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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pamela's pancakes make the world go 'round

Posted By on Thu, May 28, 2009 at 2:42 PM

Let's see ... so just a few days ago, Barack Obama invites the folks at Pamela's to make pancakes at the White House. And all the sudden, we hear that Pittsburgh is to host the G-20 Summit on September 24-25.

Coincidence? I don't think so. 

Naturally, county executive Dan Onorato and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl have embraced the news. In a statement, Onorato attributed the honor to the fact that the region has "made great strides in cleaning our air, water and land, as well as promoting smart growth, sustainable development and green jobs." Ravenstahl similarly asserted that "Pittsburgh was chosen because of our status as a symbol of economic transformation as well as our leadership in the green movement."

Not to mention that these days, we're like the poster child for so many other global economic challenges, like massive government indebtedness and seeimngly insurmountable "legacy costs." 

ADDED: The Wall Street Journal has some additional thoughts about why Pittsburgh was chosen. One reason is that we're not New York: The U.S. didn't risk insulting UN member countries who weren't invited. ("Hey, you didn't miss anything! We could hardly buy a bottle of wine on a Sunday there!") Another reason: "G8 summits often have been used as an economic development tool, a way to bring businesses to cities outside the host nation’s capital."

Naturally, this can only mean more coverage of Pittsburgh in the pages of The New York Times, and another spate of stories about how we're the comeback city. There will be an economic boost as well, with hotel bookings and other tourist activity getting a huge, badly-needed jolt. We'll probably get more internnational traffic coming through the airport in a single week than we've had in the past 5 years. And there's a good chance of an economic boom for the local plate-glass-window industry, once the WTO protesters march down Walnut Street.

I just hope we're ready for our close-up on the global stage. A couple weeks back, I was walking up 6th Avenue Downtown, just behind three convention-goers speaking Chinese. A big ol' pick-up truck rolled up alongside, and some dude in the passenger seat shouted at them from the window: "ching chong dong ding ching etc. etc." The truck rolled off, to the sound of laughter from inside the cab, as the convention-goers just looked at each other, seemingly more bemused than offended.

Of course, you'll find jagoffs like that in any city. But it might be a good idea to lay in a store of pancakes, just in case we need to smooth over any international incidents.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

News flash: Potter to retire, work on Specter campaign

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2009 at 3:30 PM

OK, I'm not really quitting to go help Arlen Specter get re-elected. If I were going to work on any politician's campaign, it would be Pat Toomey's. (No, really! I would do just about anything to help him win the Republican primary in 2010.)

But I am feeling a lilttle left out. As you've probably heard, Indepedent-nee-Republican Kevin Acklin has hired former WPXI-TV reporter Andy Gastmeyer to be press secretary for his mayoral campaign. As the Acklin campaign's release says: 

"I'm honored that someone of Andy's impeccable reputation and journalistic integrity has agreed to join our campaign team. Andy has always been committed to making our city a better place, and I'm grateful that he's joining our effort," Acklin said.

Gastmeyer is following in the footsteps of Meghan Jones-Rolla, a former WTAE reporter who served as spokesperson for Mark DeSantis' 2007 Republican run for mayor. Damn that liberal media!

(Jones-Rolla, incidentally, is now a lawyer suing the city over its ordinance on lost and stolen handguns. Which means Jones has already fulfilled at least two journalistic fantasies: 1) putting words in politicians' mouths, and 2) actively tormenting them.)

Interestingly, before the May 19 primary, there was barely a peep from Acklin's camp, other than a brief spate of reports that he had changed his party registration. It was another third-party candidate, Dok Harris, who got all the attention, including invites to at least mayoral forums (one of which was co-sponsored by City Paper.) Since the primary, though, all the news has come from Acklin, whose official campaign kickoff is slated for June 3. 

Count on Acklin to have some of the same teammates as DeSantis did .. and these will be folks who already have a citywide campaign under their belt. He ought to have at least as much success raising money as DeSantis did in 2007 -- and DeSantis raised about a half-million bucks. Then too, Acklin is a lifelong Pittsburgher, and it won't be as easy to write off as a Republican carpetbagger as DeSantis was.

