What to say about this afternoon's Democratic gubernatorial debate in Squirrel Hill, hosted by the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club? There weren't a ton of fireworks: Probably the most newsworthy development, in fact, was an idea the four rival candidates agreed on. In response to a question from moderator Jon Delano, all the candidates agreed to release information on campaign fundraising each month, rather than the scattered reporting deadlines currently provided in state law.
I know, I know: You can't wait to get a look at that data. (Reports covering 2009 are due tomorrow, in fact.) But until the candidates follow through, you'll have to be content with this write-up of today's debate. I promise you, it will be at least as interesting as the list of individual donors giving between $50 and $250.
If you're joining us late, the four Dems in the running include two hometown boys -- Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and state Auditor General Jack Wagner -- and two guys from Someplace Else. Those would be Joe Hoeffel, a county commissioner in Philly-suburban Montgomery County, and Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty.
To some extent, the two camps divided on policy as well. Asked about healthcare reform, Hoeffel and Doherty said they favored single-payer plans -- at the state level if need be. Onorato and Wagner took the less ambitious, more ambiguous, approach of favoring a "public option." And while Onorato and Wagner both espoused various tax cuts for business, Hoeffel and Doherty expressed some misgivings. (Hoeffel, for example, contended that corporations used to pay one-quarter of the taxes in the state, but now only pay one-fifth. "I think we'd be better off if we restored that to its original level," he said.)
Hoeffel, Onorato and Wagner all spoke forcefully about a reform they thought would streamline the budget process: not allowing state legislators or anyone in the governor's office to draw a paycheck until a budget was passed. Doherty struck a somewhat milder note: "You don't need penalties," he said. "We're not children." (Talk to us after you get your first swirly in Harrisburg, Mayor Doherty.)
On social issues, the discussion was largely a reprise of an earlier forum at the PA Progress Summit in Harrisburg. (Sue Kerr provides a nice write-up of the positions here.) Hoeffel and Doherty reiterated their support for marriage equality; Onorato spoke out in favor of civil unions, and touted the county's anti-discrimination ordinance. Wagner dropped the only real clunker on this one, repeating the old "marriage is between a man and woman" argument, while touting his credentials fighting to protect people from getting beaten up or killed by bigots.
On abortion, Onorato called himself a supporter of the state's current law -- and pledged to "veto any legislation that attempted to change it." Presumably, that could also apply to any legislation that could make an abortion easier to obtain: Staunchly pro-choice Hoeffel, for one, complained that the state's law "is too restrictive as it is."
For his part, Doherty flatly stated, "I believe in a woman's right to choose, and I would veto any bill that would take that right away." That sounds definitive -- and it echoes statements Doherty has made previously. But on the other hand, it does seem to give Doherty some wiggle room on legislation that tightened restrictions on choice without taking it away completely. And there have been some questions about where Doherty has previously been on the issue.
Wagner, who is pro-life, was careful to emphasize that he was "not for criminalizing abortion." He added that he was a "strong proponent of adoption." Which means that if the GOP candidate opposes adoption, voters will have a strong contrast this Novemember.
Onorato's own dissonant note came in an answer to a question about legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes. The other three Dems all said they supported such a measure. Not Onorato. "I just don't think it's the right thing to do," he said. "Especially right now." It's not clear when Onorato thinks would be a good time to legalize medicinal use: Delano gave Onorato a chance to elaborate on the answer, but Onorato merely said something about how he wanted people to know where he stood -- the "give me credit for talking straight" routine.
As far as I could tell, no one in the crowd was overjoyed by any of the candidates' positions on the Mon-Fayette Expressway. The phrasing of the question -- "will you kill this project once for all?" -- was a bit leading, but candidates either hedged their position or flubbed it.
Wagner's pro-Expressway answer -- which cited poor infrastructure as one reason that industry died in the Mon Valley -- prompted some scattered groans. But hey -- give him credit for talking straight. Noting that the project was controerisal, Hoeffel talked a bit about PennDOT, and how the highway agency couldn't maintain the roads it already had. (True enough, though the Expressway would be a Turnpike project, handled by a seperate agency with its own funding stream.) He did note his support for "user fees" like increased tolls and a gas tax to help double spending on transportation.
