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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Today in Bad Headlines

Posted By on Thu, Feb 12, 2009 at 4:52 PM

Continuing in my series of PR nightmares for UPMC, the P-G had a story today about how the hospital giant won't accept health insurance coverage provided by Tricare, which covers American servicepeople.

Here's the kind of thing you don't want to see on the front page of the daily newspaper:

Jean Rohal, 40, said it's shameful that University of Pittsburgh Medical Center hospitals and medical centers turn away active-duty service members from all branches, including the National Guard and reservists, especially in a time of war and economic distress.

The thankless task of responding falls to Frank Raczkiewicz, whose quote doesn't appear until after the jump, when the damage is already done:

"As demand grows for this, we're addressing the issue," Mr. Raczkiewicz said. "We are going to get into discussions with Tricare so we can expand the coverage system-wide."

Ye-e-e-e-e-ah, that's probably a good idea. Somebody maybe should have had it sooner, though. Like perhaps five years ago, when Tricare spokesperson Molly Tuttle says they first tried to get UPMC to join the program.

Tuttle notes that UPMC is under no obligation to accept Tricare, but then delivers this (unintentional, I'm sure) coup de grace:

"They are a business," Ms. Tuttle said.



Who else had a bad PR day? 

Our illustrious district attorney, Stephen Zappala, made the P-G twice today. In one story, Zappala cleared -- in a less-than-totally-exculpatory sort of way -- a local police commander of allegations that she interfered with an auto accident involving her friend. The incident involving RaShall Brackney took place in March 2007 -- nearly two years ago. Brackney, you may recall, played an interesting part in allegations relating to Dennis Regan, who was accused of exerting some improper influence of his own in the early days of the Ravenstahl administration.

It took less time to get rid of Regan, though, then it did for Zappala to decide not to press charges ... and he's still not satisfied. "It was a troubling situation," he says. "I have a problem with it." 

Speaking of troubling situations, there's that second story in today's paper. Turns out that Zappala's brother runs a Butler County juvenile-detention facility an audit says misspent money on things like a "swordfishing trip" and a $3,500 suit

Mark this down in your calendar: Today may be the first time Steve Zappala has ever wished he'd been born to a different set of parents.


You knew it was only a matter of time before this story broke. PNC Bank, after accepting billions in taxpayer money to help digest National City, confirms that CEO Jim Rohr took clients to the Super Bowl in a private jet.

How long before the Tribune-Review begins pilloring Rohr in its editorial page to "give the money back"? Get your bets in now. 

In the meantime, a piece of advice, Mr. Rohr: If they call you before a Congressional subcommitte, fly coach.  In disguise.


Finally, in the "Johnstown Boy makes good" department, we have this editorial from today's New York Times:

Consider the recent raids by federal agents on the offices of a lobbyist and a Pentagon contractor, both with lucrative ties to Representative John Murtha, the powerful Democratic defense appropriator from Pennsylvania...

One raid was at PMA Group of Arlington, Va., a lobbying firm founded by the former top staff aide on the defense appropriations subcommittee chaired by Mr. Murtha. (The gilded career path for ranking staffers who market their Inner Sanctum entree.) The lawmakers, meanwhile, earmarked more than $100 million in defense spending for PMA clients in the appropriations bills for 2008, according to a study by Taxpayers for Common Sense, which tracks earmarks.

Mr. Murtha received $1.3 million in donations from PMA’s clients in the last two election cycles.

Murtha should call for an investigation -- to be carried out by Steve Zappala. By the time it wraps up, Murtha will be retired. 

Power Out(r)age

Posted By on Thu, Feb 12, 2009 at 10:57 AM

I'm one of the tens of thousands of people who lost power in last night's windstorms. I woke up this morning with no electricity, no hot water, and a house whose temperature had fallen to the low 50s overnight. 

By now, my wife and I have gotten used to this: We lose power several times each year, usually for a couple hours at a time. Once it happened during a Penguins playoff game last year -- you could actually hear the screams of anguish echoing up and down the street. 

