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Friday, April 30, 2010

Public service reminder: Sestak/Specter

Posted By on Fri, Apr 30, 2010 at 7:07 PM

Just a reminder that tomorrow night, Joe Sestak and Arlen Specter will be having, like, their only debate in this entire political campaign.

That's one less debate than the Democrats running for governor had yesterday alone. There have been roughly two dozen debates by the gubernatorial candidates so far.

The lack of action in the Senate campaign is Specter's doing, of course. But tomorrow's debate airs at 7 p.m.; it's taking place in Philadelphia, but you can see it here on WTAE-TV, or on the statewide cable network, PCN. (Live streaming here.)

But while Specter has helped insure that there is not much old-media attention paid to this campaign, I've been surprised at how little attention Sestak has gotten from new media. Last year, Markos Moulitsas -- the guy behind the DailyKos Web site -- was spilling over with enthusiasm for Sestak. But in recent months, there's hardly been any commentary about, or enthusiasm for, the PA Senate race at DailyKos itself. Most of the Netroots' energy seems to have shifted from Sestak/Specter to a Senate race in Arkansas, where Bill Halter is challenging Blanche Lincoln from the left.

What's going on? I asked Moulitsas himself, and here's what he had to say, via e-mail

Sestak lost a lot of energy on the Left when he move Right on Afghanistan. Then Specter refused to play the role of villain (which both [Connecticut Senator Joe] Lieberman and Blanche Linoln have played to perfection), by becoming the most dependable Democrat. No one may believe the conversion, but it offers little material for his foes to attack.Finally, Sestak's strategy of waiting until the last minute to begin his media war gave us little material with which to craft a hero. 

So Sestak killed a lot of early excitement with this Afghanistan position, then became invisible, all the while Specter eliminated virtually all lines of attack.

Sestak has raised eyebrows by criticizing a key element of Barack Obama's Afghanistan policy. As the Post-Gazette put it late last year:

Mr. Sestak, a ... favorite of progressives, sounded much like a Republican this week in discussing Afghanistan, attacking President Barack Obama for committing in advance to a pullout date after his 30,000-troop surge

As for the second part of Moulitsas' criticism ... used to be that progressives took comfort in the fact that Sestak had $5 million sitting in the bank. Nowadays, they're wondering what's taken him so long to start spending it. If Sestak loses, this might be the reason why: He faulted Obama for threatening to end the Afghan campaign too soon ... while Sestak himself didn't began campaiging until too late. 

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Von Singletary of Venture Outdoors

Posted By on Fri, Apr 30, 2010 at 1:51 PM

Singletary, a local environmentalist, ecologist and social activist, is on a mission to bring Pittsburgh outside this summer.

Singletary recently joined the staff at Venture Outdoors. The nonprofit group, dedicated to promoting the region's outdoor resources and opportunities, organizes a myriad of activities: sporty adventures (kayaking, hiking, and biking), agricultural programs and other family-friendly outdoor events.

As family and community programs specialist, Singletary will initiate programs like these, to connect Pittsburghers to their environment. Weekly activities "are geared towards collaboration and participation, and [making] connections between each other," Singletary says.

Singletary, a 25-year-old native of Pittsburgh's East End, says her environmental training began with her great-grandmother, who grew up on a farm in South Carolina. "I've taken Rachel Carson's work to heart since the time I read my first excerpt of Silent Spring in third grade," she adds.

Singletary later learned a lot about collaboration -- and more about plants -- through her work at local urban farms and gardens including Landslide Community Farm, a grassroots urban-farming initiative in the Hill District. The farm, started by five community-minded activists in 2007, maintains several gardens with all-volunteer labor. What the farm harvests is used for community meals, available to the public for nothing more than a voluntary donation.

Landslide was in the news last fall, during the G-20 summit of world leaders: Days before the summit, at least 40 police officers spent hours searching the site, eventually ordering the removal of about 100 tires on a nearby city-owned lot. The tires had apparently been there for more than a year; police called the search "a precautionary measure" related to G-20 protests, with which Landslide volunteers said they were not involved.

