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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Q & A: Alison Chesley of Helen Money

Posted By on Thu, Oct 29, 2009 at 9:47 AM

Today's CP features my article on Chicago cellist Alison Chesley, a.k.a. Helen Money. Sometimes it's tough to fit everything you'd like into the space you have to work with in the paper – but, thank heaven, the Internet is boundless. So here's a mostly uncut version of the interview I did with Chesley last week via the phone. 

 

How long have you been playing cello?
I've been playing since I was eight. I grew up in L.A., and in the valley, where I grew up, they had music in the public schools, so when you were a certain age, you could pick an instrument to play, and I picked the cello. I don't really remember why; I think it looked cool. 

When did you start playing rock-oriented cello? I assume that wasn't what you were playing in grade school.
No ... my brother turned me onto The Who when I was in my early 20s, then I dropped out of school and started to go to clubs all the time. Then for the next 10 years -- I had a part time job, I didn't play much cello, but I went to shows. I saw the Minutemen a lot, all those SST bands, and kind of formed my musical taste, I guess. Then at some point I decided I needed to actually do something with my life. 

All I knew how to do was play cello, so I thought, maybe I'll go to grad school, might get a job at a university, teaching. I got accepted at Northwestern and came [to Chicago], and met someone, Jason Narducy, who wanted me to play some songs with him. He was really influenced by Bob Mould, and the Workbook album, so he had a strong idea about how he wanted the cello to sound. I, from listening to all that music all those years, I knew I didn't want to play pretty string parts in a rock band. So the two of us started playing together, we hit it off, then somehow we got an opening slot for Bob Mould and he heard us and offered to record our album, and that's when I decided, I just have to do this, it's too good an opportunity. 

Playing with Jason really shaped how I played cello in that kind of music. He told me, "You've got to get a distortion pedal, you have to get a delay." Playing with him, and that kind of music, helped shape how I played my cello.  

At first the we called ourselves Jason and Alison, and it was just the two of us, then when we recorded the first record with Bob, we got a bass player and drummer and called ourselves Verbow. We actually got signed to Epic, but we sold hardly any records. We put out two records for them but not much happened.

When did you decide to go solo?
After Jason and I called it quits, I'd been toying around with creating stuff on my own, writing stuff, but I'd never really done it, then I had an opportunity to work with these poets who wanted music for some stuff they'd written, and I realized the only way I could play along with myself was to get a looping pedal. And I don't think they even had the same pedals they do now. I had a four-track and I thought, okay, I'm going come up with an idea, and I think that was the start of trying to create pieces by myself. I wanted to still write the kind of stuff I was playing with Jason and Verbow, harder stuff, and that's kind of how it got started.

You've also done session work with other bands as well, right?
Yeah, I've been really lucky. There are two great studios [in Chicago] – well, more than that – but at Steve Albini's [Electical Audio] studio and John McEntire's Soma Studio, I've been lucky to start doing sessions, and I feel like I've been one of the string players they'll call when they need somebody. And I'm in touch with the bands here that they record. That's been great.

You recorded the new album at Electrical ...
Yeah. I feel really comfortable there, I really trust them, I know that they really are into the sound. [One album recently recorded there] had I think 20 string players; Steve set the mics up, he just knows how to set them up and got this amazing sound. And Greg [Norman] works with him closely, he's the same, just good at getting sound. I also felt like for this record, I wanted to get not only my amp sound but also a good cello acoustic sound and I felt like they could do that there. And they do tape. And I was curious to see what it would sound like on tape.

Tell me about what your effects setup is. What all do you have working on this particular album?
It's the setup I've used for a while – I've got a couple of distortion pedals and a delay pedal, those are the most important, then I have a couple of loop stations, and what I do is I end up storing phrases that I'll use in different parts of the song. I do looping but, especially for this record, I wanted to see if I could get away from something kind of static, and just layering. I'd like to do something a little more interesting than that. Sometimes what I'll do is step on a pedal and part of the phrase will come in and then I'll bring it out. I try to interact with them – I don't want people to perceive them as a backing track. I don't think that's very interesting, as an audience member. 

It's really interesting to see – you'd think people using loop pedals, it would all sound the same, but if it's done well, you can get a sense of their personality. Like David Daniel, he's on the same label as me, he does a lot of interesting stuff – you almost don't notice that he's doing it. 

Speaking of your label -- how did you end up with Table of the Elements and Radium?
I wanted more people to hear this record than the last one, and I contacted Jeremy Devine, who's Mono's manager, and he was super nice and took the time to listen to the record, and suggested Jeff [Hunt, of Radium]. And in the meantime I'd been checking out their label and I remember thinking, before he got back to me, "I should be on this label!" It's experimental, I guess, but it's rock. And I thought, these guys should have me on their label! And he eventually got back to me. It's a tiny label, but I feel like the artists he's got on there – I'm in really good company. 