The first half-dozen times it happened, it was fun in a sleepover sort of way. I do some hiking, so we have candle lanterns and a backpacking stove. We make coffee, have breakfast, whatever.

But some of the novelty has started to wear off. 

I'm not going to complain about the maintenance crews. The guys work hard, and anyway, I'm not suffering too badly. I've been in the office since about 7:30 this morning (the office is heated, see. Thanks, benevolent corporate masters!) So for all I know, the power has been restored already. 

No, my problem is with the fact that the power lines are prone to windstorms in the first place. The problem, as I see it, is that they are suspended way up high in the air. Which, in case you haven't noticed, is where the wind frequently blows.

I have a brother who lives in a suburban cul-de-sac, and who doesn't have to worry about this shit. The homes out there are new, and the power lines are buried. I also have friends who live in Europe. Their power lines are buried too, even though they live in cities much older than ours. 

Apparently, the theory is that there is less wind underground. So if you put your utility lines there, they aren't as vulnerable to the weather.  A novel concept, but it seems to work OK. 

Yet, here in much of America, to live in a city neighborhood or an older suburb means dealing with these outages a couple times a year (if you're lucky) or more often (if you live on my street). 

Personally, I'm not much more than inconvenienced by this stuff. But it's ... embarrassing. It's embarrassing to live in what we're constantly told is the richest, most advanced and powerful country in the world, and then to wake up living in a 21st century shtetl. From what my friends tell me, even the Belgians don't put up with this nonsense. 

That's right: the Belgians. 

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman occasionally writes pieces about how the US is falling behind other countries because, like, the first-class lounge in Shanghai's airport has better upholstery than the first-class lounge in La Guardia. Those are the kind of problems I'd like to have. I wonder how Tom would take it if he couldn't get his electric toothbrush to recharge overnight. 

I mean, come on. There have been storms for a long time. Surely I'm not the only one who has noticed the effect that has on electricity service. In fact, I've heard a few people suggest that, if Barack Obama wants to invest in infrastructure and kick-start the economy, burying America's power lines would be a good place to start.

Obama's stimulus bill is, in fact, being negotiated in Congress right now. Maybe somebody could slip in a rider requiring spending for this rather than, like, new road spending or a lot of other shiny infrastructure stuff. There's cause to hope: The stimulus bill may well include more than $6 billion in grants to furnish Americans -- especially those in rural areas -- with high-speed internet access.

I can't say this would be my top priority, to be honest. (I suspect Verizon's lobbyists on K Street must have their own back-up generators, since nothing seems to slow those guys down.) But hey, installing high-speed internet creates jobs too, and America's farmers should be able to download porn at broadband speeds. Those guys work hard and get up early -- they don't have time to view Xtube clips on dial-up. 

But here's the question they should be asking in Washington: How are America's farmers going to watch their hard-won pornography when the power goes out? Let's get our priorities straight, people.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Happy Anniversary, Lamar!

Posted By on Wed, Feb 11, 2009 at 10:44 AM

It's not quite Valentine's Day, but city councilor Patrick Dowd is celebrating an anniversary early.

This morning, Dowd sent a letter to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl about the famous Lamar LED billboard controversy -- which, as a Dowd aide pointed out to me, celebrates its one-year anniversary tomorrow. I'd rehash the whole fiasco, but if you've read past the first sentence of this paragraph, you probably know all there is to know about it. (If you're just a glutton for punishment, you can read a bit more about this here and here and a bunch of other places beside.) 

Dowd's letter reiterates much of the legal history of this case, in which the city solicitor's office argued from both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, George Specter opined, the process Lamar used to obtain an electronic billboard Downtown was of dubious legality and should be ceased. On the other hand, Specter also noted that the process had been used previously -- and that Lamar had a good-faith reason to believe it would be followed again. So their application should be permitted. It wasn't. 

Specter, of course, had been working in the city solicitor's office back when the backdoor-approval process was first inaugurated, during the administration of former Mayor Tom Murphy. 