Of course, Acklin will have some of the same liabilities that plagued DeSantis. About the only question I ever asked that threw DeSantis off his stride, for example, was a query about $650 he donated to Rick Santorum. That's not really very much money, but it IS a tough gift to explain when your campaign needs to portray itself as moderate and post-partisan.

Acklin could have an even bigger problem in this respect. According to FEC reports, Acklin contributed $1,000 to Santorum in four contributions made since 2004. He's also sent six checks totaling $3,000 to Melissa Hart between 2005 and 2008 -- and $750 to Tim "Santorum Lite" Murphy in 2008. Another recipient of Acklin's largesse: the Pro-Growth Action Team, to which he contributed $500. The Action Team was a leadership PAC that contributed to national Republican candidates -- AND which was affiliated with ... former Congressman Pat Toomey.

None of this should be terribly surprising. Acklin was a noted local Republican, who would have been expected to make such contributions. (FEC records show he's backed more moderate GOPers too, including Arlen Specter, now a Democrat, and 2008 Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.) If Acklin is smart -- and I'm pretty sure he is -- he's going to have a story to tell about all of that. And I expect it will be the tale of a guy who, like a lot of voters in the city, has seen party politics at their worst.

After all, you may remember that in 2007, Acklin ran against Charles McCullough to be the GOP's at-large representative on Allegheny County Council. And you may also recall that Acklin lost, despite the fact that McCullough was facing some high-profile allegations about using a client's money to help other local GOP candidates. Acklin may have been a Republican until recently, but disgust with political shenanigans is a bipartisan sentiment.  

But, yeah, the odds against Acklin OR Harris winning are long, and of course as the P-G pointed out recently, one problem both candidates have is ... each other. But if the first race Acklin and Harris have to run is a contest to establish third-party credibility, right now Acklin seems to have a leg up. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Back to the Future

Posted By on Tue, May 26, 2009 at 5:52 AM

Some interesting stuff on KD/PG Sunday Edition (wait -- did I just say that?) this week. I was especially interested to watch the in-studio interview with city councilor Bill Peduto and presumptive councilor-to-be Natalia Rudiak.

Peduto sounded like a kid for whom Christmas came early. What did it mean that Rudiak had won her May 19 primary, along with Peduto's former campaign aide, Daniel Lavelle? Said Peduto:

You're going to be taking away two rubber stamps and putting in two independent thinkers who are going to base their decisions on policy, not politics. I'm going to sit at that council meeting, I'm going to have a cup of coffee in front of me, and I'm going to enjoy the debate. That's why I got in this. I feel finally there's going to be that council I'd hoped for.

Peduto also waxed nostalgic for how life was in the good old days, when he was an aide to his predeccessor, Dan Cohen. Back then, Peduto contended "There was a debate on issues," thanks to the leadership of guys like Jim Ferlo, Alan Hertzberg and Bob O'Connor.

Huh. I'm not sure that's quite how I remember it, but OK. In any case, there's little arguing with Peduto's larger point: On today's council, too often "There has been no debate. There has basically been a rubber-stamp for the mayor."

The question is what the newcomers will do to change the equation. Rudiak was walking a very thin line on the show. As Chris Briem pointed out, while District 4 elected Rudiak, it also went more heavily for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl than any other district in the city. Rudiak has to be mindful of that, and her top priority has to be addressing district needs.

So on Sunday, she pledged "to having an intelligent and an ethical debate about the issues," and noted that one challenge in her district was a loss of faith in city government. But on the other hand ... 

To whatever extent other city council members and the mayor's office want to work with me to bring investment to the South Hills, they'll find an ally in me... I've said this from day one: Anybody who is interested in working with me to bring investment to the South Hills -- whether that's working with community groups, whether that's providing more efficient city services, whether that's working on implementing policies citywide that would benefit the entire city, that’s what I'll do.

