrick's view, Burgess has won a victory not just over his two rivals, but over an entire political machine intent on ousting him: 

Allow me to put the victory of Councilman Burgess in perspective, because it was a total victory. How? He defeated six Democratic chairpersons, five unions and four sitting Pittsburgh Council people ... Those outside forces that sought to remove Ricky Burgess absolutely do not have the best interest at heart when it comes to the residents of the 9th council district.

Kendrick is referring to a series of setbacks Burgess had to overcome this year. He failed to win the backing of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee; he also lost the endorsement of the Allegheny County Labor Council and other labor groups. And obviously, council's progressive majority would not have mourned his departure. Just today, Burgess released a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett calling for more rigorous review of the city's pension fund, and the potential return of the mayor's plan to lease public parking garages. Not surprisingly, it also denounces the as-yet-untested solutions proposed by the mayor's foes. 

So is that majority indeed The Oppressor here? I've argued recently that we may be seeing the rise of a progressive "machine," with its own network of supporters and candidates. Kendrick's exultation over defeating these "outside interests" may sound like confirmation of that theory.

But on closer inspection, the outcome in District 9 suggests that the progressive "machine" still has some problems under the hood. 

For one thing, the "outside forces" never agreed on which candidate to back, and often worked at cross-purposes. To take the most obvious example, Prater-Holliday got the Labor Council's backing -- but Copeland-Mitchell won the party endorsement

Even the progressives themselves were split. Phylilis Copeland-Mitchell got the backing of the 14th Ward Democratic Club ... while Prater-Holliday got support from the Young Democrats, the Sierra Club, and Progress Pittsburgh

But when you drill down into the district-by-district voting returns, the larger trend becomes clear: Even if progressives had been united on a challenger, it's not clear it would have mattered. Burgess has, in his first term of office, outgrown his need for progressive support. 

If you just look at the total vote, Burgess would seem to have posted near-identical tallies in 2007 and 2011: In both races, he finished with 50 percent of the vote. But a closer look shows that the 50 percent he got this time around was a different cohort of voters. 

When Burgess first won the office, in 2007, he did so with help from voters in the progressive heartland. While District 9 is mostly black, and much of it is economically distressed, it also includes portions of Point Breeze -- a more affluent, whiter neighborhood that makes up a chunk of the mighty 14th Ward.

Back in 2007, Burgess was the favorite of those voters; In a 8-way race, nearly 55 percent of the district's Ward 14 voters supported him. Elswhere in the district, he earned just under 48 percent of the vote. It's safe to say that Burgess won the race by carrying Ward 14, and finishing no worse than a strong second in almost every other precinct. Geographically speaking, Ward 14 isn't that large a chunk of his district -- but it accounted for 20 percent of the votes cast in the 2007 race.

This time around, by contrast, Burgess lost the 14th ward, earning only 37 percent of the vote there, to Prater-Holliday's 42 percent. Copeland-Mitchell got 20 percent of the vote ... no doubt including some of those 14th Ward Clubbers.

Burgess' decline in Ward 14 no doubt reflects mounting disenchantment there. Burgess has been tight with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his circle, a bete noir for many progressives. What's more, he's complained that affluent neighborhoods get an undue share of resources that properly belong to poorer communities.

That's not the best way to win votes south of Penn Avenue. But Burgess doesn't have to worry. While his support dropped in Ward 14, he made up the difference by consolidating his support in the heavily African-American portions of the district: This time around, he got nearly 54 percent of all non-14th ward votes.

As a result, even if Prater Holliday got all of Copeland-Mitchell's 191 votes in Ward 14, she'd have been well short of what she needed to topple Burgess.

In fact, Copeland-Mitchell turned out to be something of a paper tiger in this race. From the outset that she was the candidate preferred by Ward 12 chair Jacque Fielder. But Fielder's backing translated into very few votes: Copeland-Mitchell finished last in Ward 12 too, though that was where she performed the strongest.

Prater-Holliday did better, but not nearly well enough: Outside of Ward 14, she won only 4 out of 48 voting precincts.

Having written an account of Progressivism Triumphant this election season, I feel obliged to note that this primary result has some cautionary notes as well. It's one thing for progressive incumbents to hold onto their own council districts: That's playing defense. The one race where they played offense was in District 9, and despite the best efforts of go-to campaign guy Matt Merriman-Preston, it didn't pan out.

And it's worth remembering that if progressives have hopes for a 2013 mayoral campaign, these are neighborhoods and voters they have to connect with. As the indispensible Chris Briem  noted just after the last mayoral primary,

You can't win a Democratic primary if you have absolutely no support from what is the largest, and often the most cohesive, block of votes in the city. African Americans at this point likely make up just about 30% of the city’s population which translates to maybe 40% of Democratic households.

Progressives have been trying: Initiatives like the city's prevailing wage bill, which was supported SEIU, guarantees higher-than-minimum wages for service-sector employees -- a measure that attempts to connect with working-class voters of all races. And you may be seeing more such initiatives in the future

Still, there's work to be done. ouncil's progressive majority is all-white, and they tend to hail from mostly-white neighborhoods. Connecting with black voters is both a moral imperative and a political necessity.

Kendrick is probably half-right: Burgess' victory does reflect his strength as a candidate. But it also reflects some areas of progressive weakness. And if they're going to build on this year's success, they'll have to do something about it. 

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