Lamar has continued to press for the billboard, and as Dowd's letter points out, it has used "the City Solicitor’s ambivalent legal opinion" to do so. Because of that, and because of Specter's own involvement in previous permits, Dowd wants to hire an outside attorney to represent the city. 

"I am urging you to work quickly with City Council to jointly appoint outside counsel to defend our city’s public interest in this matter," he writes.

So what? Well, the letter may do more than set the stage for the next round in this endless saga, or even sound a note of challenge in the upcoming May primary. (Dowd is likely to take Ravenstahl on.) It may also foreshadow the need to hire an outside counsel in another dispute -- an argument over a controversial gun-control measure enacted by the city.

As we noted previously, the city passed this measure to stop illegal pass-through purchases of guns ... even though the city solicitor's office publicly stated that the law probably violated the state constitution. Once again, city officials are all over the map on the legality of an action they may have to defend in court. And taxpayers will likely end up having to shell out for lawyers who AREN'T part of the whole mess.

Also, apropos of tangled personal connections, I commend to your attention this piece in the Sunday Tribune-Review. The story -- about how UPMC often deals with vendors who are represented on its own board of directors -- isn't too surprising. But it did give me a new reason to hate UPMC's advertising.

I've long been irked at UPMC's TV ads, which just string together a bunch of meaningless phrases to make you feel all warm and fuzzy about how huge UPMC is. Those ads  are made by the Paradiso Group ... which, the Trib helpfully notes, "is owned by Doug Romoff, brother of UPMC President and CEO Jeffrey Romoff."

Today's papers, meanwhile, bring us news of a lawsuit filed against the hospital giant. Like I've said a couple times, 2009 is figuring to be a tough year for UPMC's public image.

Maybe more ads will help! 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Post-Mortem: The ACDC rules debate

Posted By on Tue, Feb 10, 2009 at 4:09 PM

No doubt you've been wondering, "What became of last weekend's great debate over the local Democratic Party's bylaws? Did anyone show up? How did they vote?"

Wonder no longer, my friends. For I have caught up with Jim Burn, chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, and some other commitee members, who have provided the following update.

First, the party did manage to reach quorum. Please settle your wagers accordingly.

In fact, 507 committee members showed up -- well above the 400 needed for quorum, although too many for me to win the office pool. Burn attributes the strong turnout to the delegates' passionate interest in the rules changes, and their committment to making their party stronger. At least one dissenter, however, tells me it might have had more to do with a flat-screen TV being raffled off that day. 

And perhaps not surprisingly, those in attendance tabled action on the most controversial proposal.

As noted in the post linked above, the thorniest reform was a new provision outlining disciplinary procedures for committee members who violate party rules. Most of these infractions have to do with commitee members ignoring their own party's endorsements. Committee members are supposed to support the endorsed Democrat -- whether they want to or not. But it's an open secret that they often back whoever they please.

Burn sought to change that, proposing a process for investigating allegations of such behavior, and spelling out a range of sanctions that could be imposed as punishment. 

(As Maria at the 2pjs noted, for example, one possible punishment would prevent wayward committee members from seeking the party endorsement if they ran for higher office.)

But the measure was tabled indefinitely, even though Burn says committee people have been pestering him to make these changes for years. In fact, he says, "Some of the people who made the most noise in favor of the rule [before the gathering] were shouting the loudest for it to be tabled." Why? Burn suspects its because the rule "prevents people from making allegations in secret, like daggers in the dark. In my opinion, that was the problem."

In any case, the measure probably won't be taken up again for at least two years. Burn says he'd like to have another bylaws convention in February of 2011. ("I think the February before the local and judicial races is a good time to discuss the changes," he says. That's the time of year, he points out, when endorsements are on everybody's mind.) As he told me last week, Burn hopes to canvass committee members about other proposed reforms later this year, and he says he'll incorporate their recommendations down the road. But most likely, commitee members won't vote on bylaw changes for another two years. 


Other proposals did win committee approval at this year's gathering, however.