Singletary, who was a full-time volunteer at the farm, says that the Landslide experience goes beyond community aid. Aside from learning the science behind earth-friendly farming, her experiences increased her awareness of urban ecosystems and Pittsburghers' impact upon them -- a motivation for her work with Venture Outdoors.

"We all share the outdoors and the environment," says Singletary. "Some aren't as responsible as they should be."

But to love the outdoors, you've got to get to know the outdoors. So Venture Outdoors takes care their activities (agricultural or otherwise) are "inclusive and welcoming to everyone," regardless of experience level or mobility, says Singletary. 

According to this environmentalist, getting Pittsburgh outside is as simple, "if you see something that's easy, and it's fun, and it's healthy." Singletary aims to make sure Venture Outdoors is just that.

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Democrats not QUITE beyond debate

Posted By on Fri, Apr 30, 2010 at 10:38 AM

One of the mysteries about this year's governor race is why so few voters seem to be paying attention to it. Having attended a pair of debates yesterday, I think I know part of the answer. It's not that four Democratic contenders are all the same -- it's that for much of the campaign, they haven't been very assertive about pointing out each other's differences. 

Last night was an exception, thanks partly to the presence of state Senator Anthony Hardy Williams at a candidates forum hosted by the local African American Chamber of Commerce. The four Democrats were all in attendance, as was state Attorney General Tom Corbett (though he left early), and an independent candidate, Robert Alan Mansfield -- more about whom anon.

Williams is the lone black Democrat in the race, and his late-starting campaign has been bankrolled by supporters of school vouchers. Williams is a passionate supporter of that cause, a position that puts him at odds with Joe Hoeffel -- a county commissioner from neighboring Montgomery County -- especially.

The two had an exchange about it last night, and in their debate you could hear the way the voucher issue has driven wedges between some black voucher supporters, and white liberals who feel a strong allegiance to public schools. (Hear Willams take issue with public schooling here; Hoeffel's response is here.)

Onorato avoided the voucher subject entirely, which is a bit ironic: The guy who has been endorsed by the state's biggest teacher's union largely stayed out of the fray. 

Williams also took issue with Hoeffel's strong rating by CeaseFirePa, a gun-control advocacy group. Williams brushed aside the rankings, observing that, whereas Hoeffel lived in a suburban county, Williams has "lived there amongst the mayhem," and helped direct $5 million in state money to a gun-violence task force. "If you want to pick somebody  that's gonna be governor on this issue," Williams said, "you need to measure them by their actions, not their commentary."

Williams also sparred over the issue with Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, who pointed out that while the state had $5 million for Philly, no one in the west got anything close to that.

"There's not $5 million out here in the west, becuase nobody asked for it," Williams said. "Our mayor asked for it, and I gave it to him. And I don't know what happened out here, but I would have been happy to support $5 million coming out here also.

"Well, consider it asked for," Onorato replied tartly. "I'll pick up the check tomorrow."  

"You make me governor, you'll get it," Williams said.

"Uh-huh," Onorato replied.  

An earlier debate, held at the Doubletree hotel Downtown, was a less fractious affair -- perhaps because Williams wasn't in attendance.

Sponsored by local tourism officials and the hospitality industry, the Doubletree event was mainly notable for being the first time locals had seen Robert Alan Mansfield. Mansfield is an independent with an Alan Keyes vibe: a black candidate whose whose positions seem likely to capture some Tea Party votes after ultraconservative Sam Rohrer loses the Republican primary.

Mansfield, for example, favors privatizing PennDOT, and won cheers for his one-word response to a question about whether he favored selling off the state store system: "Yes." On the other hand, much of the goodwill evaporated after he told the crowd that state government shouldn't be spending money to support tourism. Such obligations ought to be the responsibility of the tourism industry itself, he said. Say what you want about the guy -- he wasn't pandering.

Auditor General Jack Wagner came across a lot better -- more than anyone else, he tailored his message to the audience. But perhaps the most interesting moment -- bear with me; I'm grading on a curve here -- came when the subject of Allegheny County's controversial drink tax came up. After all, there were more than a few restaurant folks in attendance, including Kevin Joyce, the proprietor of The Carlton restaurant, who was a sharp critic of Onorato on the matter.

