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A Fistful of Voters 

 Ballot Box-ing

 

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The mood at Patrick Dowd's election-night party wasn't just pleased. What people were feeling, beneath the high ceiling of the Church Brew Works, was something akin to redemption.

Going into the May 15 primary, Dowd's supporters knew the race for Pittsburgh City Council District 7 would be close. Dowd was taking on Leonard Bodack, who had the advantages of incumbency, the party's endorsement, and a famous name: Bodack's father had been a noted state senator for years. And for most of the night, Dowd maintained an unofficial lead of just over 100 votes.

But it was a relief just to be competitive -- just to compete. Many of those in the room had supported City Councilor Bill Peduto's abortive run for mayor against Luke Ravenstahl. Peduto's campaign never really got started, but the fact that he dropped out was a kick in the gut anyway. "I don't know what I would have done if we'd lost," one Dowd backer confided to a friend.

And as the evening rolled on, the news kept getting better. Heather Arnet, the school-board candidate running for Dowd's old seat, coasted to victory over the endorsed candidate, Stephanie Tecza. Over in District 3, challenger Bruce Kraus -- who, like Dowd, was an unendorsed candidate with ties to Peduto -- won his race against incumbent Jeff Koch with similar ease. When KDKA-TV reported from Kraus' victory party, Dowd's supporters cheered at the sight of Kraus' backers cheering.

In District 9, meanwhile, the Rev. Ricky Burgess handily defeated the ethically challenged incumbent, Twanda Carlisle. Neither Dowd nor many of his supporters knew much about Burgess. But combined with the results of the Philadelphia mayor's race, where outsider Michael Nutter bested a crowded field of wealthier and more established candidates, one felt the tidal pull of a sea change.

As the evening wore on, Peduto himself wandered in. ("I would have just declared victory and been done with it," he told Dowd, who didn't declare himself the winner until the next day.) And amidst the excited buzz, Peduto described the fledging coalition taking shape under the label of "progressive." The progressives, he said, would be an "entirely new form of alliance" including environmentalists, good-government reformers and "the more progressive labor unions." AFSCME, a union representing some city employees, had endorsed Dowd -- an unusual break in the close alliance between the party and public-sector unions.

The progressives had already started battling the party machine with an apparatus of their own. Once Peduto scrapped his election effort, many volunteers and staff moved into the Dowd and Kraus campaigns. On the Internet, meanwhile, a chorus of bloggers greedily seized on every setback for old-line Democrats ... and damned more traditional media for not doing the same.

"It's certainly not a Pittsburgh alliance that's been there before," Peduto added.

The question is: Is it really there now? And can it last?

"Sometimes you get this idea that you're going to ride in like in an old Western movie, or some other guy-type movie, and save the day," says Doug Shields, a city councilor who himself ran a failed campaign for city controller. "I don't think it's ever that simple."

In fact, sometimes the Westerns aren't that simple either.

The Good

Make no mistake: While Ravenstahl and Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato coasted to victory this May primary, things look worrisome for the powers that be.

"If there's a story to this election people aren't paying attention to, it's the winding down of the Democratic Party," says Don Friedman, a political consultant who worked with the Dowd campaign.

It's not just the Dowd and Kraus victories that show the party's weakness, Friedman says. In low-profile races involving Common Pleas Court, the party recommendation is all many voters may know about a candidate. Yet just two of four endorsed Democrats won in the primary. In county council, incumbent Brenda Frazier beat an endorsed challenger for the third time. And at the school board, Arnet beat her endorsed rival, Stephanie Tecza.

To be sure, progressives didn't get to see the defeat of every endorsed candidate they disliked: Darlene Harris trounced her competition in City Council District 1. And not every endorsed candidate was disliked by progressives: Many backed controller candidate Michael Lamb, who won the

party's endorsement and the primary.

Besides, beating an endorsed candidate may not be quite as hard as either the party or the progressives may want to believe. There's a long history of candidates bucking the establishment and winning. Pete Flaherty ran for mayor as "Nobody's Boy" in the 1970s, and won -- twice. Richard Caliguiri bucked the machine in 1977 and won as an independent. "The endorsement just doesn't mean as much as it used to," says Duquesne University professor and longtime Democratic insider Joe Mistick. "It was a big deal maybe 50 years ago, back in the Davey Lawrence days. But those days are long gone."

Still, endorsed candidates performed so poorly this year that even Jim Burn, who chairs the county's Democratic Committee, says, "There's no doubt in my mind the process is broken. The debate is, do we attempt to save it, or do we just scrap it? The District 3 and District 7 city council races will draw more attention to that debate now."

Burn ticks off numerous reforms he wants the party to consider. What about requiring a two-thirds majority for an endorsement? Or allowing an "open primary," in which party leaders could openly back unendorsed candidates?

Such a reform, arguably, would merely ratify a situation that already exists. Party leaders and committeepeople, who make up the party's rank-and-file, are supposed to back the endorsed candidate, but often they don't respect the party's choice. Which makes the whole exercise somewhat hypocritical, says Friedman. "If people see the party can't be true to itself, then what does the endorsement matter?"