For example, the party approved a new requirement for commitee members. As of now, newly elected committeefolk must -- brace yourself -- actually live in the ward they represent. Yes! I'm telling you!

It's a long-running, and sad, joke that numerous wards are represented by people who don't live within them. "This is a loophole that has been driving me nuts," Burn admits. 

But the effort to close this loophole comes with a loophole of its own: Current committee members are grandfathered in. An active committee member who currently doesn't live in the ward they represent, in other words, won't be asked to move.

Probably the measure wouldn't have passed at all otherwise, and Burn has to take his victories where he can find them. But the result is that in the best democratic tradition, current committee members approved a change that would only affect other people.

The committee also ratified a few other "housekeeping" changes, Burn said. And he promised that the work had only just begun. "It's been 27 years since the last bylaws convention," he says. "It won't be another 27 years until the next one."

And the winner of the flat-screen TV? I'm told it was none other than Jean Milko, former jury commissioner and longtime party stalwart. No matter how many reforms you pass, it seems, some things never change. 

Dowd Psychology

Posted By on Tue, Feb 10, 2009 at 10:41 AM

The world is still reeling over news that City Council President Doug Shields will not -- I repeat, not -- be running for mayor. 

Actually, by "the world" I mean, "a few reporters, bloggers, and  politicos," and by "reeling" I mean, "raising their eyebrows slightly." Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and incumbent with a million-dollar war chest, looks to be in a strong position, and no one could blame Shields for taking a pass. But still, this news deserves to be chewed over with a long-winded blog post restating the obvious, don't you think? 

Over at the 2pjs, David DeAngelo conducts a quick interview with Shields, the key parts of which are:

When asked if he thought that the Mayor was politically vulnerable, he said began his answer with a caveat; we live in uncertain times and no one should attempt to predict six months down the road in any political campaign. No one knows for sure what will happen.

Translation: You never know! Ravenstahl could be indicted after all! 

On the other hand, financially the city is better off than we were 4 years ago. The national press is playing up Pittsburgh in its coverage - he said, for example, that the NYTimes suggested that a good place to ride out the recession is Pittsburgh.

This dovetails with my own assessment: "As he did in 2007, [Ravenstahl] can tout positive financial results for the city, while boasting of feel-good innovations on stuff like biking." Ravenstahl's critics are just going to have to grit their teeth and admit it: He hasn't screwed up badly enough to be voted out of office. His publicity stunts may be wince-inducing, but when has a Pittsburgh politician ever been punished for shamelessness?

All that said, I'm now even more sure that Ravenstahl will face a challenge from city councilor Patrick Dowd. The past few weeks have been a kind of shadow play, with Shields and Dowd testing the waters, and each other's intentions. Shields has now ceded the stage to Dowd alone. 

Obviously the odds are stacked against Dowd, but I have a pretty good feeling he'll do it anyway.

For one thing, Dowd believes in robust public debate -- perhaps to the point of making other people wish he'd shut up. And even an unsuccessful Dowd candidacy will hold Ravenstahl's feet to the fire, nudging him -- however fractionally -- toward a more reform-minded approach to governance than he might otherwise demonstrate. Dowd's t-crossing and i-dotting will be a useful counterpoint to Ravenstahl's own frequently slapdash approach to governance.  In the end, that could be a good thing for Ravenstahl.

It could also be a good thing for Dowd, who could be the happy warrior of 2009. He can run for mayor without expecting to win, but with the hope of positioning himself for another run down the road. Dowd has a lot to prove to a lot of people -- black voters and progressives among them -- and this could be the race where he starts to make his case.

In other words, Dowd could run a race similar to that Bill Peduto ran in 2005.

In that year, Bob O'Connor was all but assured the election. But I always felt that Peduto's 2005 race was about establishing his credibility for this year, when he expected -- as did we all -- to see O'Connor up for re-election. By finishing second, Peduto could define himself as the loyal opposition, the viable alternative if Peduto's warnings about the city's fiscal plight proved prescient. 