Onorato had a pretty polished explanation ... no doubt because he's had to defend himself on the drink tax so many times. You can listen to it yourself here (apologies for the somewhat shaky sound quality), but essentially the argument boils down to "State government made me do it."

Onorato noted that he had to find local funding for the county's transit authority -- and that in most municipalities, government can rely on sales tax revenue. But the state legislature barred him from using such an approach here, and only gave him two funding options -- a drink tax and a car-rental fee like those used in Philadelphia. Onorato pledged that, if elected, he would give the next county exec the freedom he never had -- the option of repealing the drink tax and levying some other fee instead.

"Harrisburg is broken," he concluded. "Send me there and I'll fix it." 

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sestak continues counterattack

Posted By on Thu, Apr 29, 2010 at 2:25 PM

I spotted the latest Joe Sestak ad on TV this morning. (Yeah, that's right, I like to watch Tricia Pittman's traffic reports, all right? DON'T JUDGE ME.) It's yet another reprisal for an ad launched by Senate rival Arlen Specter, which blasts Sestak's military service. And it builds on a campaign that has been going for several days -- a response which has featured Sestak volunteers protesting at Specter's district offices, and which also involved a full-length speech by Sestak in Washington D.C. last night. 

I'll paste the text of that speech below. But a quick thought first. 

There's been quite a bit of second-guessing about how Sestak has handled Specter's attacks. Many point out that the allegations against Sestak aren't new -- they've been bandied about online for awhile now, including in a RealClearPolitics post that is nearly a year old. And they wonder why Sestak seemed to be caught flat-footed by them. Others fault Sestak for giving Specter an opening in the first place. By waiting so long to launch his own campaign, the critics contend, Sestak has made it easy for Specter to define his opponent and "shape the battlespace." (Or whatever the proper military metaphor is -- we didn't even HAVE ROTC where I went to school.)

But at this point, with Sestak's camp flogging the issue this way, you have to wonder whether Specter has given Sestak just what the challenger needed.

Remember: If Sestak is going to win this race, it will HAVE to be because everyone is sick of Specter's shenanigans, his willingness to do anything to hold onto his job. Now here comes Specter with an ad that illustrates the point perfectly, one that comes right out of the GOP's book of dirty tricks.

Sestak's campaign has responded by invoking the memories of "swiftboating" -- a reference to the Repubilcan attacks on the service of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Clearly the hope is that sets off some alarm bells for loyal Dems: Hey, here's Specter, a former Republican, using some of the very GOP tactics Democrats resented most. Especially because they were effective during the Bush years.

That's the hell of it, of course: They WERE effective. And they may well be again. The conventional wisdom is still that Sestak has a lot of ground to make up in the next couple weeks, and nothing to date has suggested he'll be able to do it.

But if you're a believer, take heart in this: Sestak clearly was going to need Specter's hope if he had a prayer in this race. And Specter just might have provided it. 

The text of Sestak's speech -- at American University last night -- follows. This was text provided by the Sestak campaign itself:


I decided to run for United States Senate because I believe that for too long, Washington has neglected Pennsylvania's working families. I believe Pennsylvania needs someone we can count on to lead with principle and conviction. And believe we cannot keep sending the same politicians to Washington if we want to restore trust in our public servants and national institutions.

Throughout this campaign, my opponent, Senator Arlen Specter, has decided that it is more important to focus on me than on the people of Pennsylvania.

Therefore, I have decided to take this opportunity to discuss who I am, what I believe, and how I came by my convictions -- to help the people of Pennsylvania.

I respect Senator Specter's long service in Washington, but not always his political conduct. We differ not only on policy, but in our approach to public service. I believe that, as a representative of the people, it matters not only what one accomplishes, but how it is accomplished.

A year ago today, Senator Specter, after 44 years as a Republican, left his party. He made his reasons very clear. He said he joined our party because his chances of winning re-election as a Republican were "bleak."