Doherty hedged as well, but Onorato's answer -- which made his approval conditional on getting interchanges built near brownfield sites -- was perhaps the most nuanced. It didn't commit him to the controversial project, and it gave him a chance to cite -- again -- his work on brownfield redevelopment. (You should probably get used to hearing the word "brownfield" from Onorato.)
Who "won" this debate? Well, at an event like this, all the candidates are winners: I mean, it's just great to see so many middle-aged white guys getting involved. And nobody really scored points off anyone else -- even when Delano not-so-subtly urged them to do so, in hopes of warding off a "lovefest."
Hoeffel is probably the closest ideological match for the East End audience -- at the outset, he expressed pleasure at the chance to be "talking to good progressives" -- but Wagner scored some applause by decrying the culture in Harrisburg. Onorato is a known quantity around here, but his performance was a reminder that he's pretty good at this stuff.
As for Doherty? He's the mayor of a city best known as the setting of The Office, and so just being seen was a victory. He mixes policy prescriptions with a sort of appeal to self-esteem: Scranton turned itself around "by investing in ourselves, by having pride in ourselves," he said ... and the state could do the same. That might resonate in Pittsburgh, which prides itself on being humble -- and where "poor self-image" is a constant diagnosis. Plus, Doherty sounded a bit further to the left than I was expecting.
In the end, nobody embarrassed themselves. And I've seen a lot of four-person races where you couldn't say that.
But don't take my word for it: The debate will air tomorrow at 8 p.m. on the statewide cable channel PCN.
Tags: Slag Heap
Local artist and curator Welch's show at the Downtown storefront gallery is titled A Few Objects -- On a Theme of Contradiction, but the term "objects" doesn't really do these works justice.
Contraptions, microverses or perhaps "phenomenological gadgets with cryptic narrative overtones" would be more appropriate.
Several of them are packed into the small Pittsburgh Cultural Trust venue. One is "Finding Order," a large-scale abstract painting on an old-fashioned, window-shade-style home-movie screen. It appears to have constellations marked on it, and holes punched to let through the illumination from a light source behind.
The most amusing is "Fucking Archetypes," which consists in part of a short painter's ladder, a motor, a mechanical arm that terminates in a purple dildo, and a large piece of sheet metal suspended vertically. Every few minutes at last week's gallery crawl, the seemingly inanimate device alarmed patrons by leaping to life, the motor inducing the arm to pummel the metal with the dildo, making a sound like, uh ... thunder.
(Welch is fond of such intermittent sonic eruptions: Visitors to the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts might recall his room-sized library made entirely -- books, shelves and all -- out of blue foam, which was also intermittently animated, make to vibrate to an otherworldly piped-in noise.)
Other items incorporated into the "Archetypes" scenario include a yellow lifejacket, a tall plexiglass cylinder half-full of water, and a red light.
Still, my favorite work in the show was the most object-like. "A Relationship of Command" sat in the middle of the floor, consisting of a sort of earthen obelisk laying on its side, one end cupped in a fallen wheelbarrow whose wooden undercarriage bristled with 20 arrows. The title suggests an allegory of social power structures. But my first impressions was that some Olympian child has swept a dried-mud prism from its heavenly play-table, only to have it plunge nose-first into a terrestrial wheelbarrow ... at the precise moment that the blameless barrow was attacked by vindictive archers, whose feathered missiles struck just before it toppled. At long intervals, the work also emits a high-pitched hum. Inscrutable, yet fascinating.
Welch was Pittsburgh Center for the Arts' 2008 Emerging Artist of the Year. He's now a full-time curator at the PCA. His newest show as curator, a big group exhibition titled Cluster, opens there with a reception on Fri., Feb. 5.
A Few Objects runs at 709 Penn through Feb. 19.
Tags: Program Notes
Perhaps it makes me a bad rock journalist, but I'm not a major collector. I recently realized there are only a couple of artists I feel the completist compulsion toward: Arthur Russell is one, and Daniel Higgs is another.