The hopes for that approach were derailed by O'Connor's sad death, and by Peduto's abortive campaign in 2007. But it still might be a good model for Dowd to follow.

It won't be as easy for Dowd to be the progressive standard bearer as it was for Peduto -- partly because Peduto's backers may be loath to hand over the banner. I'm not sure how far you can carry that flag in this town anyway. Dowd has a chance to find out, and to see if he can cobble together a different kind of coalition. 

Monday, February 9, 2009

"The Mercurial Mr. Shields" strikes again!

Posted By on Mon, Feb 9, 2009 at 1:58 PM

After weeks of speculation, Doug Shields has announced he's not running for mayor. A short time ago, he sent out the following statement:

"With the encouragement and support of many people, I have seriously considered running for Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh. At this time, the right choice for me, for this Council, and for the people of Pittsburgh is to continue to serve as Council President.

"City Council's positive image and strong record of accomplishment is very gratifying to me. Leadership means being willing to serve the bigger picture over personal ambition. In these difficult economic times, we have serious financial and governance issues to work through. As we face these many challenges, I believe that leading Council is how I can best serve the city.

"What the citizens in Pittsburgh most need is a productive common agenda, not a divisive political campaign. I pledge to continue working in the best interests of the people who elected me."

There was word late last week that Shields would be formally announcing his non-campaign. Even so, this statement was a bit surprising -- and not just because it asserts that city council has a "positive image." (It does? Oh good.) We here at City Paper got word of Shields speaking openly of his mayoral ambitions, including to at least one classroom full of students. But Shields -- whose own self-description provided the headline for this post -- seems almost to delight in suddenly reversing the field. 

What happens now? I doubt we'll get a ready answer from him quite yet, but if Patrick Dowd wants to run -- as many of us have also long expected him to do -- the field just got a lot more open. 


Friday, February 6, 2009

Doubling Down on Gambling

Posted By on Fri, Feb 6, 2009 at 4:14 PM

Before any lawmaker is allowed to vote on whether to legalize video poker in bars, restaurants and private clubs, they should be forced to take a field trip to Weirton West Virginia. Pile them all into buses and make the pilgrimage so they can see first-hand what expanded gambling can do to small communities.

I grew up in the Ohio Valley, so I've been to Weirton many times in my life. But no trip there was more disturbing then the one I took in June 2005.

It was my first cover story for City Paper and Pennsylvania had just handed out it first slots licenses.

Originally, West Virginia opened slot casinos to save local racetracks and be a source of additional revenue. Shortly after that, the state decided that too much money was escaping its clutches by way of illegal video poker machines. So it decided to legalize the machines, with the money going to pay for college tuition for qualified students.

Sound familiar? Pennsylvania isn't just following West Virginia's plan: We're stealing the playbook.

As of 2005, Weirton was littered with slot parlors in the rear of restaurants, bars, Elks' Clubs, American Legion Halls, car washes, ice cream shops, donut shops and newsstands. And there were some businesses constructed simply as a means to house the machines — up to five per establishment. There were 9,000 across the state. There were 98 slot parlors in Weirton alone, a town of 20,000 — plus two casinos about 30 minutes to the north and south.

This working-class town has slots establishments next to churches and across from city hall. The city had become a laughingstock, and one former state representative told me that even though the money was going to pay college tuitions, things weren't exactly working out as the state had planned.

"I don't think that the decision to allow the gray machines on such a large scale ... was really thought out," former state Delegate Joe DeLong said. "But at this point it's tied specifically to a program that we can't afford to abandon because of the commitments we made."

That's always been a problem when states get a taste of gambling money: They want more and more. There are community leaders and talk radio hosts who have urged the state legalize the machines in the bars, to give the mom-and-pop taverns a shot at some of the cash generated by gambling.