Senator Specter's apparent willingness, particularly in an election cycle, to say or do anything for his own political survival -- a willingness to go back on his own positions even as he questions the character of his challengers -- represents what is wrong and broken in Washington. Arlen Specter's generation of politics has undermined not only our democratic process, but ultimately our sense of national unity and the trust in our leaders and institutions required to overcome the challenges we face as a country.

I am a Democrat because I believe in Democratic principles -- dedication to community, opportunity for all, and service to a common good.

I learned many of these principles from my father -- not just what he taught me and the example he set, but who he was and where he came from.

My father was an immigrant from Slovakia. He came to this country as a young boy and fought for his adoptive nation in World War II. Last October, that boy who was born in a foreign land was laid to rest an American hero in Arlington National Cemetery.

I grew up in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. My mother and father raised eight kids on the salaries of a Navy man and a Catholic-school teacher.

Growing up one of eight kids, I saw what happens when families have the opportunity to succeed based on their own hard work and talents, and when parents are able to fulfill the real American dream of passing on to their kids a better life and a better country than the one they inherited.

That's what taught me the core belief of my Democratic principles -- that strong working families, a vibrant middle class, makes a strong country.

The concept of a middle class is uniquely American. It is born out of the basic idea that everyone should contribute to their fullest and should be given the tools and opportunity to do so. This simple idea has been the engine of our economy, the source of our innovation, and now, all over the world, it is taken for granted that shared opportunity is shared prosperity, and common wealth is common strength.

Too many in Washington fell for the idea that what's good for the powerful and well-connected will eventually work out to be good for the rest of us. Prosperity has never trickled down from the top in this country. It has always been built up by hardworking people -- people striving for their own achievement, but always with a sense of being part of a greater effort.

America has always been driven by this alliance of rugged individualism and common enterprise. It is part of the American character that we measure the wealth of our society by its poor, the health by its sick, and the justice by its wronged.

Ours is the first nation founded on principle, not power, and the perfection of our union, our long struggle to embody the vision set by our founders, is the history of the progressive movement -- freedom, suffrage, civil rights, equality … ideals that are not attained until they extend to all.

Ours is a nation built on service to others -- hewn from the wild through a commitment to the common good and prospering ever since through our dedication to our neighbors, our country, and the world community.

I think that's what motivates us as Americans, and, especially, as Democrats -- the belief that our individual achievement can never be measured apart from the common good.

That is the foundation of my Democratic principles -- the conviction that we can do no better for ourselves than by serving others above ourselves.

That's what I learned from my father, and throughout my 31 years in the U.S. Navy.

I followed in my father's footsteps to Annapolis and entered the military during the height of the Vietnam War. When I went to sea in the early 1970s, the military ranked last among all national institutions in public trust. Today, that has changed. The service now ranks as our most trusted and respected institution. That, I believe, is because people have come to understand that troops go to war -- but it is the nation that sends them there.

The military overcame that challenge of the post-Vietnam era by reaffirming its commitment that leadership depends on a sense of public service -- with a dedication to transparency and accountability.

I again find myself serving in an institution that rates low in the eyes of the public -- the United States Congress. When the body created by and for the people does not enjoy the public trust, it must be viewed as nothing short of a crisis.

Today, there is a lack of faith in our government and even our country -- what we stand for, what we're capable of -- that makes it difficult to meet the serious challenges we face.

The problem is not with a perceived division among the American people -- for what is a democracy without a fierce competition of ideas?

The problem is a politics that seeks to divide, politicians who view the doubts and fears of the people as an avenue to power, and, too often, how they chose to act when they have assumed the public trust.

How can a politics that rewards those who best undermine, divide, and sow doubt result in a leadership that is able to create, unite, and inspire?

When our democracy becomes consumed by personal attacks, it's no wonder that we end up with growing mistrust -- and, too often, with political leaders who feed that kind of cynicism.

I would like to quote President Obama, who made this declaration just over two years ago:

"Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well. For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. …We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we'll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change. … Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, 'Not this time.'"

Well, here we are in the next election, and our politics is as dominated as ever by division, distrust, and personal attacks.

Despite the serious challenges the people in Pennsylvania and across the country continue to face -- day in and day out -- Senator Specter has decided to base his campaign not on his 30-year record, not on his plan for the future, but on baseless attacks on my character, including my service in the United States Navy.