I attempted last spring to sum Higgs up in 400 words or so, as he was to appear at Morning Glory Coffeehouse in Morningside. The show last year was Higgsian all around: I recall babies attending, as well as dogs. I remember singalongs, and Higgs's giant banjo. Much of his newer material -- some of it straight-up storytelling with some autoharp drone -- was simple but transcendent.
Lo! Higgs returns: he'll be back at Morning Glory tomorrow night (Saturday, the 30th) and so will I. Come join us and learn about the universal alphabet, and puppet-heads and all that. The Dutch Stellar OM Source appears as well; it kicks off around 7:30.
Earlier this week, I noted that one of the distinguishing characteristics of Senate candidate Joe Sestak is the way he invokes his military service in support of a progressive agenda. Here's some more evidence this morning, prompted by Sen. John McCain's opposition to Barack Obama's promise to end "Don't Ask/Don't Tell."
Here's the response of Sestak, a former Navy admiral, to McCain's statement:
As the senior ranking military Veteran in Congress, I am compelled to respond to Sen. McCain's opposition to President Obama's commitment to allowing all American troops to serve their country openly and honestly. How can a policy that has dismissed more than 13,000 trained, able, and honorable American servicemembers -- including upwards of 800 troops with "mission critical" skills, like Arab linguists -- be viewed as successful?
Especially in a time of war, when our military is overstretched and our troops and their families are under unprecedented strain, we cannot afford to lose any more troops that the American people depend on for our national security. I agree with Sen. McCain that our military is the best in the world and the best in our nation's history. That's precisely why I have faith in the leadership capabilities of our officer corps and non-commissioned officers, as well as the dedication, professionalism, and integrity of our troops, to handle this transition without detriment to readiness or capability.
The men and women who wear the cloth of this nation should be entitled to the rights they so heroically defend.
Tags: Slag Heap
There's been a nightmarish familiarity about the allegations of police brutality against Jordan Miles, a CAPA honors sudent. I remember a cluster of similar allegations in the years leading up to a lawsuit and federal consent decree imposed on the city during the Murphy Administration.
And at a press conference outside Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's office this morning, many of the speakers were familiar too: folks like longtime activist Tim Stevens and ACORN's Maryellen Hayden were on hand. There was a lot of talk about Jonny Gammage -- whose 1995 death at the hands of suburban police took place before most of Miles' schoolmates were old enough to walk.
But dozens of Miles' friends and classmates were also in attendance. Demonstrating a bit of CAPA flair, several held signs reading "Police Brutes Ain't Cute" and "We need a new reality without police brutality." (Miles' supporters have also launched a Facebook page.)
"Police -- we're trying to trust you guys," said Nigel Ash, a sophomore at CAPA. But on the other hand, "If me and my two friends went down to Homewood [to find] someone who looks suspicious and beat them up, we would be in jail ... What's the difference?"
Other students in the crowd expressed similar misgivings. To a person, students described Miles as being "goofy," having a good sense of humor, and being incapable of doing anything that would warrant any sort of police attention. Meanwhile, doubts about the police seemed widespread.
Ryan Allen, a friend of Miles and a CAPA student who also lives in Homewood, told me that, while he's "always been skeptical about certain cops," the Miles beating has made him much less trusting. "I look at every cop different now," he said. "When I see an officer now, the first thing that comes to mind is, 'They're going to lock me up.'"
Another friend of Miles, Ariel Greer, also has some reason to doubt police. Officers have claimed they first approach Miles because he had something heavy in his coat -- something the police later identified as a bottle of Mountain Dew. Greer finds that hard to believe. "I drink Mountain Dew all the time," she said. "If he ever had any, he would have shared it with me." That's the sort of person Miles is, she said: "He doesn't have a record at school. He doesn't even swear."
Protesters are waiting to address city council as I type this, and they also plan to attend a meeting of the Citizen Police Review Board tonight. The Review Board, of course, was created in the wake of outrage over Gammage's death, and other concerns about police accountability. A decade later, those concerns are still very much in evidence.