The whole reason places like Las Vegas succeed is because they are vacation destinations. Gambling was just part of the puzzle, and the local economy depended on people coming from outside the area, bringing disposable income with them. Sure locals gamble in Vegas, but they depend on tourists. If Gov. Rendell's plan to legalize video poker goes through, it won't be some couple vacationing from Las Vegas dropping money into the slot machines in the back of the Moose Lodge. It's going to be your neighbors tossing in dollars they can ill-afford to lose.

But we can't say we weren't warned.

"Look at Pennsylvania," Weirton anti-gambling activist Jody Kraina told me back in 2005. "They're sitting where West Virginia sat years ago … But they need to look very closely at where we are now. Once you allow those things in here, it's Katie bar the door."

District 2: Can Blotzer Turn it Around?

Posted By on Fri, Feb 6, 2009 at 6:23 AM


I've already done a discussion about what this week's special election in District 2 says about the city's political direction. But it seems like there's a possibility Georgia Blotzer, who lost to Theresa Smith in that contest, may take another shot in the primary. Certainly some bloggers are hoping so. And as the Pittsburgh Comet's Bram has noted in a couple places, the fact that Smith had the Democratic endorsement should be less of a factor in the May primary. (In the special, only the endorsed Democrat can run as the Democrat; everyone else has to run as independents.) No doubt that's something Blotzer is weighing.

So I got curious: What's the track record of city councilors who win in a special election ... and have to run again in a regular primary a few months later?

There's not a ton of evidence here, but if you're a Blotzer partisan, the track record is not encouraging.

In a 2001 special election for district 4, for example, Jim Motznik won a special election in February, winning less than half the vote in a 4-person field. (Motznik was NOT the endorsed Democrat in that race -- Anthony Coghill was.) In the regular primary that spring, he won with 60 percent of the vote. This time around, he had the endorsement AND the power of (short-lived) incumbency, and he improved on his special-election performance.
In February of 2003, Lenny Bodack won with, like, a quarter of the vote. This was a six-person race, with Bodack -- the endorsed Democrat -- narrowly besting Mitch Kates and Nancy Noszka. A couple months later in the May primary, Bodack won a second time, again squeezing out a narrow victory facing only Kates and Noszka.

What does this tell us? For one thing, it shows that Lenny Bodack was, from the outset, one of the weakest candidates to hold a council seat in recent memory. But we already knew that. Taken together, though, the two races suggest the difficulty of reversing a special election result only a few months later.
In fact, the 2001 race should be the more worrisome precedent for Bltozer -- and for anyone who thinks the party endorsement was the decisive reason for Smith's win. In district 4, Motznik didn't even get the endorsement for the special. Yet he was able to win and increase his margin just a few months later. 

To the best of my knowledge and recollection, those are the only  council races in the past decade where a special election in the winter was followed by a regular primary in the spring. Two races isn't a lot of evidence to go on, since there are so many unique factors at work in any race. Bodack's wet-rag campaigning style, for example.

So let's consider a different case: the 2006-7 campaigns for city council district 3. In May 2006, Jeff Koch won a special election -- as the endorsed Dem in a field of 8 -- to fill out the remainder of Gene Ricciardi's term. A year later, Bruce Kraus toppled Koch in a regular election, winning by 10 points.
That precedent is a bit more hopeful for Blotzerians. But it may be the exception that proves the rule. Koch only narrowly beat Kraus the first time around -- had it not been for spoiler Bruce Krane peeling off a couple hundred votes in the South Side Flats, Kraus could have won. And a whole year had elapsed between the two races ... plenty of time for Koch to pile up a track record, and for voters to decide whether he was the guy they wanted. Obviously, the answer was "no."

By contrast, Blotzer, got trounced by a two-to-one margin this week. And as others have observed, there's little sign she wore out a lot of shoe leather reaching out to the district. Seems a little late to be starting now. And the one advantage Blotzer did have -- a clear edge in fundraising at the start of the campaign -- will likely evaporate. Smith, as the incumbent, can count on some extra support that hasn't shown up in finance reports so far. 