Where did the name Helen Money come from?
I just decided I didn't want to be Alison Chesley. It felt too ordinary, I guess. And there's something about "Helen Money" that's kind of more rock. Also, if it was not my name, I could make it something else – if I wanted I could have other people in it. It's confusing, though, because people don't know if I'm Helen or Alison. 

On this record, you cover a Minutemen song, "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing." I assume this was recorded before Michael Jackson died? Is it a weird serendipitous thing or are you cashing in on the death hoopla?
Yeah, I want some of that money [laughs]. No, I think the reason I did that because I wanted to do a cover – I think the album's kind of dark, and I don't know if it's entirely approachable. I thought it would be nice to have something on there that people would know. I feel like when people do covers you get more of a sense of them in a way. And The Minutemen, I used to go see them a lot in LA during the '80s, so they were a big part of that part of my life. And I love that song. That's why I decided to do that. It didn't have anything to do with the Michael Jackson thing. 

And actually a friend of mine did a video of it, and he had a totally different take on it. He's a younger guy, a different generation, and it's interesting to see what he did with it. It wasn't where, I think, Mike Watt was coming from or what I took from the song at all. 

You play with a lot of techniques that are more common amongst guitarists. Why is cello your instrument?
I think it's just because it's all I know how to play. I want to be a rock musician, and all I know how to play is the cello. I thought, I could try to play the guitar, but it seems so silly. I play cello. So that's why I'm doing it. I guess I just want to play – I don't know why, but I want to make music that's intense and dark and makes me feel the way the music I like to listen to makes me feel. Like Bob Mould, and any number of bands that seem like life-or-death kind of music. 

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Margaret Jenkins Dance Co./Guangdong Modern Dance Co.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 28, 2009 at 4:18 PM

The troupes' collaborative performance at the Byham this past Saturday, titled Other Suns (A Trilogy), was among the best dance performances I've ever seen, for at least two of its three movements.

The show grew out of collaborations between the San Francisco-based Jenkins company and Guangdong Modern, which is mainland China's first professional modern-dance troupe (founded 1992). The complete work's world premiere was in September, and this Pittsburgh Dance Council performance seems to have been the first time in Pittsburgh for both companies.

It was an enthralling introduction. Part one was performed by Jenkins' company, set mostly to minimalist music by composer Paul Dresher. The movement style was striking: at once big and sweeping and sensuous, with frequent flash-pauses for group tableaux that broke apart at the touch of a single dancer. The eight dancers moved through solos, duets and group passages of amazing complexity, also impressive for the near-absence of repeated movements.

Part two began with five Guangdong Modern dancers prone on the stage. As at the beginning of part one, the performers were harshly backlit. Where part one began with dancers in conflict (pushing, pulling), part two commenced with performers moving in unison, slowly, like creatures on the sea floor.

A series of impressive solos and duets followed, also to music by Dresher. Themes emerged, commenting on differences between the two cultures. Guangdong's dancers wore identical silver two-pieces, in contrast to the similarly earth-toned but slightly varied costumes work by the Americans. And the conflicts that emerged in part two felt more political than interpersonal, with a lone dancer left standing after the others had dropped to the floor, even as the music halted abruptly mid-passage.

Part three, danced by both companies together, seemed a synthesis. The costumes worn by all 15 dancers were now all similar to each other, but with slight individual variations. The music, though again composed by Dresher, became spacey, with the notable addition of a keening, Pink Floyd-style electric guitar. The group choreography (though a collaborative effort) recalled part one more than two, only much busier, on a much more crowded stage.

From my low-angle seat, in fact, a little too crowded -- going beyond the first act's pleasing stimulation to a kind of visual overload, and the sense that you were missing lots of interesting things going on upstage because of the dancers downstage. (I should note that others in the audience, in contrast, enjoyed this effect, and that the choreography was probably much more legible from the balcony.)

The movement style also became somewhat more familiar -- not so much because of movements repeated from earlier acts that created thematic unity, but because for the first time I noticed movements that were not unique to this piece: backwards running, slow walking, multiple pirouettes. Up till then, I felt I was seeing nothing I'd ever seen before that night.

Don't misunderstand: Act three was still fine, even splendid. It was just that the bar had been set high: There wasn't anything great about part three that wasn't already great about parts one and two. And with something as fine as Other Suns, that truly counts as a quibble.

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Look for the union label -- just don't put it in your ads without permission (UPDATED)

Posted By on Mon, Oct 26, 2009 at 2:22 PM

As I first reported here yesterday, mayoral candidate Dok Harris announced the endorsement of Ironworkers Local 3 this morning. But Harris has been hearing from another union as well -- and not about an endorsement.