During the press conference, community activist Paradise Gray addressed students directly -- by apologizing to them. "I'm so sorry that we have been so inept in getting justice," he told them. "We cannot get it done." But he reminded them that "Your lives are the ones on the line ... Stand up for yourselves: Some of us got your back."
Tags: Slag Heap
Pop punk, with its serrated guitar hooks, sunny melodies and periodic gang vocals, has a strong presence in the Pittsburgh area -- groups like Punchline, The Berlin Project, Transition, and more recently, Chalk Dinosaur. One of the newest groups to tap that legacy is Mace Ballard. Last fall, the band released its five-song debut, Can't Build Something with Monologues. "We're not messing around this time / This is not a test," sings vocalist and guitarist Chris Daley on the opening track.
That Mace Ballard is a new band is also suggested by the fact that, apart from Daley (formerly of Kid Durango), it can be a little tricky figuring out who is (still) in the band. Dan Maldonado, for example, is the bass player on the band's MySpace page and has a thank-you section in the EP's liner notes ... yet the bass playing is all credited to two other musicians. Several tracks also feature guitar by Justin Portis (Portis Project, among others), presumably as a guest. While you ponder such lineup-change mysteries, check out this free download of "Go Means Go."
This weekend, I was on PCNC's Nighttalk: Get to the Point, and fellow guest Monica Douglas made an assertion that might have surprised people ... assuming any were watching. (We were airing on a Friday night, after all, up against a Haiti benefit featuring folks like Justin Timberlake and Madonna.)
Douglas is the executive director for the Republican Party in Allegheny County, and host P.J. Maloney asked her who would be the stronger Democrat in this fall's U.S. Senate race: incumbent Arlen Specter or upstart Joe Sestak.
Douglas didn't pause: Sestak, she said.
Surprising? Maybe a bit, since polls -- including one last month -- show Specter holding off a challenge from likely GOP nominee Pat Toomey, while Sestak lags the field. The conventional wisdom is that Specter is a known quantity, and has the backing of party elders like Ed Rendell.
But on the other hand ... Specter is a known quantity, and has the backing of party elders like Ed Rendell.
Sestak, a former three-star admiral who now holds a seat in the US House from out in the eastern part of the state, has made repeated visits to Pittsburgh in recent days. This Sunday, he appeared in the cramped basement of Beechview's Moose Lodge. He was there largely to talk about shoring up the country's retirement system, but he mixed in some digs at his own party elders.
"Tell me the one great issue Arlen Specter is noted for," Sestak asked the crowd. "Name just one."
There was a pause, and then some laughter.
"Survival," one audience members said.
Not for long, Sestak argued later: "We will lose if Arlen Specter is the nominee. We saw that in Massachusetts."
That, of course, was a reference to last week's special election in Massachusetts, in which Republican Scott Brown won the Senate seat long held by the late Ted Kennedy. Sestak's take is that the outcome shows that voters are weary of the political establishment in Washington -- Democrats included.
For what it's worth, I think that's true. I know plenty of folks who think Specter will win the Democratic nomination this spring. But I don't know anyone who is really happy about it. And the enthusiasm gap killed Democrats in Massachusetts, especially with key groups like young voters.
No surprise, then, that Sestak is running as an insurgent against his own party -- actively boasting about how Democratic leaders wish he wouldn't run.
When one audience member said he was "really tired of Republicans pushing Democrats around," Sestak promised he wasn't going to be pushed around even by Democrats. "I'm running against a Democratic establishment [that] mandated that I sit down."
Sestak also talked policy to the crowd of two dozen, who mostly seemed well disposed to him (and well schooled on the issues). To increase national savings rates, he proposed a tax credit of up to 60 percent on the first $2,000 of savings put away by working-class households. He also supported requirements for all but the smallest employers to offer IRA plans to employees -- and for employees to be automatically enrolled in those programs unless they opt out. (That sounds like a small distinction, but behaviorial economists tell us that compelling people to opt out rather than opt in dramatically increases participation in IRAs.) Sestak also waxed populist, calling for more transparency and an end to "usurious fees" by money mangers.
Sestak predicted that in the short run, Congress would pass a measure dealing with several of the easier issues on health-care -- like ending recissions and denial of care because of pre-existing conditions. That will be followed by "a small hiatus," and then another run at reform, he surmised.