I have no greater honor than my 31 years of service to this country.

On September 11, 2001, I was serving in the Pentagon and was, days later, tapped to direct a new Navy anti-terrorism unit, called "Deep Blue," a role that took me to Afghanistan for a brief mission early in that war. I later commanded the USS George Washington aircraft carrier battle group in combat operations supporting our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Later, I returned to the Pentagon. It was a time of two escalating wars and we were struggling to face a new era of post-Cold War challenges. The Navy urgently needed to adapt to 21st century threats, including the Global War on Terror, and I was charged by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Clark, to make it happen.

The Navy was still measuring strength by the number of "hulls" -- how many submarines, how many ships.

These days, the fight is won or lost in cyberspace more than anywhere else. It's not how big you are. It's what you're capable of. We needed a sleeker, smarter Navy that's a better match for the challenges we face today.

I called for steep cuts to the conventional fleet -- fewer submarines, even fewer carriers -- in exchange for a "knowledge-based" Navy. We can better monitor enemy movements with inexpensive sensors than multi-billion dollar submarines.

This view wasn't popular with some in the establishment -- in the Rumsfeld Pentagon, Congress, and the defense industry.

As I became a Congressman, preparing to come down to the Capitol, I introduced myself to a Senator. "I remember you," he said. "You're the Admiral who tried to cut my submarines."

When Admiral Clark retired, the new CNO wanted a larger fleet and a new team. It was his decision, and I respected it.

My young daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer, and I retired to help care for her. I ran for Congress to see all Americans have access to the kind of health care that saved her life -- health care that was provided to my family by the American public.

Admiral Clark -- the man in charge, the man who was there -- left no question when he was asked about my service to the very end. "I wanted straight talk," he said, "and this put [Joe Sestak] in the crosshairs. People are going to say what they want to say, but he challenged people who did not want to be challenged. The guy's courageous. A patriot's patriot."

It was my job to be in the crosshairs. I was proud to do it and I am proud to now do it again for the working families of Pennsylvania.

Where I come from, if people care more about their own careers than making the right call, then lives are put in danger, and lives are lost. But the consequences on Capitol Hill are just as grave, or more so, for our nation.

I am challenging Arlen Specter because policies he has supported have devastated the lives of untold numbers of American families. • Like his votes to strip away safeguards on Wall Street and let bankers gamble away the pensions of hardworking people while pocketing billion-dollar bonuses for themselves; • His support for disastrous Bush economic and tax policies that brought our country to the verge of collapse and left us with a staggering debt; • And his vote for a tragic war in Iraq and his steady support for the Bush Administration's misguided foreign policy that harmed our national security. In the Navy, we relieve a captain if he runs the ship aground.

If Senator Specter has changed his views and learned from these mistakes, then he ought to say so. But he has not.

If he has a plan to repair our country here at home and restore our standing in the world, we have yet to hear it.

These are serious times, and we face significant challenges. For nearly a year, I have laid out my proposals, principles, and beliefs for the people of Pennsylvania.

If the Senator believes my positions are wrong, if he believes they will fail our country, I urge him to make his case.

But instead of addressing these issues, Senator Specter has little to offer but tired, old Washington politics of negativity that help no one, except, perhaps, himself.

There is nothing I am more proud of than my service to this country. Arlen Specter can say whatever he wants about me -- but the honor I take in having worn the cloth of this Nation for 30 years cannot be undone by a 30 second attack ad.

But for Americans -- particularly those who hold elected office in Washington, DC -- the words of President Obama are worth considering: "The American people are looking to us for answers, not distractions, not diversions, not manipulations. They want real answers to the real problems we are facing. I don't care what they say about me. But I love this country too much to let them take over another election with lies and phony outrage and swift-boat politics. Enough is enough."

As a military man, I was disgusted as Senator Max Cleland, who lost his limbs for our nation, was attacked as unpatriotic during his re-election campaign. I, and others, abhorred it when Senator John Kerry, who served our nation gallantly, was smeared by false charges against his military record as a fighting man in Vietnam.