And when Smith next goes before the voters, she'll have none of the disadvantages that sometimes go with incumbency. Unlike, say, Jeff Koch, she'll only have been in office a couple months when she goes before voters a second time. She'll almost certainly have the endorsement again, which means voters will have to have a damn good reason to oppose her. It's hard to imagine that happening when Smith won't have done much more than measure the drapes in office.

Coming out of the special election, Smith looks much stronger than Bodack or Koch did. I try not to make predictions, but I don't see much reason to think Blotzer will be able to turn this around in May.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

Introducing Anthony Coghill

Posted By on Thu, Feb 5, 2009 at 6:45 PM

Anthony Coghill has already won the City Council District 4 election -- at least as far as one Beechview restaurant is concerned. When he arrives at Leonardi's on Broadway Ave., the owner greets him with the cry, "Hello, councilor!"

Premature? Not if roughly 150 votes had gone the other way back in 2005. Coghill narrowly lost to incumbent Jim Motznik that year by a 52-48 margin. Now he's trying again, vying against three other challengers ... and the family dynamics of the Wagner clan.

After his 2005 defeat, Coghill recalls, "I said, 'This is it -- I'm done.'" Not so, however: "Had I been beaten badly, it would have been easy [to walk away from politics]. But I almost knocked off the incumbent." And as things have turned out, four years later, Motznik is pursuing a race for district justice, leaving a behind a vacant seat to represent the city's South Hills neighborhood.

Coghill is one of four candidates vying for the post. The owner of a roofing business, and a part-time liaison for state Sen. Wayne Fontana, Coghill cites his business acumen and his lifelong involvement with the district as his chief assets.

Most of our talk focused on the Broadway Avenue business district: A native son of Beechview, Coghill senses its pain and its promise most acutely. But he says problems in one part of the district mirror problems elsewhere. Carrick's Brownsville Road, for example, "has the same problems we do here."

Across the district, Coghill sees the top priority as crime — or at least the perception of it. Graffiti mars areas that might otherwise attract investment and new residents.

Coghill's answer: Establish beat cops in each business district. He'd follow that up by surveying residents about the kinds of businesses they would support — and use their responses to guide efforts to attract investment. If residents expressed an interest in the flower shop, he says, "I'd open up a phone book and start calling every florist in there," asking if they wanted to relocate or expand to the district.

As you might expect, Coghill sharply criticizes Motznik for not being similarly proactive. "If this district looks worse after I'm here for four years, vote me the hell out," he says.

But Motznik himself doesn't seem to cast much of a shadow in this contest. Instead, this race -- like so much that happens in the South Hill -- takes place against the backdrop of a family soap opera involving the Wagner clan.

The Wagners are the key powerbrokers in the city's populous 19th Ward. But they haven't been making a lot of friends lately. Left-of-center types were upset when the Wagners decided to back Anthony Reilly, who works in the office of state Rep. Chelsa Wagner. Chelsa, daughter of patriarch Pete, is a longtime friend of council candidate Natalia Rudiak -- the early favorite among the trendy-eyewear set. But Coghill, too, has reason to feel betrayed.

(UPDATE: Rep. Wagner was concerned that this vague reference to "the Wagners" implies that she is endorsing either Rudiak or Reilly. She is not. As she says: "I am neutral with respect to the race for the City Council District 4 seat, as I have informed both Rudiak and Reilly.  Both Reilly and Rudiak are their own candidates, both are committed community advocates, and both informed me of their interest in running over a year ago, long before declaring their respective candidacies.  I believe either would be a great addition on City Council, and wish them both the best of luck in their campaigns.")

Like any pol with roots in Beechview, Coghill has a long history with the Wagners, who supported him previously. Fontana, his boss, has been a Wagner ally. That relationship has cooled dramatically. Even so, Coghill says he was "disappointed and flabbergasted" Pete Wagner is backing someone else.

Coghill admits that setback will make winning the party's endorsement a challenge. But he remains confident, in large part because of his strong showing in 2005. In fact, he carries around a printout of the race results, to present to anyone who asks if he can win.