This was also my first time watching Sestak interact with voters directly. He's a little wonky at times -- no one should ever use the word "incentivize" -- but otherwise not bad at all. At one point he asked his listeners, "You all remember Harry Truman? You're too young -- but you read about him." I'm guessing at least a quarter of the audience could have voted for Truman.
But to me, the most interesting thing about Sestak is how he uses his military background as a basis for an unapologetically liberal stance. Sestak brought up his position on LGBT issues -- which includes supporting an end to "Don't Ask/Don't Tell"-- by flatly declaring, "I went to war with a certain percentage [of] servicepeople who were gay."
As for his position on healthcare reform? Sestak doesn't back single-payer -- he prefers aggressive market reforms -- but scoffs at GOP fearmongering about it: "Everybody in the military has healthcare. Are we socialistic?"
In fact, Sestak says, "Everybody in the military is a Democrat; they just don't realize it."
So I gotta think that Sestak could hold his own against Toomey, Specter, or anyone else. He's already had lots of practice: Sestak noted that regularly mixes it up on FOX News and other such forums.
But that, of course, only raises the real problem he faces this year: Republicans like Monica Douglas know how dangerous Sestak can be. Democrats, though, don't watch FOX.
Tags: Slag Heap
Jeremy Wade's There Is No End To More begins with a bravura bit of seeming nonsense. It's a movement piece: performer Jared Gradinger, occupying an essentially bare stage last night at the New Hazlett Theater, danced to a voiceover narration that seemed collaged from scraps of a half-dozen or more of the futuristic candy-coated superhero fantasies familiar from Japanese cartoons.
The narration was a stream-of-consciousness tumble of polyethylene surrealism and cut-and-paste pseudonarrative. "I'm covered in rain and electrical bolts of energy," said the voice -- unsettlingly, an adult male voice adopting the whispery hush of a child telling a story under the bedsheets.. "My horse can suddenly talk to me. ... I'm falling through the folds in space. I have a magic ring."
Gradinger sometimes quivered, sometimes creeped; mimicked flight (on his belly, back arched, arms thrust forward); postured defiantly. Danger threatened. A team of heroes was vaguely formed. Rainbows figured prominently.
This prologue was followed by sort of a nightmare version of a children's TV show titled There Is No End To More. Gradinger, a dark-haired, dark-bearded young guy in large round spectacles, played the host. The "show" was composed largely of Gradinger attempting to educate an unseen group of children about a series of issues: "puberty class," "diversity," "government." But the kids (voiced with breathless precision by Gradinger himself) took over the discussion with their non sequiturs, questions, factoids and half-formed impressions. The "family" discussion is transformed when one kid asks, "What if your mom used to be a boy?"
With an increasingly cacophonous soundtrack and a mad mix of video projections on the set's back wall -- Flash-style animations of cats, black-and-white cartoons suggesting anime -- the show's host is quickly overwhelmed by the show.
There Is No End, part of The Andy Warhol Museum's typically provocative Off the Wall performance series, is a collaboration between numerous artists. Wade, who directed, conceived the work while on a commission in Japan to research the phenomenon of Kawaii (or "cute") culture. With cartoons from Japan; current events from the U.S.; and magazine images from Europe, however, There Is No End's dark take addresses any consumer society.
A series of brief, interpolated lectures on the perils of consumerism (delivered by a deep, distorted male voice accompanying magazine furniture ads) helps make clear that the general idea of There Is No End is to critique our culture of sensory overload and its buy-happiness ethos.
Wade and company also seemed to say that in an increasingly complex and ubiquitously commercialized world, kids grow up confused, and that commercial interests exploit these anxieties in selfp-perpetuating ways. A longing for inclusion in one of those TV-perfect families, for example, can be fulfilled only through equally merchandized fantasies of TV-perfect superhero teams.
Near the show's end, the consumerism lecturer described a black lacquered end table pictured in an IKEA-like ad as the embodiment of malevolence, even as the onscreen table grew a black hole that sucked in several cartoon characters. The sequence, willfully hyperbolic, baffled me. Then I realized that Wade and company were proposing that as adults, we merely subsume the childhood anxieties we escaped through fantasy into the purchase of household furnishings.