Over the weekend, the Service Employees International Union sent a letter to the Harris campaign, demanding that Team Harris take down an advertisement featuring SEIU members and Gabe Morgan, who is the union's director for Western Pennsylvania.

The ad in question asks "Where's Luke?" and features numerous speakers -- from Barack Obama to local residents -- commenting on the mayor's habit of going AWOL. One part of the commercial shows footage from a protest held at the City County Building this past July. The demonstration, carried out by members of the SEIU and the United Food and Commercial Workers unions, sought to ensure that taxpayer-funded development would provide "living wage" jobs. (Our coverage of the July protest is here.)

The commercial shows union members -- identifiable by their T-shirts -- chanting. Morgan then appears and tells them, "We don't know if the mayor's here or not." The ad has aired on television in addition to being posted on Youtube.

Sent by union attorney Terry Meginniss, the SEIU letter charges that the Harris ad uses the footage of the protest "out of context" and in a way that "distorts the message that was delivered."

Meginnis set a deadline of 5 p.m. Sunday for the campaign to "advise me what steps you will take to meet the demand set out here." The letter threatens "legal and other appropriate remedies against the campaign to ensure that the public is not misled."

In a phone call this afternoon, Morgan told me the SEIU "has been waging a campaign to lift standards for working people in the city of Pittsburgh. And the Harris campaign was tying that on to other footage, and shoehorning it into a political campaign. They took our message out of context, cut it into an ad and used it for their own purposes ... We think the ad implies a relationship that doesn't exist, and to us, it feels exploitive. We take our endorsement process very seriously."

The SEIU has not endorsed any of the three mayoral candidates: The union is remaining neutral in the race, Morgan says, because it has chosen to advocate for specific policies rather than politicians. 

Would the SEIU be satisfied if the Harris team just took down the ad? "We'll see what happens," Morgan told me.

I'm waiting for a call back from the Harris campaign, and will post their response here. (UPDATE: Harris' campaign manager did respond -- see below.) But for now, I'll note that nothing in the ad suggests Harris has been endorsed by the SEIU. And the July protest was a public demonstration, attended by local TV news and lots of people with cameras of their own as well. Moreover, as I pointed out to Morgan, plenty of demonstrators did complain about the mayor's absence during the demonstration. Some joked he'd surely be around if they were golf celebrities or campaign contributors. 

"Did those union members tell you they were supporting Dok Harris?" Morgan shot back.

So I'm not sure what legal requirements apply in this situation. On the one hand, it's a real bad idea to use people's likeness in an advertisement without permission. On the other hand, labor activists were staging a public protest, about an issue of concern -- an issue that Harris has made part of his campaign. (As Harris' Web site makes clear, the candidate "support[s] tools ... to ensure that publicly funded development actually supports our working families.")

But speaking politically, as opposed to legally? Talking to the SEIU before rolling out the ad would have been a smart idea. 

UPDATE: Michael Capozzoli, the Harris campaign manager, got back to me this evening. His first response was "Ahhhh, uhhhhhh, ohhhhhh ... and you can quote me on that." 

Capozzoli was, shall we say, puzzled by the SEIU's response to the ad. "We have the utmost respect for the SEIU," he said. "They're a very important voice for the working families in this city." But, he added, "We're confused, because they've been at loggerheads with this mayor since he took office." He reiterated the point I've raised above -- that Harris has been much more sympathetic to causes the SEIU espouses, like wage guarantees on developments funded with city tax dollars. 

As for the legal claims made in the SEIU letter, Capozzoli says "We're very confident that we didn't use any material inappropriately. They were in a public place, doing a public protest publically." 

The footage, he says, was shot by independent filmmaker Chris Ivey, who has been shooting footage for the Harris campaign. 

But Capozzoli says he empathizes with the SEIU: "When you're shaking up the status quo, even the good guys can get scared." Members of the Harris campaign itself, he says, have been told they'll never find political work in Pittsburgh again. 

Capozzoli says the ad was scheduled to come off the air Wednesday anyway, when it will be replaced with another ad. In any case, he adds, none of this will disrupt the Harris campaign's momentum. "This race is a lot closer than any of you can really report," he says.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Harris poised to get union endorsement?

Posted By on Sun, Oct 25, 2009 at 11:14 AM

Mayoral candidate Dok Harris is holding a press conference on Monday morning, and while I can't be there, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess Harris will be picking up the endorsement of Ironworkers Local #3. The presser is slated to be held at the union's Strip District headquarters ... and what's more, I drove past there last night and saw a Harris yard sign out front. If I'm right, the announcement will come on the heels of another endorsement announced late last week -- that of a veterans group. 

