Thursday, February 5, 2009
Anthony Coghill has already won the City Council District 4 election -- at least as far as one Beechview restaurant is concerned. When he arrives at Leonardi's on Broadway Ave., the owner greets him with the cry, "Hello, councilor!"
Premature? Not if roughly 150 votes had gone the other way back in 2005. Coghill narrowly lost to incumbent Jim Motznik that year by a 52-48 margin. Now he's trying again, vying against three other challengers ... and the family dynamics of the Wagner clan.
After his 2005 defeat, Coghill recalls, "I said, 'This is it -- I'm done.'" Not so, however: "Had I been beaten badly, it would have been easy [to walk away from politics]. But I almost knocked off the incumbent." And as things have turned out, four years later, Motznik is pursuing a race for district justice, leaving a behind a vacant seat to represent the city's South Hills neighborhood.
Coghill is one of four candidates vying for the post. The owner of a roofing business, and a part-time liaison for state Sen. Wayne Fontana, Coghill cites his business acumen and his lifelong involvement with the district as his chief assets.
Most of our talk focused on the Broadway Avenue business district: A native son of Beechview, Coghill senses its pain and its promise most acutely. But he says problems in one part of the district mirror problems elsewhere. Carrick's Brownsville Road, for example, "has the same problems we do here."
Across the district, Coghill sees the top priority as crime — or at least the perception of it. Graffiti mars areas that might otherwise attract investment and new residents.
Coghill's answer: Establish beat cops in each business district. He'd follow that up by surveying residents about the kinds of businesses they would support — and use their responses to guide efforts to attract investment. If residents expressed an interest in the flower shop, he says, "I'd open up a phone book and start calling every florist in there," asking if they wanted to relocate or expand to the district.
As you might expect, Coghill sharply criticizes Motznik for not being similarly proactive. "If this district looks worse after I'm here for four years, vote me the hell out," he says.
But Motznik himself doesn't seem to cast much of a shadow in this contest. Instead, this race -- like so much that happens in the South Hill -- takes place against the backdrop of a family soap opera involving the Wagner clan.
The Wagners are the key powerbrokers in the city's populous 19th Ward. But they haven't been making a lot of friends lately. Left-of-center types were upset when the Wagners decided to back Anthony Reilly, who works in the office of state Rep. Chelsa Wagner. Chelsa, daughter of patriarch Pete, is a longtime friend of council candidate Natalia Rudiak -- the early favorite among the trendy-eyewear set. But Coghill, too, has reason to feel betrayed.
(UPDATE: Rep. Wagner was concerned that this vague reference to "the Wagners" implies that she is endorsing either Rudiak or Reilly. She is not. As she says: "I am neutral with respect to the race for the City Council District 4 seat, as I have informed both Rudiak and Reilly. Both Reilly and Rudiak are their own candidates, both are committed community advocates, and both informed me of their interest in running over a year ago, long before declaring their respective candidacies. I believe either would be a great addition on City Council, and wish them both the best of luck in their campaigns.")
Like any pol with roots in Beechview, Coghill has a long history with the Wagners, who supported him previously. Fontana, his boss, has been a Wagner ally. That relationship has cooled dramatically. Even so, Coghill says he was "disappointed and flabbergasted" Pete Wagner is backing someone else.
Coghill admits that setback will make winning the party's endorsement a challenge. But he remains confident, in large part because of his strong showing in 2005. In fact, he carries around a printout of the race results, to present to anyone who asks if he can win.
"I've always had [the Wagners'] support in the past, but I don't need them, that's for sure," he says.
On the bright side, if Coghill can successfully contend with the Medicis of the Monongahela, negotiating alliances at the City-County Building ought to be a breeze.
"I get along with everybody," Coghill says. For starters, he says, "I see myself as an ally of the mayor for one reason: to bring this area back." As for his would-be colleagues on council, Coghill says he's he and District 6 incumbent Tonya Payne "are friends, but I won't be under anybody's wing. I'll set my own path.
"I'm going to make four friends there -- I just don't know which ones yet. Because I need that majority to do something for my district."