Slag Heap | Pittsburgh City Paper

Monday, March 9, 2009

Harris' son is running for mayor

Posted By on Mon, Mar 9, 2009 at 11:42 AM

Franco Harris' son, Dok Harris, is apparently running for mayor -- as an independent in the general election. We first noted these rumors last week, when Harris promised an update. And the Harris Web site was updated this morning. In it, he pledges to a mount "an inclusive and open campaign" and to "adhere to strict campaign contribution limits" though he doesn't specify what those limits will be.

More details as they come in.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Like a Rolling Stone

Posted By on Fri, Mar 6, 2009 at 5:10 PM

Word reached us late today that Christine Stone, who had previously intended to challenge Bill Peduto's re-election bid in City Council District 8, has changed her mind. She tells us she's going to run for the school board seat of outgoing board member Randall Taylor instead. 

Did everyone else know this already? I've been a little out of the loop on this one. But I had a feeling Peduto was feeling confident, what with his campaign officially kicking off on Friday the 13th. At an ice rink, no less.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Disorder in the court endorsement

Posted By on Thu, Mar 5, 2009 at 1:08 PM

Like the appearance of new buds on tree branches, one sign of spring is the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsement. 

And just as those buds will eventually flower, an endorsement controversy may be about to bloom.

This Sunday, county commitee members will migrate to Heinz Field, just like birds winging their way from warmer climes. There they will roost and decide which Democrats to endorse in races up and down the ballot -- from mayor down to district judge. 

With one exception. 

As you'll see from the County Committee Web site, the endorsement in one particular race -- the magisterial district judge for district 5-3-10 -- will be decided at a special time, in a special location. Committee members from the Lawrenceville wards covered by this district will be making their pick on Saturday, at St. Mary's Lyceum in Lawrenceville.

And who is running for this seat? The often-controversial head of Lawrenceville United, Tony Ceoffe.

Although they need not be lawyers, district judges rule on low-level neighborhood disputes of various kinds. And already CP has heard mutterings among some critics of Ceoffe, whose hard-fisted approach to neighborhood improvement has grated on some, even as others praise him for helping to engineer Lawrenceville's efforts to turn itself around. And some doubters haven't forgotten Ceoffe's involvement in a dispute at a Lawrenceville polling place back in 2007.

Is Ceoffe getting special treatment?

Not so, says Jim Burn, chair of the county committee. The committee is holding a special endorsement, he says, because party officials didn't realize until too late that there was going to be a race in Lawrenceville at all.

"We had this race down in our books for being held in 2011," Burn says. (Indeed, the last time this seat was up for grabs was 2005, and magistrates serve 6-year terms.) Incumbent Eugene Zielmanski decided to step down (UPDATE: Zielmanski had to vacate the office because of age requirements; see comments below), but due in part to miscommunications with the Department of Elections, Burn says, "We weren't made aware of the Lawrenceville race until we already put the candidates in the electronic voting machines."

So Burn decided to hold a special endorsement meeting for this race alone, sequestering it from the regular endorsement process. He did so, he says, in part to avoid opening a "Pandora's box" in which other candidates, who missed deadlines for seeking the endorsement in their races, would seek special treatment. 

So far, Ceoffe is the only person to have filed a letter of intent seeking the endorsement. Which means, of course, that Ceoffe is the only person who currently stands to benefit from this weekend's only special endorsement process. Which, yeah, sounds a little suspicious even to a trusting soul like me.  

But Burn says that because of the snafu, the deadline for notifying the party has been extended in this race until tomorrow at 5 p.m. That is made clear on the party Web site, he points out. "One candidate in particular should get down there right away," he said -- referring to Susan Banahasky, who plans to oppose Ceoffe but who hasn't notified the party of an intention to seek the endorsement. 

Payne gets union endorsements

Posted By on Thu, Mar 5, 2009 at 12:38 PM

City Councilor Tonya Payne picked up an endorsement from the Service Employees International Union and other labor groups in her bid for re-election.

The SEIU, which represents custodians and other service employees, was an active participant in efforts to create a Community Benefits Agreement for the Hill District. The CBA is an effort to ensure that the Hill shares in any economic benefits generated by the new Penguins arena.