An attack on the honor of a Veteran is a dishonor to every Veteran, and to do it for the purpose of one's political advantage discredits our democracy. It is a disservice to all the people out there who are struggling and are looking for real answers, and real leadership.

As I was leaving the Navy, a fellow Admiral said to me: "Joe, you weren't supposed to take your assignment seriously."

But I took it very seriously. I took it seriously because it was a serious challenge that had been neglected for too long. How could one possibly weigh one's own career against what is best for the security of our country, and the lives of our men and women in service?

I knew what was at stake, and I will never do anything less than what is called for, which often takes hard work, tough calls, and a willingness to be accountable.

That's what I did in the Navy, what I do in Congress, and what I'll do every day in the Senate.

There is a lack of accountability throughout our government, where those in positions of trust don't take seriously the charge to put the common good ahead of their self-interest. We got a good look at it on Wall Street. We see it every day in Washington.

The problems our country faces will not be easy to fix. We can overcome them, and we will, but not until we have leadership with the resolve to accept great challenges, and the courage to take them seriously.

It's not enough to talk about change. You've got to fight for it. And sacrifice for it. Because when you take on the big challenges, and really try to change the status quo, you often face the consequences not if you fail, but if you are succeeding. That's what I'm willing to do.

When I was a young boy, I decided I wanted to be just like my father -- join the Navy and command a ship at sea. I've fulfilled that dream.

And now there is no consequence that I am unwilling to face in order to stand up for what I believe is right.

That's what I have done throughout my career and what I will do every day as a Senator -- because that is what the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the United States of America demand and deserve from those who serve this nation in their name.

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Gun-control group has gubernatorial race in its sights

Posted By on Thu, Apr 29, 2010 at 10:37 AM

Gun-control advocates CeaseFirePa have issued a voters guide for the upcoming election.  The takeaway: All four Democrats are broadly in support of CeaseFire's reforms -- which include a "lost and stolen" gun ordinance, tougher penalties for those with illegal guns, and more funding for a gun-violence task force. CeaseFire called that "an unprecedented level of support ... in a Pennsylvania governor’s race."

Joe Hoeffel, Montgomery County commissioner and champion of all things progressive, got full marks from the organization. (You can see a side-by-side comparison on page 6 of the guide, complete with grades.) Philadelphia state Senator Anthony Williams placed just behind, with Allegheny County exec Dan Onorato in third and state Auditor General Jack Wagner trailing the Democratic field.

Notably, Wagner opposed allowing local municipalities to impose their own gun-control requirements -- something that has been at issue here in Pittsburgh. "As President of Pittsburgh City Council in the 1990s, I passed a city ordinance banning assault weapons," Wagner's response to the survey asserts. "However it was later overturned by state law." And Wagner now agrees with that decision, it seems: "[G]un laws -- like most other types of laws -- should be uniform throughout the commonwealth."

The voters guide also suggests that Onorato has been tacking to the left on gun control -- much like he's been doing on abortion. It calls his overall strong performance "a long way from his position when he entered the race, when Onorato told reporters he opposed gun violence prevention legislation as 'feel good' reforms" [link added by me].

As for the Republicans? State Attorney General Tom Corbett didn't answer the CeaseFire survey. His challenger, Tea Party fave Sam Rohrer, did respond, but got an F (whoops, I mean ...) a "D." 

Republican frontrunner Tom Corbett didn't reply to the questionnaire while Corbett's challenger, Tea Party favorite Sam Rohrer, opposes the entire gun-control agenda.

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rudiak plays snowball

Posted By on Wed, Apr 28, 2010 at 5:00 PM

This might be the legislative equivalent of putting a snowball in the freezer, and then waiting until the spring thaw to take it out and pelt somebody with it.

City councilor Natalia Rudiak has been trying to look into the city's response -- or lack it -- to the February blizzard that left residents paralyzed for more than a week. But Michael Huss, director of the city's Public Safety division, has blown off repeated requests to meet with council and discuss the issue. 

So today, Rudiak issued a subpoeana to compel his presence at council, for a May 10 meeting. She also thoughtfully enclosed a letter to him, explaining the move.