"I've always had [the Wagners'] support in the past, but I don't need them, that's for sure," he says.

On the bright side, if Coghill can successfully contend with the Medicis of the Monongahela, negotiating alliances at the City-County Building ought to be a breeze.

"I get along with everybody," Coghill says. For starters, he says, "I see myself as an ally of the mayor for one reason: to bring this area back." As for his would-be colleagues on council, Coghill says he's he and District 6 incumbent Tonya Payne "are friends, but I won't be under anybody's wing. I'll set my own path.

"I'm going to make four friends there -- I just don't know which ones yet. Because I need that majority to do something for my district."


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

District 2: What does it mean for the rest of the city?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 4, 2009 at 10:31 AM

As you already know, Theresa Smith won yesterday's special election in District 2. Turnout was an anemic 10 percent, which was unsurprising. I was actually more surprised to see that Smith, the endorsed candidate, didn't get a majority of the vote, finishing with 48 percent while her three rivals split the balance between them.  

There's good election analysis out on the interwebs already. Matt Hogue, while an avowed partisan for Smith, provides a useful look at the ward-by-ward breakdown. And as always, Internet Philosopher-King Chris Briem crunches some of the same data and presents it in handy map form here

Briem also observes that Smith's support came despite the fact that "Blotzer seemed to have a lot of support on the web. News accounts say she did well at fundraising and had some notable endorsements." And yet it was all in vain. 

Actually, the Web was a mixed bag in the race. The aforementioned Hogue backed Smith, as did The Huddler. And I'm not sure there's anyone who really thinks the internet represents the vox populi

Anyway, I'm not one of those people who thinks the "Democratic machine" is some all-powerful juggernaut. (I mean, have you seen some of these committeepeople?) But in a special election like this, the endorsement is the shooting match. And whereas Bram of the Pittsburgh Comet suggests that this run is just an "audition" for the real action in the May primary, history suggests it's pretty tough to reverse a result like this in a couple months.

So what does this mean for the main event -- the municipal primary coming up in May?

Well, I'm not sure it's any sort of bellwether. It's pretty tough to deduce any kind of mandate from a race in which only one-tenth of the voters in one-ninth of the city show up. And reformers can nurse a bit of hope for Smith's independence. Some people seem to be reading much into the fact that Ravenstahl henchman Yarone Zober showed up at Smith fundraiser ... but that the fundraiser happened after the party endorsement. Smith's victory was assured at that point -- it would have been astounding had Zober not been there.

But I guess there is a larger lesson to be had from this race: All politics really is local. Local politics especially.

Blotzer was popular in some circles because of her principled stand on campaign-finance reform. And she earned the Post-Gazette's endorsement, it seems, because of her position on financial oversight. But those issues are pretty remote for many voters -- indeed for most voters outside of a fairly small group of good-government reformers.  Smith didn't just have the party endorsement: As Matt H. suggests, she also had more credibility with a larger swath of the district.

The reformers are making a valiant effort to connect issues of governance with stuff like, say, plowing roads. But even that stuff doesn't translate as well in a council race, since road maintenance is an executive-branch thing.

This is sort of hard to explain, but while we talk about wanting candidates who have a "vision for the city," there are lots of races in which having vision (or at least talking about it) is not particularly helpful. On the council level especially it may even hurt ... if the candidate can't keep one eye on the need for constituent service. 

I've said before that it's possible for reformers to make some real headway even if Ravenstahl coasts to re-election. There's a chance for a genuine sea-change in council. But the candidates themselves would be crazy to talk about that. (With the possible exception of Bill Peduto's district -- where so many good-government types live, and where Ravenstahl's support is radioactive.)

I guess that's an obvious point, and it's one the candidates themselves seem to get. Witness District 4 candidate Natalia Rudiak's avowed willingness to work with anyone who helps the district, and witness the District 2 folks talking about their own desire to maintain Pat Dowd-like independence

So the stakes in this election are high ... but to win the hand, reform-minded candidates would be wise not to call attention to the size of the pot. 



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