Payne, who represents the Hill and other areas Downtown and in the North Side, supported the CBA. And in a statement announcing the endorsement, local SEIU head Gabe Morgan praised her for working "tirelessly to support working families in City Council." 

Also supporting Payne are four other service-sector unions -- Teamsters Local 936, United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE HERE and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 95.

The announcement also praised Payne for "advocat[ing] for wage standards and right-to-organize requirements in several other development projects."  It noted too that Payne supports the federal  Employee Free Choice Act -- a measure designed to make it easier for workers to organize a union. 

Payne is facing Daniel Lavelle, who is chief of staff for state Rep. Jake Wheatley. In addition to being aligned with a political faction opposing Payne, Wheatley has been critical of the CBA process. In remarks to CP last year, Wheatley characterized the CBA as "a terrible deal." In a subsequent discussion, he told CP that "[o]ne of my major struggles in this [CBA] conversation is, how much of an outside influence are unions who have ... a certain need that they want? ... Let's see how long they stay at this table to make sure this community benefits."

Mayoral campaign false start?

Posted By on Thu, Mar 5, 2009 at 9:36 AM

As first reported here yesterday, there's been some online rumor-mongering about a potential mayoral bid by Franco Harris's son. It's worth noting that as of this morning, the "Harris for Pittsburgh" site is now unavailable. And the Franco Harris Wikipedia entry has been altered yet again, to remove the reference to Dok Harris' campaign.

Which makes this look like it was indeed a hoax, right? 

On the other hand, a little Intenet sleuthing suggests the "Harris for Pittsburgh" site was created by one "F. Dok Harris," who provided a Pittsburgh address. A call to a phone number listed with the registration info got me a rather friendly voicemail message -- a message from someone identifying himself by that name. Messages left by phone and e-mail have not been returned.

Intriguingly, the site was apparently registered on Jan. 27, 2009, even though I suspect people only began noticing it in the past few days. (An e-mail tip earlier this week is what prompted me to start searching for the site in the first place, and I gather I'm not the only person to have received one.) In late January, you'll recall, no one knew whether anyone other than Carmen Robinson would be challenging Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Within a couple weeks of the site's creation, though, City Council President Doug Shields announced he was dropping out, and City Councilor Patrick Dowd announced he was getting in.

To use the inevitable football metaphor, could it be that Harris thought he saw a hole, but it closed up too quickly for him to cross the line of scrimmage? Or is this just all some sort of screen pattern? If I learn anything more, I'll post it here. 

UPDATE (6 p.m.): I receieved an e-mail from Dok Harris a short time ago. He declined to comment "at this time" but promised "an announcement regarding this issue" early next week.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What's the Rush?

Posted By on Wed, Mar 4, 2009 at 5:21 PM

Question: Does this sound like a political party that wants to bring back the Fairness Doctrine to shut up Rush Limbaugh?

The bigger [Limbaugh gets], the better, agreed [Democratic strategist James] Carville. "It's great for us, great for him, great for the press," he said of Limbaugh. "The only people he’s not good for are the actual Republicans in Congress."


"The television cameras just can’t stay away from him," Carville said Tuesday, a day when cable news played images of Limbaugh seemingly on a loop. "Our strategy depends on him keeping talking, and I think we’re going to succeed."

Everything you need to know about why Rush Limbaugh is good for Democrats was spelled out by Brian O'Neill last year. At the time, conservatives were trafficking in conspiracy theories that Democrats would demand radio stations to give equal time to liberal and conservative voices alike. But as O'Neill put it a few days after the 2008 election:

If last week's presidential map showed anything, it was that a medium where America's conservative white guys talk mostly to each other is just the kind of insular world that can help a party lose by 7 million votes.

I try to keep the focus of this blog pretty local, but I have to say: I love everything about this Limbaugh story. It's the niftiest act of political jujitsu I've seen in a long time. We used to worry about how to "defeat" Limbaugh ... but it turns out to be far better just to let him "win."

The very thing that built the GOP in the 1990s -- the divisive politics that Obama's campaign decried -- is what has cost them the White House and Congress. And neither Limbaugh nor his followers have gotten the memo. So they keep digging the hole deeper, and demanding their officials to jump in.