The full house at the New Hazlett might have been a bit shell-shocked by the show's sound and fury, but surely everyone left with plenty to talk about.
Tags: Program Notes
For years, you couldn't have visited the corner of Forbes and Smithfield without seeing Claudelle Bazemore. The friendly, sometimes-homeless Downtown fixture camped there daily, seated in a big chair with bags full of books and newspapers and a tall stack of plastic cups nearby.
About 40 people gathered at noon today to mark Bazemore's passing at the spot where she always sat -- alongside the CVS store. The memorial site centered on a red folding chair holding two framed photographs of Bazemore, plus a third photo of her as a young boy. Candles burned nearby, and someone had set up a little table with a chessboard as a reminder of Bazemore's favorite game.
Bazemore, 60, died this past Saturday, of heart disease. Born Clyde Bazemore, the Hill District native began dressing as a woman as a teenager, and in her later years was one of Downtown's more memorable panhandlers.
"He transcended everything," Bazemore's brother, Jacquet Bazemore, told the crowd at the brief memorial celebration -- referring to Claudelle Bazemore's race, gender expression and homelessness, for starters. "Always had a good word for everybody... Pittsburgh, on this corner, will never be the same."
Jacquet Bazemore was among those who brought flowers to place at Claudelle's longtime sidewalk post. He also led the crowd in reciting the Lord's Prayer and singing "Amazing Grace."
Claudelle Bazemore was the subject of a 1988 front-page feature article in the Post-Gazette, and afterward became something of a celebrity. Michael Fuoco wrote a thoughtful article on Bazemore's death in yesteday's P-G. According to the article, Bazemore had held a number of jobs, but lost many of them when employers learned she was crossdressing.
Bazemore had become homeless after an apartment fire in 1994, according to the P-G. But though she still went Downtown daily until her final illness, Bazemore had not had to sleep there for the past several years. She died in her apartment in Garfield.
Others who spoke today included Erica Smith, who for eight years was Claudelle Bazemore's caseworker through Community Human Services. Bazemore, Smith said, "looked at the world with nonjudgmental eyes that were wide open and accepting."
Tags: Slag Heap
The big concern -- especially among those fighting for a prevailing wage bill already on the table -- is that all this newfound attention may kill workers with kindness. There's also concern that it will put some politicians -- Bill Peduto chief among them -- in a tough spot.
We'll get to the reason for those concerns in a minute. But first, a bit of history.
The living-wage bill was passed in 2001, but put on indefinite hiatus the following year -- more about that in a second. Burgess' new legislation would take the measure out of limbo.
You might think such a move would be embraced by advocates of the prevailing wage measure currently before the city. Both bills impose wage standards on employers who get taxpayer dollars. But the prevailing wage bill applies only to workers in a handful of industries -- food-service, hotel workers, grocery-store-employees, and building maintenance. The living wage, meanwhile, applies to employers in any line of work. It's broader in another sense as well: It applies not just to recipients of tax subsidies, but to contractors and subcontractors working directly for the city.
Then too, the living wage establishes a pay scale considerably higher than the prevailing wage does. In 2001, the living wage would have set a wage floor of $10.62 an hour, $9.12 an hour with benefits. Actually, workers would be making much more than that today: The living-wage bill included a provision to adjust the wage for inflation every year. By my calculations, today's living wage would be about $12.66 an hour, $10.88 with benefits.
Earnings under the current prevailing wage legislation, by contrast, would be much less impressive. A check of the U.S. government's wage database suggests that in this part of the country, a typical custodial/food service job pays in the neighborhood of $8-9 an hour, with benefits. So even for those employees lucky enough to benefit from the prevailing wage bill, the living wage would be a better deal.