In other endorsement news, as first noted over at Null Space, independent mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin has picked up the support of Louis "Hop" Kendrick, a longtime black leader who's run for mayor himself.  Kendrick cites Acklin's "history of community involvement long before he decided to seek public office." As for Harris, Kendrick wonders if he's "running for name identification for a future political race? ... [O]nce I heard him on the radio explaining why he left town during G-20 it was definitely obvious to me. (link added)"

As for incumbent Luke Ravenstahl, to no one's surprise at all, Dan Onorato spoke warmly on Ravenstahl's behalf during this morning's broadcast of KD/PG Sunday Edition. Co-anchor Ken Rice also asked the county exec whether he dealt with the-suddenly-famous John Verbanac. Onorato acknowledge that Verbanac is "a friend," but not an advisor. Onorato added that he doesn't have the "relationship with [Verbanac] that the mayor does right now." 

Incidentally, I confess that I enjoy listening to Onorato's patter. Asked whether he could hope to win the support of restaurant and bar owners after pushing through a drink tax here, Onorato said he'd "probably have a shot -- "in 66 counties."

 

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

For wonks only: a look at campaign finance reports

Posted By on Sat, Oct 24, 2009 at 11:05 AM

Campaign finance reports were due from political candidates yesterday. Over at the P-G, the headline noted that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's "pile of campaign chest [is] much larger than rivals."

Which is true, of course. Partly that's because Ravenstahl started out with so much more money. When this reporting period began in June, he had $328,000 cash on hand -- about twice what rivals Dok Harris and Kevin Acklin had.

In fact, during the reporting period itself -- which ended Oct. 19 -- Acklin raised the most money. Acklin raised nearly $94,000 from well-heeled individuals who gave amounts of $250 or more. But before anyone denounces Acklin as a white-shoe candidate, I should also point out that he also led the field in small-dollar contributions of under $50. He raised nearly $10,000 from such small givers ... nearly seven times what Harris and Ravenstahl combined raised.

Oh, and beleive it or not ... Acklin was the only candidate to raise money from a hall-of-fame football player in this period. You'll have to read further down to find out who it was. 

When you put it all together, Acklin raised over $135,000 overall -- more than either Harris ($113,600) or Ravenstahl ($127,500).

But then reality reasserted itself. Ravenstahl filed a supplemental report showing that, in the two days after the reporting period closed, he raised another 70 grand. In other words, in two short days, Ravenstahl raked in more than half the sum it took Ravenstahl and Acklin four months to assemble.

What follows here is a candidate-by-candidate look at notable trends and contributions.

Kevin Acklin:

Acklin's biggest backers included: his mom, Candace ($9,785); Frank Fuhrer ($6,000), the beer distributor king; Butler County investment guru Ron Muhlenkamp  ($5,000); former US Steel CEO Tom Usher ($5,000) and William Benter ($5,000), who runs a medical transcription service. (Benter, it appears, is the Daddy Warbucks of the Anyone But Luke crowd -- he's contributed mightily to the mayoral campaigns of Patrick Dowd and Bill Peduto in the past.) 

It's worth noting that some of Acklin's biggest backers -- like Milton Fine and the aforementioned Ron Muhlenkamp and  Frank Fuhrer -- are big GOP givers. But on the other hand, Acklin also has the backing of Georgia Berner -- a New Castle business owner who ran for Congress to the left of Jason Altmire (who ended up winning the seat). 

Oh, and how's this for hometown football credentials? Acklin got $1,000 from Dan freakin' Marino ... who, like Acklin, was a South Oakland kid who went to Central Catholic. 

Dok Harris

Harris' biggest single gift ($5,000) came from Citizens for Political Responsibility, a Sewickley-based PAC. I'm not familiar with the group, but it appears to have been involved in boosting Barack Obama. Its current mailing address is a condo owned by a couple that supported Obama last year. 

Harris has placed a voluntary limit on individual campaign contributions at $2,400. I did not find any contributions larger than that, and the cap makes it hard to single out the "largest" contributors. But as I've noted here before, Harris has made use of an extensive fundraising network that stretches far beyond the city limits. That trend has continued. Let's look, for example, at contributors who gave more than $250: For every dollar that Harris raised from such folks, nearly 80 cents came from outside city limits. 

Still, there are some familiar hometown names: Legendary sports physician Freddie Fu gave Haris $500. (Curiously, Fu's wife Hilda gave the same amount to Acklin.) Eat'n Park exec James Broadhurst -- a frequent name on campaign reports -- gave Harris $1,000. Jack Piatt, the Millcraft Industries developer who has rebuilt the defunct Lazarus Downtown, gave him $500. So did Al Ratner, an executive with Forest City Enterprises. Forest City, of course, has been much in the news lately, because of its connections to politilcal insider John Verbanac. 

Luke Ravenstahl

Ravenstahl's big advantage was in contributions from Political Action Committees. He raised $57,400 from such sources -- nearly 10 times as much as Acklin and Harris combined. Much of that PAC support came from unions, including a whopping $11,000 from the Operating Engineers, whose members run heavy equipment on road and other construction projects.