Burn sees advantages in an open primary. "Committeepeople would have to work as hard as they can for the candidate they support," he says. "And it would virtually eradicate the infighting," because battles would take place out in the open instead.

Not surprisingly, such messages resonate with the upstarts who won without the party's support. "I would support an open endorsement process, absolutely," says Kraus. "I think transparency is paramount."

Burn hasn't committed himself to any changes, and they'd require a majority vote from party members anyway. But whether the primary reshapes the Democratic Party, it's certain to affect city government.

The departing incumbents -- Carlisle, Koch and Bodack -- were reliable Ravenstahl votes. Dowd and Kraus, certainly, will present more of a challenge. Ask Dowd about his agenda, and he'll say that he "heard from voters about fiscal responsibility, and moving the city from patronage to performance. And that has resonated over the course of the campaign."

In fact, though the challengers won't take office until next January (assuming they win in November, of course), there's already been a noticeable change on city council. In recent days, council has taken a much more aggressive tack with the mayor, balking at Ravenstahl-backed changes to contracts for animal control and car-sharing. "If you take this council for granted, you do so to the detriment of your own legislative agenda," Shields warned Ravenstahl during a meeting.

Ravenstahl responded with a surprisingly catty e-mail in which he told Shields the mayor's "door is always open. In fact, your respective Council members have individually, because of your seeming absence regarding legislative issues, come over ..." The note bore the distinct sound of a kid who suddenly realizes he's not the most popular kid on the playground any more, and picks on someone to gain attention.

Shields shrugs off the e-mail: "Considering the problems everyone faces, it's really just another day at the office." But he says change is taking place on council.

"I think we take the gloves off with the mayor, although in a fashion that's productive," he says. Whether that change is just because of the outcome of the May 15 election is hard to say. The pending election, Shields says, may have been the only thing keeping councilors from speaking out sooner. "If anyone thinks that elections don't have a dampening effect, they're wrong. It does."

But even if the Ravenstahl juggernaut is in disarray, it's not clear whether the progressive coalition will be any more coherent ... or even whether it will be a coalition at all.

The Bad

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Interviewed together, Kraus and Dowd take pains to insist that they won't form a new bloc on council.

"Enough of that," says Dowd. "I will work with anyone who supports the particular piece of legislation that I'm trying to pass."

"The press is already trying to connect us as a voting bloc, and making assumptions that aren't necessarily true," agrees Kraus.

No politician is going to admit that he plans to vote in lockstep, of course. But even during the course of their hour-long interview together, Dowd and Kraus started discovering differences. Kraus, for example, has been a harsh critic of tax subsidies given to PNC Bank, which is building a new skyscraper Downtown. Dowd, meanwhile, voted in favor of the subsidy while a school-board member.

They also acknowledged knowing next to nothing about Burgess, the third challenger to win his primary race.

"I don't know much about his work," confesses Dowd, though he notes that he was "moved" by Burgess' yard signs, which promised "The Power of Hope."

"I really don't know [Burgess]," seconds Kraus, though he adds, "we've met a couple of times."

This comes as little surprise to Burgess. District 9 is predominantly black and poor, and it "is not the focus of a lot of people," Burgess says. "It's not surprising people don't know a lot about me."

Among the things you may not know is that Burgess is pro-life -- "I believe life starts at conception" -- and believes "marriage is between a man and a woman."

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Burgess does believe in protecting "buffer zones" around women's-health clinics: Since abortion is legal, he says, city officials should ensure women have safe access to it. And he supports domestic-partner benefits for same-sex couples: "Every person has a right to be treated as fairly and equally, and what is offered to one person should be offered to all," he says. Even so, his positions contrast with those of both Dowd -- whose campaign boasted of his staunch support for abortion rights -- and Kraus, who is gay.

Burgess also views the party structure more favorably than they do. Originally, another District 9 candidate, Rachel Cooper, got the party's endorsement. But when she was kicked off the ballot on a technicality, the party took the unusual step of taking a second endorsement vote -- rather than just giving the nod to the runner-up, Leah Kirkland. ("There was a lot of pressure from a lot of people" to support Kirkland, Burn says. "Serious pressure.") To Burgess, that's a sign the party is already reforming itself. He praises Burn for making a "courageous and history-making" decision.

Nor is Burgess particularly stirred by the anti-Ravenstahl passion that seems to animate many progressives. "The issues of some people, like those in the blogs, are not my issues," Burgess says. "What's holding our district back is the education for our kids, the violence and lack of economic development in our communities." Such issues, he notes, get very little attention from bloggers, who are much more likely to be set abuzz by the news that Ravenstahl was detained by police at a Steelers game in 2005.

Burgess admires the blogs for being an "unfiltered perception of some segment of the community." But, he adds, "The authors of the blogs are talking about the perspective they live" -- and "mostly, they aren't living in Homewood."

If Dowd's election victory is any indication, such disconnects may pose a challenge for the progressive movement as a whole. Dowd's stint on the school board has aggravated some members of the black community, where resentment lingers over the decision to terminate John Thompson, the African-American former superintendent. Low support among blacks is "one thing that made the [Dowd vs. Bodack] race close," Friedman acknowledges.