As befits a self-doubting liberal type, I was wary of Obama last year. But one thing I knew for sure was that if Sarah Palin-style politics prevailed last year, we were screwed. As I said shortly before the election

What sets the GOP apart ... is that it has an entire infrastructure to make sure its fear-mongering gets heard ...

Democrats are always denounced as a "socialist," or worse, no matter how tepid their proposals. And no matter how much of a "maverick" a Republican might be, he always seems obliged to use the same tactics in order to win. A McCain victory will show that American politics can no longer entertain solutions, but only new forms of divisiveness.

As it turns out, a majority of the American people were willing to at least give Obama a shot. If Republicans can't do even that much, well ... finding some "new forms of divisiveness" might be a good idea. 


Harris campaign for mayor -- a hoax?

Posted By on Wed, Mar 4, 2009 at 10:46 AM

Heh. Don't know what to make of this, but Franco Harris' wikipedia entry currently asserts that "Harris' son F. Dok Harris is about to announce he will be running for mayor of Pittsburgh." That remark was added yesterday, as near as I can tell. 

Franco himself has long been active in Democratic Party activities, and I know people who have long hoped he would run for something. But I'm guessing "hoax."  A slightly earlier version of the wikipedia page includes this information:

"Additionally, Dok does not always brush his teeth before leaving the house."

A check of "Forge Ahead," the alleged campaign Web site of "Harris for Pittsburgh," says only "Sorry, but you are looking for something that isn't here."

I guess we'll soon know whether that's true or not. But I wouldn't click on the "donate" button quite yet.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Blogging: It beats preparing for the weekly staff meeting

Posted By on Tue, Mar 3, 2009 at 3:13 PM

Several quick hits before I go into a staff meeting ...

It took a little while, but yesterday the Dowd online fundraising campaign topped $5,000. Way to stick it to those nattering nabobs of negativism, Dowdites!


In my ongoing attempt to chart the decline of the fishwrap industry, I'll note this piece from yesterday's New York Times:

[S]ome media executives are growing concerned that the increasingly popular curators of the Web that are taking large pieces of the original work -- a practice sometimes called scraping -- are shaving away potential readers and profiting from the content ...

Copyright infringement lawsuits directed at bloggers and other online publishers seem to be on the rise.

The story's worth a look. Debates over "fair use" are much older than the internet, and as the story notes, there's no hard and fast rule about how much material you are allowed to excerpt. But the internet has made these problems much more pressing. And as I've argued in an incredibly tedious comment on this post, the question is whether we value content at all -- and if so, how we fix a price on it. At what point is a site like Huffington Post profiting by appropriating other people's hard work? 

(On a personal note, I'd just say locally, I think bloggers do a really good job of excerpting in a responsible manner.)


It now appears that Pat Toomey, who originally planned to challenge Senator Arlen Specter's re-election bid, than planned not to, is now planning to challenge Specter after all.

This is the kind of decisiveness we need in Washington! 

The P-G surmises that Toomey's candidacy "would be welcomed not just by conservatives, but by the many Democrats who covet the Specter seat for their party." The theory is that Specter will burn a lot of time and energy in a protracted primary battle, leaving him weak to a Democratic challenger in November.

I'm less enthusiastic. Basically, the U.S. Senate is currently being run by Specter and two moderate Republican Senators from Maine. Without them, it's not clear the Senate could ever have acted on Barack Obama's fiscal-stimulus package. If history is any guide, Specter will respond to a GOP challenger by tacking to his right ... which is really the last thing we need right now.


Finally, a brief word about City Paper's attempt to open courtroom proceedings in the Scaife divorce case. Last week I suggested that "it's well worth asking why it falls to us -- a humble weekly who can barely afford office coffee, let alone high-powered attorneys -- to challenge these closed-door proceedings. Usually our larger media brethren are the ones to demand this sort of access." I talked about that question with David Shribman, the Post-Gazette's executive editor. Shribman noted that the P-G had already done some heavy lifing on this matter -- by publishing records from the case that were apparently left unsealed on a county computer. 

"We've fought this battle already, and are chary of fighting it again," Shribman told me.

It's true: The P-G has put itself out on a limb here, and should be commended for it. But I'm still surprised by the reticence of other media outlets to address this stuff. WTAE is apparently willing to demand the birthdates of Port Authority employees, but no one thinks their audience is interested in the Scaife divorce? 