Like Harris, Ravenstahl was getting a lot of big-dollar support from non-city residents: About 71 cents of every dollar raised from individuals giving more than $250 came from beyond the city. Though Ravenstahl's donors were much more likely to have businesses -- and thus business interests -- inside the city.

Ravenstahl's backers, in fact, drew heavily from developers and other usual suspects. The Pennoni Association, a Philadelphia-based developer, gave $3,500, and a PAC affilated with the business gave him an extra $1,500. Executives at Chester Engineers gave Ravenstahl $10,100. As the P-G noted earlier this year, Chester has long held -- and would like to keep -- a big contract with the city's water authority.

Some of the most interesting contributions, however, came after the Oct. 19 reporting period ended.  On Tuesday and Wednesday, Ravenstahl received $71,500. Among the big gifts:

-- $10,000 total from two executives from the developer Burns & Scalo

-- $5,000 from the construction management firm Parsons Brinckerhoff

-- $5,000 from Merrill and John Stabile, who own Alco Parking.

-- $5,000 from the CEO of Duquesne Light

-- and $5,000 from the law firm of Thorp Reed & Armonstrong

Oh, and -- need I say it? There wasn't a single dollar from John Verbananc.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Ethical Quandaries

Posted By on Fri, Oct 23, 2009 at 10:26 AM

In the past couple days, I've come to have newfound respect for John Verbanac -- the political insider who has been at the center of ethics charges directed at Mayor Luke Ravenstahl by challenger Kevin Acklin. Because you have to say this for Verbanac: For a guy with such long arms, he leaves very few fingerprints. 

Consider, for example, the allegations that Verbanac has been improperly lobbying state and city officials. At a Kevin Acklin press conference yesterday, Acklin noted that Verbanac had been talking to state Sen. Jane Orie and other officials about the city's pension plan. Verbanac, Acklin alleged, "in effect was lobbying a state senator but doesn't show up as a lobbyist" in state-required lobbying-disclosure forms. (Today's Post-Gazette addresses the matter at some length.) Similarly, Acklin cited e-mails showing that Verbanac helping to write Ravenstahl's speeches. Why, Acklin asked, wasn't Verbanac being paid by Ravenstahl's campaign -- just as Acklin pays his own team of writers?

It's easy to see where Acklin is going with this: If neither the city nor the mayor's office cut Verbanac a check, then Verbanac must be expecting to get paid some other way, right? As Bram Reichbaum succinctly asked in a comment on my blog post yesterday, "Shouldn't [Ravenstahl] be paying for [his] own high-octane political consulting? Why do you suppose [Verbanac] is doing this for free?"

The idea here is that pleading the city's pension case, helping massage Ravenstahl's public image ... all of these could be efforts to build up a store of goodwill. And then, when Verbanac needs something from the city -- like, say, a tax subsidy for a project he's developing -- he can call in his markers. In politics, after all, cash is only one form of currency. 

The problem, though, is that cash is the only form of currency the law effectively tracks. Whatever else we learn from Acklin's accusations, we're learning just how slippery political influence can be. 

In general, to be considered a lobbyist, you have to get paid -- and usually by somebody else. The state's lobbying disclosure law, for example, flatly exempts "an individual who does not receive economic consideration for lobbying," from its requirements. So just because John Verbanac pled with Jane Orie and other state legislators to see things the mayor's way on pensions, that doesn't make him a lobbyist. In theory, he could be acting just as a concerned citizen -- albeit a concerned citizen who doesn't actually live inside the city limits. 

Similarly, the city's own lobbyist disclosure law defines a lobbyist as "any individual who is compensated to spent 30 or more hours in any consecutive three-month period engaged in lobbying activities [emphasis mine]." (As a side note: The city law wouldn't apply to the revelations in Acklin's e-mails in any case: The e-mails from 2006 through early 2008, and the disclosure law was only passed this spring.)

But of course, Verbanac wasn't always so selfless about the causes he fought for. In other e-mails turned over by Acklin's campaign, Verbanac pressures city officials to act favorably on behalf of his own projects. In a Febraruary 2008 e-mail, for example, Verbanac apparently wrote chief of staff Yarone Zober, asking about rumors the city would redirect $6 million in state money away from the old Hazelwood LTV site -- a project Verbanac was trying to develop.

"You know very well of our interest in the site," Verbanac wrote. "It cuts my legs totally out from underneath me, with my business partners, RIDC and a host of others."

Isn't that lobbying?

Not necessarily. People do, after all, have a right to plead their own interests. The state law, for example, "was very careful not to infringe on people's First Amendement rights," says Barry Kauffman, of the government watchdog group Common Cause.