Bodack's camp tried to exploit class resentments as well. A close ally, Lawrenceveille United executive director Tony Ceoffe, argued that because Dowd hails from Highland Park, he couldn't understand Lawrenceville's gritty needs.

Since the election, Ceoffe has backed off the class argument. But Census figures show the distinctions are real. Residents in Highland Park -- where Dowd beat Bodack by nearly two-and-a-half to one -- are roughly twice as likely to have college degrees as residents in Lower Lawrenceville, which voted nearly two-and-a-half to one for Bodack. Residents of Lower Lawrenceville are nearly three times as likely to be living in poverty.

Dowd bristles at such observations.

"People want to make it a divisive thing -- the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the black and the white," he says. "That's a wonderful way to create wedge issues."

In contrast, Dowd touts his advocacy for public transit, which in the city has a constituency crossing class and racial lines. And while Dowd thinks Ceoffe's support of Bodack itself crossed a line, he says, "I can work with Tony. The tactics he applied on Election Day as a committeeman are one thing, but the work he does with Lawrenceville United, I have to see as another."

Can council newcomers bridge gaps in race and income? "It's already been done," says Peduto. In Philadelphia, he says, winning mayoral candidate Michael Nutter "combined reform with government ethics and a progressive agenda, and he created the perfect storm."

A similar storm could be brewing here. Ask Burgess if he thinks city services shortchange his district, for example, and he says he wants to see the numbers. Burgess stresses that he is "data-driven" ... and in that, at least, he is much like Peduto.

Peduto's most recent cause -- computerizing the process for choosing which streets to resurface -- may sound wonky, or remote from the more pressing needs of District 9. But computerizing the system could provide the data to prove racial inequities exist ... and ensure that such inequities aren't a factor in the future.

"How we pave streets may not change the city of Pittsburgh," says Peduto. "But it represents the old way of doing things." And a more open approach to such investments, he says, can translate into "creating community agreements with developers, providing opportunities for people not just with PhDs but with GEDs."

Assuming, of course, that council can come to some agreements on its own.

The Ugly?

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Peduto has long spoken, half-jokingly, of being lonely on council, where during Ravenstahl's term he's been on the losing end of a lot of 8-1 votes. So will having Dowd and Kraus on board merely mean Peduto is on the losing end of a lot of 6-3 votes instead?

Actually, sometimes the picture may not be that good. The balance of power on council will be "fluid," Peduto predicts. "Both Patrick and Bruce are independent-thinking; they'll vote their conscience and not be locked in to any one group." But in the next breath, Peduto adds, "When Patrick ran for school board, there was only one elected official that endorsed him, and that was me. And remember, I also endorsed Bruce when he ran last time."

Peduto also notes that toward the end of an earlier administration, former mayor Tom Murphy's relationship with council became so embittered that he lost a 6-3 council majority in a single year ... without a single council post changing hands. The same could happen now, especially if Ravenstahl makes a habit of sending catty e-mails.

But Shields, who got such an e-mail already, says the current mayor would "have to go a long way to get to the point Murphy reached." And Shields' own track record shows how uncertain council allegiances can be.

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On paper, Shields and Peduto have much in common. Both are policy wonks who skew liberal on social issues like abortion. And Shields, too, lays claim to the "progressive agenda," which he says "isn't all that different from what I've always been talking about: fiscally responsible government and transparency."

Yet Shields and Peduto have feuded, and many Pedutoistas mutter darkly about the allegiances of "the mercurial Mr. Shields," as Shields unapologetically calls himself.

Progressives "absolutely" have the momentum right now, says Shields. But "they're going to have to be prepared to lose a fight or two, and the champions you send out there are going to compromise."

Friedman agrees. The one thing everyone -- from Shields to Peduto to Burgess -- agrees on is that the city is in dire financial straits, and facing the threat of collapse sooner rather than later. But Friedman warns, "The progressives have got to get their act together before the budget stuff hits the fan. If we're going to be purists" on other issues, "we're going to give it to the other side." Friedman has supported both Peduto and Dowd, and he says that Dowd "knows how to work within the system better." By contrast, "Peduto's nature is to look at an issue, make his call and say, 'This is right.'"

As a result, Friedman worries the progressives may splinter over "something irrelevant."

Then again, perhaps some splintering of factions is just what council needs. "The school board was polarized when I took office, and we depolarized it," says Dowd, recalling the bickering that notoriously characterized the district during the early 2000s. "I hope those of us who make it to January can work toward the depolarization of city council."

Burgess is especially direct about his willingness to work with whoever can advance the needs of his district. "I am not part of a group. I am who I am. And I think I can be more successful that way."

For now, about the only commitment the May 15 winners will make to each other is that when they disagree, they'll do so civilly. As Kraus puts it, "We'll all vote for what we genuinely believe is in the best interest of the people, and we'll be able to agree to disagree like gentlemen."

So what's in store for council? Some uncomfortable standoffs, probably, but maybe nothing as glamorous as a shoot-out between the good guys and bad guys. Then again, that may give Pittsburgh a better chance of riding off into the sunset.

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