By contrast, the divorce of Scaife's ancestor, Andrew Mellon, was a major media event covered by the national press. Can it really be that reporters are less likely to question the wealthy now than they were in 1912 -- near the height of Gilded Age capitalism?

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Federal stimulus: A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the same old shit

Posted By on Mon, Mar 2, 2009 at 7:06 AM

So last Thursday, I spent a couple hours at the CEOs for Cities "salon" discussion of the federal stimulus bill. (I'd have written about this sooner, but I've been sick and dealing with some other weirdness. Apologies to everyone who's been hitting "refresh" every 20 minutes for the past few days:  I'll call next weekend, Mom, I promise!) 

Anyway, the event was a discussion of the federal government's stimulus plan, and how it could help overhaul not just our infrastructure, but our entire approach to public investment.

To be honest, much of the event was boring, but for occasionally interesting reasons.

For one thing, we learned that $787 billion just doesn't go as far as it used to. State officials noted that Pennsylvania's share of the money available for bridge maintenance, for example, would cover the cost of rehabbing about 100 bridges -- and there are some 6,000 in need of repair across the state. 

Early on especially, I can't say I didn't spend a few idle moments reviewing my career goals. There was talk about how you got your MPOs and your EISes and on and on. Meanwhile, some of the crowd seemed sort of upset, which I didn't understand at first. And then it sunk in: The problem with the stimulus bill is that so far, at least, it's been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do the same old shit we always do.

No matter how you measure it, $787 billion is a lot of money. But Don Carter, of the architecture firm Urban Design Associates, probably spoke for a lot of people when he said he was disappointed with the stimulus package. Conspiciously absent from it, he noted, was any sort of "urban agenda." In the '30s, FDR gave us the Works Progress Administration, whose contributions to the infrastructure are still paying off today. By comparison, this stimulus bill sacrificed a vision for tomorrow to create some jobs today.

Shortly afterward, the Port Authority's Steve Bland made it clear why that was. 

Bland spoke briefly about the bill's potential impact on local transit. This wasn't exactly big-picture stuff: As we all know, the Port Authority hopes to use much of the money to build the North Shore "Don't Call Me A Tragic Mistake" Connector. Bland also mentioned the need for some other less-than-glamarous improvements, like finally repairing that pedestrian bridge at the East Busway's Negley Avenue stop. 

But what Bland made clear is that the stimulus bill puts a premium on projects that are ready to go today -- "shovel ready," in the parlance. Stimulus money came with "use it or lose it" provisions: Money could be returned to the feds and redistributed to some other city. So it's no good talking about visionary projects and such, because by the time you convinced people of the need to build them, all the money for doing so would already be spent.

On one level, that makes sense -- the point of the stimulus bill is to, well, stimulate stuff. Obama wants to point to job-creation in a hurry, and Republicans will pillory him if he doesn't. That doesn't leave a lot of time for visioning or consensus building or any of the rest of it.

Then again, it's just this kind of thinking -- "produce results this quarter and damn the consequences!" -- that put our economy in the shitter to begin with. And the results of that approach here are obvious: Obama may be the new guy in town, with new ideas and a new approach. But by insisting on projects that are ready to go now, the feds inevitably are going to give their money to ideas proposed by the same old idiots we've always had with us. (People with shovel-ready projects, you may have noticed, tend to be the people who have years of practice laying on the BS with a shovel.) 

But that sort of thing isn't going to change overnight, obviously. The test for Obama will be how successful he is at remaking politics on the national level over time. Similarly, it will be interesting to see how much CEOs for Cities can advance its agenda locally. 

CEOs for Cities, as the name implies, is a nexus of leaders with an urbanist agenda. The Pittsburgh chapter's membership includes a bunch of familiar names: some of the area's more forward-thinking architects and developers; some non-profit folks; a couple city councilors unlikely to be invited to a Luke Ravenstahl fundraiser; and of course Dan Onorato (who was not in attendance). Ideally, these folks will use the stimulus package -- a percentage of which is still up for grabs -- to begin thinking of some more creative approaches to investment. 

Someday, one participant hoped, maybe good ideas will be shovel-ready too. Personally, I'd settle for free beer at the next meeting.


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