If Verbanac was representing his own interests -- rather than being paid to represent someone else's -- Kauffman says this e-mail wouldn't count as lobbying under state law either. (In any case, the state law only applies to state officials, not municipalities.) Verbanac is the head of Summa Development, which sought to partner up with Forest City on the LTV site, and other projects too. 

What separates Verbanac from a lobbyist? A lobbyist is someone who gets paid simply to make an argument, whether that argument succeeds or not. Verbanac, from all appearances, would only make a dollar if his argument carried the day. In his press conference yesterday, Acklin accused Verbanac of being "a lobbyist and corporate developer." But in fact, it's because Verbanac is a corporate developer that he may not have run afoul of the rules governing lobbysts. 

So yeah, there's a paradox here. When he talks to Jane Orie about pensions, Verbanac remains outside lobbyist-disclosure laws because he has nothing at stake. When he talks to Yarone Zober about state tax incentives, he remains outside them because he has everything at stake -- his own business prospects. 

Of course, it may look a hell of a lot like Verbanac is leveraging his influence with state officials to exert influence over city officials. But  from the standpoint of ethics laws, Kauffman says there may not be much you can do about that.

So whatever else John Verbanac may be, he's a very smart guy, one especially adept at avoiding the public eye. In fact, Kaufmann himself was surprised to find that Verbanac's name never seems to crop up on campaign finance reports. (Which it doesn't -- one reason Verbanac's name has come up so rarely until now.) "I find it hard to believe a person of this cache isn't making donations," Kauffman told me. And it seems likely that Verbanac's activities probably fall outside the purview of lobbying-disclosure laws too. 

What to do about that? "There's an old saying that the two most dangerous things in government are secrecy and money," Kauffman says. "And when they unite, dangerous things happen." But he adds that "Based on what you've told me, none of this sounds illegal. But whether what he's doing is a good thing or a bad thing? That's something voters can decide." 

Which is, of course, what they're about to do. 

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Will another shoe be dropping on Acklin charges?

Posted By on Thu, Oct 22, 2009 at 2:24 PM

Kevin Acklin held a press conference this afternoon, following up on the bombshell his campaign dropped yesterday: a series of e-mails suggesting a very cozy relationship between Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and political insider John Verbanac.

In his prepared remarks, Acklin said little that was new. He reiterated that "This administration is focused on personal and corporate favoritism, and it's hurting our neighborhoods as a result." And he called on Ravenstahl to "give us full disclosure" about the extent of his interactions with Verbanac. 

But in a Q&A with reporters, Acklin suggested that more was yet to come. The material he had already disclosed, he said, had led other insiders to turn over further material: "We are looking at documents that we have right now," Acklin said. And he predicted that his campaign would be turning those over in "a couple days," possibly early next week. 

Acklin was asked (by me) whether any of this information would concern Ed Grattan, the other name he dropped during the Saturday debate on KDKA. He intimated that it very well might: None of the material realeased so far has touched on Grattan.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, Acklin has cited two cases of influence peddling -- the deliberations about who should get the city's casino license, and taxpayer financing for developing the old Hazelwood LTV site. And in neither case did Verbanac get what he wanted. In both situations, Verbanac was tied to the developer Forest City, who teamed up on a losing casino bid with Harrah's, and who ended up missing out on state dollars for Hazelwood. 

But Acklin maintained that "the fact that [Verbanac] and his business partners didn't get [their way] means the Mayor is either incompetent or ineffective. It doesn't mean he's not corrupt." 

Ouch! 

Even so, these things are never easy to prove. For example, Acklin noted that "As a city councilman, Mr. Ravensathl supported the Isle of Capri" -- the casino developer favored by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who wanted to create a joint casino/area complex in the Hill District. "After he became mayor, he urged the Penguins ... to support a Plan B, in which they would receieve payments from another casino licensee." 

Of course, such a Plan B would have made it easier for state gaming officials to approve Harrah's. Isle of Capri's ace in the hole was the threat that the Penguins would leave town if they didn't get their way. 

Ravenstahl's shift was indeed eyebrow-raising, and prompted some observers to contend "the fix was in." But of course Ravenstahl's supporters argued at the time that Ravenstahl -- who'd only just become mayor -- had a new role to play, with new responsibilities. Having a Plan B was simply prudent.

Acklin and I had a bit of back-and-forth on this, and afterwards one of his staffers pointed out that Acklin's position was similar to one I myself had taken a few years ago.  "You were second-guessing yourself," I was told. 

Which is true. But I second-guess myself all the time. And anyway, the larger point is that suspicions are one thing, proof is another. And while Verbanac may be pernicious, he ain't stupid. Trying to get the Pens to sign on to Plan B was arguably a pretty cagey political move. Consider this e-mail Verbanac sent late in 2006:

How does not one plan to build a new arena and fund it but two -- Plan A and Plan B -- result in uncertainty with the team's future [as the Penguins were claiming]? ...