"One of the biggest problems during the snow storm was a lack of communication and coordination between government offices," Rudiak observes archly in a statement. "If we can't communicate about an emergency, how can we be expected to communicate during an emergency?" 

If only somebody had subpoenaed administration officials when the snow was actually falling ... 

As for the questions council plans to ask? Rudiak's office supplied Huss -- and CP -- with a preliminary list.

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Lac La Belle brings it back to Morning Glory

Posted By on Wed, Apr 28, 2010 at 3:23 PM

A year or two ago, I wrote a Short List entry on a band from Detroit called Lac La Belle. The band is fronted by Jennie Knaggs (it was once known as Jennie and the Sureshots), who is backed up by a couple of heavy-hitting Fantastic Voyagers, Nick Shillace and Joel Peterson. The band plays sweet old-timey counjtry and Western swing with a bent for authenticity and sweet vocals.

Lac La Belle returns to town tomorrow (Thursday) night at Morning Glory Coffeehouse in Morningside -- the show starts at 7:30 and the Beagle Brothers and Istvan Medgyesi open. No cover per se; donations politely requested.

Also, while I've got your ear, and while we're talking about Voyagers, I might send you in the direction of Stereogum, where the kind folks there have secured a track from the forthcoming Daniel Higgs album. As you may have heard, I am kind of into Higgs. Holy Bible time, people.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Beautiful Dreamers

Posted By on Tue, Apr 27, 2010 at 4:18 PM

Among the two dozen characters in Martin Giles' world-premiere play inspired by the music of Stephen Foster, perhaps the most intriguing is the lone Native American, a droll and somewhat cryptic fellow with the tongue-in-cheek name of Black Cloud.

Black Cloud is the first character encountered in Act II by the play's three protagonists, then halfway into their picaresque journey from East to West in mid-19th-century America. Somewhere on the edge of the Great Plains, the three stop to eat, and don't even notice Black Cloud until he speaks.

That functional invisibility is probably significant in itself. Then come Black Cloud's darkly humorous warnings about the dangers inherent in this vast land; his intimations that the travelers -- Americans all, two whites and an escaped black slave -- are really more like trespassers; and his self-admittedly "melancholy" reflections on the dead ancestors whose tomb he is sitting cross-legged upon.

Black Cloud is one of five characters played by Michael Fuller, who joins Daniel Krell, Daina Michelle Griffith and Allison Moody in the fine ensemble cast in this entertaining show. (The production also includes some 20 Foster songs, in new arrangements by Douglas Levine and performed to live accompaniment by Levine, Jonathan Moser, John Marcinizyn and Paul Thompson).

But while Black Cloud -- like most of the characters Giles has written -- is largely comedic, he might be the hardest to laugh off.

In an epic and episodic play filled with betraying pals, lynching-minded Southern bumpkins, simple frontier folk, historical cameos and more, Black Cloud is the one who most clearly comes from someplace else -- someplace that's not the burgeoning Western Civ of money-making, pleasure-seeking and personal fulfillment.

Giles' protagonists certainly don't know what to make of him: Despite the perils they've already faced, for once they're nonplussed, and simply leave the red man to himself. They don't want to hear what he has to say, and thus it's a moment in the play where the audience feels least close to the three heroes (played by Kevin Brown, Joel Ripka and Stephanie Riso), as they deflect what amount to Black Cloud's charges of racism and imperialism. We the audience may be clued in to the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee and genocide, but Giles' protagonists aren't, and indeed can't be.

The scene is thus also the moment where, for me at least, Giles' ambition to write in the Brechtian tradition is clearest: The audience is shown the distance between itself and characters it's surely begun to identify with.

Black Cloud is clearly a character Giles loves. (OK, he told me so himself, in the interviews for my preview feature on the show: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A77883.) And so while there's plenty of reasons to see this PICT/Opera Theater co-production before it closes on on Sat., May 1, maybe there's more life not just in the show, but in this character too. "An Evening With Black Cloud," perhaps?