(UPDATE: Since posting this, I've heard from prevailing-wage backers who say that my reliance on government figures is misplaced. The government figures average Pittsburgh employees with those of outlying areas .... whereas, as written, the prevailing-wage legislation applies only to employees in large-scale -- 100,000 square feet and up, generally speaking -- developments in the city and only considers wages inside city limits. That's a much more select group of worksites: The SEIU estimates that wages for employees in that cohort are in the neighborhood of $10-$13 an hour with benefits. If anything, prevailing-wage backers say, a living wage bill might be lower than the prevailing wage, thereby undercutting the wages currently being paid to hotel, grocery-store and other employees. This would, of course, be another reason to be wary of the living wage bill.)
Yet when Burgess brought up the living-wage measure, the response from the economic-justice community has been muted. Last night, Pittsburgh United sent out a message welcoming his bill ... but urging that it not distract from the prevailing wage legislation.
The statement quotes Rev. John Welch, who heads the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network, observing that "Pittsburgh taxpayers are tired of seeing their money used to keep people in poverty -- that's why we're seeing such strong interest in legislation that will create good jobs at subsidized developments." Even so, he adds, "There's no reason to delay a ... vote on the prevailing wage bill with all nine council members in favor."
(Yes -- all nine council members: Patrick Dowd, formerly the lone councilor not cosponsoring the prevailing wage bill, signed up yesterday. Dowd voted for the bill last year, and told me he had "always supported this bill and want to be a part of the team to help make this even more successful legislation. If we don't, those who want and deserve prevailing wage will be devastated if this is attacked in court. ")
Why the wariness? Because as one prevailing-wage backer told me, the reintroduction of the living-wage issue "has Yarone Zober's fingerprints all over it." I'm not sure that's fair to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's chief of staff, or to Burgess himself: Living wage is a better deal for workers, period. But there clearly is concern that the living wage is being brought up now to muddy the waters. Ravenstahl first tried to offer a prevailing wage bill that could apply to no one: Now comes a bill that could kill prevailing wage by applying to everyone.
How could that happen? For one thing, as the Post-Gazette notes, councilor Bill Peduto -- a champion of the prevailing-wage bill -- was far less enthusiastic about living wage. Back in 2002, Peduto voted with a narrow 5-4 majority to add a provision making the city's bill dependent on the county passing a similar measure. That vote is what put living wage in a coma for the past decade.
As news accounts at the time explained, tying the city's efforts to the county addressed a concern voiced by then-Mayor Tom Murphy -- that "living-wage requirements would drive businesses away from the city."
That is, of course, the same misgiving expressed by the current administration about today's prevailing wage bill. In fact, the Ravenstahl administration has taken a page from Murphy's book -- seeking to make any city prevailing-wage ordinance dependent on the county's passing one too.
So one effect of reviving living-wage may be to remind folks of Peduto's former position, giving Ravenstahl cover for his own approach ... while perhaps isolating Peduto from the labor groups backing the prevailing wage bill.
Another impact, some prevailing wage backers fear, is that it will splinter the grocery, hotel and other employees from workers in other industries, who have nothing to gain from the prevailing wage bill as currently written. And at the same time it could sow some division among labor, meanwhile, a living wage bill might inspire more businesses to weigh in on the whole question of wage legislation. Living wage, after all, is a broader initiative -- one that could mobilize a broader group of businesses to oppose it.
The wage issue, in other words, could become a wedge issue. Whether that was the intent or not.
In council, Peduto is arguing that the living-wage bill doesn't just apply to folks getting tax breaks: It applies to contractors and subcontractors for the city as well. So unlike the prevailing wage bill, the living wage could worsen the city's chronic budget problems. No doubt this will prompt developers to say "Hey, join the club!" They could fault the city for being willing to pass along costs to them, while trying to beg off wage initiatives that would cost the city money.
The counter to that, of course, is that since the living wage bill passed nearly a decade ago, Pittsburgh has been put into financial receivership. Council must take into account a panel of state overseers -- a panel that didn't exist when council first debated the living wage in 2001 and 2002. It makes sense, then, to do what the folks at Pittsburgh United are pushing for: Pass the prevailing-wage measure now to set rules for tax subsidies that others received. And then contemplate -- in concert with financial overseers -- a measure that would have a more pronounced effect on the city's bottom line.
But I've got a feeling this is going to be a bumpy ride.
Tags: Slag Heap