Answer: Because [Isle of Capri] is the one plan that makes the most money for Ron Burkle. Ron Burkle is willing to play Russian Roullete [sic] with the franchises's future to make the most money. It's a gun to the head of Pittsburgh strategy ...

I actually think that's true. Even if Verbananc did have ulterior motives for pointing it out. 

I don't mean to diminish the important of this stuff. What Acklin is turning over may well prove to be the Rosetta Stone of this administration. (Though so far, his e-mails are dated no more recently than early 2008.) Some of it is funny -- the parts about trying to handle the Post-Gazette's Rich Lord are great reading. And some of it is just plain sad.

In a June 2007 e-mail, for example, Verbanac damns the Murphy administration, urging Acklin to "Call the past performance on the carpet ... Let's restore people's faith in government. Let's lead. Let's fix the City." The next e-mail in Acklin's packet is an apparent Verbanac communique urging the administration to spare a "less than exemplary performer" at the URA because of the employee's family connections.

Perhaps Verbanac had in mind a different meaning of "fix the City"?

Some have cast doubt about whether this will have a real impact on the election: Acklin himself allowed that it probably would have a political downside for him. He also acknowledged that he had no evidence of any money actually changing hands between Verbanac and the city.

So where does this any of this go? It isn't clear yet. But one thing is certain: It isn't over. 

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lies, Damned Lies, etc.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 21, 2009 at 4:55 PM

A quick heads-up: it's come to our attention that, per their website, The Damned have announced that they cancelled their impending U.S. tour due to visa troubles. It's unfortunate because folks likely already bought tickets, and it's unfortunate because we put their Friday show at Diesel on the Short List this week, and the announcement didn't come down until the paper was already at the printer. So, Damned fans, don't head for Diesel this Friday; it'll only lead you to an encounter with clubbers, and you probably don't want that.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Ralph Nader at Point Park

Posted By on Tue, Oct 20, 2009 at 2:53 PM

There was little in the legendary activist's talk to indicate that a half-century of battling injustice (and sometimes running for president) has discouraged him, let alone dimmed his sense of outrage.

In fact, his address (part of the school's Global Cultural Studies speaker series) was explicitly about spurring the mostly student audience to similar action.

Nader, 75, began with the story of how his law-school paper on automobile safety turned into the landmark consumer-advocacy book Unsafe At Any Speed (1965). Once he'd learned that cars were designed with marketing rather than safety in mind, Nader said, "It never occurred to me that the situation could not be changed."

"You're all capable of making similar advances" in fighting injustice, he told the packed auditorium. In fact, he added, otherwise "You are not a citizen."

Lacking the time or know-how for activism is no excuse, he said. "All social-justice movements start with people who have no power whatsoever," he said. "The difference between those people and today is, those people didn't make excuses."

In a talk titled "The Mega Corporate Destruction of Capitalism and Democracy," Nader acknowledged the many barriers to activism. These include the meager education our schools provide in civics and history, and our culture's implicit privileging of entertainment over education and civic involvement.

When the word "crime" makes us think of street crime rather than corporate malfeasance, and "welfare" of poor people rather than corporate giveaways -- even though the corporate kinds do more damage -- there's a lot of mindsets to be recalibrated. When big business calls the tune for government, says Nader, we live in "a corporate state" bedizened with consumer choices but little real civic freedom.

It was all cogent and uncompromising. Still, I was left wondering if there weren't a hint of discouragement in the plot of Nader's first novel, a 600-pager titled Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! (Seven Stories Press).

The premise is that a bunch of real-life billionaires led by Warren Buffet (and including Ted Turner, Bill Cosby and Ross Perot) join forces to spark massive democratic reform of damn near everything.

The novel's protagonists, in other words, are the exact opposite of "people who have no power whatsoever."

The book's title is clearly tongue-in-cheek. Maybe it's all just Nader's way of making us imagine better possible worlds. But it also suggests more than a little worry on Nader's part that popular apathy is preventing change from the bottom.

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Following the money ... and the logic

Posted By on Tue, Oct 20, 2009 at 10:33 AM

Before I get into the meat of this post -- a back-and-forth over campaign promises in the mayoral race, and the broader issue of what "campaign finance reform" means -- a bit of housecleaning:

Early this morning, we got word that Dok Harris has been endorsed by NOW, the women's group. Add that to his endorsement by the LGBT advocates at the Gertrude Stein Political Club

Now for something far more long-winded. In the wake of Saturday's mayoral debate, the campaign of Dok Harris traded dueling press releases with Kevin Acklin's crew. The issue: whether Harris has lived up to his self-imposed limits on campaign contributions.