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Monday, April 26, 2010

More choice tidbits from the campaign trail

Posted By on Mon, Apr 26, 2010 at 3:55 PM

Say what you want about the abortion debate -- at least it used to be pretty straightforward. But as we saw last week, Democratic gubernatorial candidates Dan Onorato and Jack Wagner have both been qualifying their position on choice matters. Although when the campaign began, both were widely understood to be anti-abortion, both Onorato and Wagner say they support current state law allowing abortion.

Meanwhile, over in the GOP, a squabble has broken out over whether the front-running Senate nominee hates choice enough. 

The campaign of Peg Luksik -- an anti-choice absolutist from the old school -- has just sent a public letter to LifePAC of SouthWestern PA, faulting the pro-life group for including Senate contender Pat Toomey on its list of pro-life candidates.

Toomey boasts about having a 0 percent rating from NARAL, the pro-choice group. But in a letter to LifePAC president Mary Lou Gartner, Lusik objected that Toomey

publicly stated in numerous publications that he would have supported the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He has also stated that he believes that President Obama should continue to receive deference in his Supreme Court nominees. No issue is more important to the pro-life community than the Supreme Court, and President Obama's pro-cohice nominees have the potential to do generatoins' worth of damage to our cause.

And it goes on like that, with Luksik accusing Toomey of a handful of Congressional votes that strayed from the pro-life gospel. 

Don't get me wrong: If Pat Toomey is elected to the U.S. Senate, I have the utmost confidence he will vote against all of Barack Obama's judicial appointees. But like Onorato, he's got every reason in the world to soft-peddle his position on choice until the November election. Riling voters up with a wedge issue like abortion isn't going to be a great strategy in a year like this one, when so many voters are focused on the economy. 

Still, it's kinda funny to see abortion dividing the GOP for a change.

Oh, and guess who else is listed as being pro-life in the LifePAC flyer? 

Jack Wagner. 

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Award-winning Local Teen Author

Posted By on Mon, Apr 26, 2010 at 2:52 PM

These have been a good few months for Rachel Rothenberg.

At the end of last year, this CAPA senior appeared on -- nay, dominated -- the Jeopardy Teen Tournament, walking away with $75,000 in prize money.

Not a bad way to end the recession.

Of course, 2010 is off to a pretty decent start, too. Ms. Rothenberg, of Squirrel Hill, recently won the Scholastic Writing "Portfolio Gold" Award, a prestigious accolade (and cash prize) given to only seven promising young writers in the country.

To give some perspective, recall that previous Scholastic award winners include Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath and Joyce Carol Oates. To quote Joe Biden, "This is a big f#^&in' deal."

Reading Rothenberg's portfolio (available at http://artandwriting.org/ORGGalleries), it's clear these Scholastic folks know what they're doing. Rachel's prose, poetry and a short play explore difficult questions about success, failure, innocence and culpability through the quiet tragedies of very tangible, plain-folks characters.

Each story feels organic, relevant (many are based on sociopolitical issues), and accessible. For an author to be able to narrate these heavy emotional moments so sincerely is impressive enough. Then you remember Rothenberg is in high school.

Yes, high school. She's at the point where the question "How did you begin writing?" leads to a story about kindergarten journals and "trippy" fairy tales.

Apart from her writing hobby, Rothenberg is a Jane-of-all-trades intern at City Councilman Bruce Kraus' office. ("They got me a cake. I can't say anything bad about them.") She's also an amateur banjo player in something very close to being a band: "There's no name. We just have a jam session every three months." And though she enjoys Flannery O'Connor and Jonathon Safran Foer, she's also a fan of Harlequin romances and Harry Potter fan-fiction.

"I'm endlessly entertained by the world," Rothenberg says. As an award-winning author and a television genius, it would seem her intellectual curiosity is (very literally) paying off. And she wouldn't mind too much if that continued. Where might her writing take her? "[S]omewhere that'll pay me," she laughs. But seriously, "I love it, it makes me happy. I'll do it regardless."

So: the million dollar question. What was Rothenberg's favorite big break so far?

"I might have to plead the fifth on that one," she laughs. "Either Alex Trebek or the Scholastic people will be out to get me!"

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