Harris' Web site pledges to "voluntarily adhere to strict campaign contribution limits. I will limit an individual's total contributions to $2,400, and I will limit a household's total to $4,800." During the debate, though, Acklin challenged him on that claim, saying that he'd violated his self-imposed rule numerous times. Harris conceded that "maybe one check" exceded his limits, but said otherwise he'd followed his own guidelines.

Acklin's camp later sent out a "fact-check" e-mail which said the following:

A quick look at his 30-Day Post-Primary Campaign Finance Report proves that Mr. Harris has, indeed, failed to abide by his own rules:

• 1 donor from New Jersey gave $5,000, which is more than twice his self-imposed limit.  

• 5 donors each gave $4,800, which is twice his self-imposed limit.

• 2 of those donors, Raymond and Roseann Park of 93 Spanish Gate Drive in Las Vegas, Nevada, gave $4,800 each. Each of their donations is twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for individuals; their combined donations are twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for a single household.

• 2 more of those donors, Dan and Elaine Park of 3 Way Hollow Road in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, gave $4,800 each. Each of their donations is twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for individuals; their combined donations are twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for a household.
 

I've verified that all of these donations were made. But as the Harris campaign has previously explained, when Harris set these limits, he did so per election. He's counting the May primary as a separate election -- even though, as an independent candidate, he didn't run in the primary at all.

Now on the one hand, this might strike you as a bit slippery. When Harris' Web site says "I'm limiting contributions to $2,400," you don't expect to see contributions larger than that. And it's not like there's fine print on his Web site, explaining that you could make the maximum contribution twice.  

On the other hand, the Harris campaign has pledged to me that the $2,400/$4,800 limit will apply to all contributions made since the primary, and continuing up to Election Day. Assuming they hold to that promise, the worst you could say is they've "grandfathered in" a small number of (admittedly large) donations made early in the campaign.

But something else crops up when you look at Harris' June finance report-- which is that Harris is getting massive amounts of money from outside the city and, quite frequently, outside the state. By my count, as of June, at least 75 cents of every dollar in the Harris campaign coffers was raised from a municipality beyond the city limits. 

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Acklin and Ravenstahl have receieved out-of-state backing too. Harris' percentage is much larger, that but that's no suprise: His father is a national celebrity, and Harris has traveled about for school and work as well. Maybe it's a little creepy to think of "outsiders" buying elections. But hey -- one could argue that out-of-town contributors should worry us less. After all, faraway contributors aren't trying to get local tax breaks.

But Harris isn't just imposing limits on himself. He's faulting his rivals for not adopting them too. In a press release of his own Friday night, Harris "urge[d] the other candidates to join me in finance limits." He then asserted they wouldn't do so because "they don't want to handicap their efforts." 

True enough. But the worst you can say about that is ... they aren't stupid. Adopting Harris' limits would, arguably, play directly into Harris' own inherent fundraising advantage.

Harris, clearly, has access to a much broader base of well-heeled donors than, say, Acklin does. And because that base is broad, it doesn't have to be deep. If I've got 10 friends with $1,000 each to burn, and you've got one VERY close friend with $10,000, guess who's hurt more by limiting contributions to four-digit sums? 

And indeed, through June, Harris had outraised Acklin by nearly two-to-one. So I'm guessing its easier for Harris to corral four contributions of $2,400 than it is for Acklin to get one gift of $9,600. 

Of course, that's just too bad for Acklin. And please understand: I'm not faulting Harris for anything, or trying to say he's being other than shrewd. I'll bet some of those out-of-towners could give him $10,000 if he asked. Instead, he chose to hobble himself. So let's give Harris credit where it's due -- both for the savvy and the prinicple.   

Outside of this particular mayor's race, though, this points up a distinction to be made when we talk about "campaign-finance reform."

Generally, reform efforts have focused on limiting the size of the individual contributions, rather than the total amount of money raked in. In other words, we limit the amount an individual can give to candidates, not the amount a candidate can spend. Some other countries do have such limits, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in its landmark 1976 case, Buckley v. Valeo.

The lesson here is this: Current finance-reform rules are all about creating a level field for campaign contributors -- not for the candidates themselves. To do that, you'd have to set up a hard ceiling, or publicly finance campaigns completely. (Or do both at once: The Buckley decision did permit spending limits on Presidential candidates, if they accepted public financing for their campaigns.)

Why is any of this important? In part because next year, the city will have a binding limit on campaign contributions.  That's useful, even vital. But at best, those reforms will help reduce any one contributor's influence. That's not the same as limiting the influence of money as a whole.

The upshot: Despite those limits, there's every chance that, four years from now, Luke Ravenstahl will look every bit as invincible -- and have a war chest every bit as large -- as he does today.

Limiting contibution size is a good step. But there's a long way to go before we have a democracy free of the influence of money. 

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