So naturally there is some tension here. Rudiak got elected -- in part -- with the help of a lot of Peduto backers. But she can't afford to be captive to Peduto's agenda. Pittsburgh still has a strong-mayor system even if results of the council election make Ravenstahl look weak. It'll be interesting to see how she negotiaties this stuff. 

Peduto himself, when not rubbing his hands together and cackling with glee, predicted the city would soon have "not an antagonistic council but an independent council. A council that serves not as a function of the mayor’s office anymore." Which seems about as much as we can hope for.

Bram's guess would be mine as well: While they represent very different districts, Rudiak is going to occupy the same political territory as Ricky Burgess. More than Peduto or Shields, whose districts include some of the city's most prosperous neighborhoods, she's going to have to balance district needs with loftier concerns about transparency. 

Right now, she seems most interested in keeping options open. Rudiak and Peduto were asked about specific policy intiatives, and Rudiak's answers were not terribly transparent. 

Peduto, for example, discussed his hope to replace the city's $52-a-year commuter tax with a tax levied as a percentage of income. This resulted in a spirited (by KD/PG Sunday Edition standards, I mean) exchange. When it came time for her to weigh in, Rudiak observed that people in her district lived just across the border from other adjoining municipalities (so do people in other council districts, of course).

"People in the city feel that we are being burdened by taxes," she said. "[I]t's a real issue that we need to look at."


Up above there, I gently chided Peduto for waxing nostalgic over the good old days when Tom Murphy was mayor and we had luminaries like Joey Cusick on council. But I experienced a bit of deja vu this weekend too, after reading this story about Mayor Ravenstahl's renewed efforts to levy taxes for the sake of bailing out the city. It's like somebody on Grant Street found the Murphy political playbook in a desk drawer and decided to dust it off. 

Let's see ... 

-- An almost certainly fruitless attempt to get the non-profits to pay more taxes? Check.

The mayor said there's "clearly the need for nonprofits to contribute more than they do currently, whether that's through state action or through increases in voluntary [contributions]."

-- The claim that when even suburbanites go out of town, they tell people they are from Pittsburgh? Check. 

"[W]hen you go out of town, and you're asked where you live, you say Pittsburgh," Mr. Ravenstahl said

-- The plea that, hey, our paramedics will treat you for a medical emergency without checking the ZIP code on your driver's license? Check. 

"We all experienced a great Penguin win [Thursday] night. There were a lot of people that came to that game that didn't live in the city. Our police officers helped them to get out of there afterward by directing traffic. Our firefighters and paramedics were there to make sure that everything went well."

I'm not saying I disagree with any of this stuff, necessarily. I didn't disagree with it when Murphy said the very same things. But past experience suggests that this is not a winning approach.

The problem is simple: It's not in the political interests of, say, state Sen. Jane Orie to tax her voters for the sake of constituencies outside her district. If Paul wants Peter's money, he should at least move to McCandless.

Of couse, we can get all het up about the need to "think as a region" and to "show leadership that transcends petty politics." But then, Tom Murphy liked to lecture suburban officials about their responsibilities too. Look where that got us. 

What would I do instead to help build support for more taxing power to help the city? I'd exploit the fact that some suburbanites actually do have a very direct stake in the city's fiscal well-being.

As we reported last year, there are scores of suburbanites out there who used to be city employees -- and who still depend on the pension checks they started getting when they retired. The city's pension fund is dramatically underfunded, which means there are a couple hundred suburbanites whose retirement is at stake. If Jane Orie votes to let the city rot, she's letting those constituents suffer too.

When Orie lectures the city about fiscal responsibility, underlying the argument is the claim that, hey, your voters got you into this mess ... let them get you out of it. But that argument starts to fray when you realize that

a) many of the people actually benefiting from these pensions no longer live in the city, and

b) many of the people paying those pensions didn't live in the city back when those suburban pensioners retired. 

To some extent, there's a transfer of wealth between working-class folks in the city, and retirees living comfortably out in the 'burbs.

But again: Economic justice arguments don't get you anywhere. The real point is that there is a pool of people out in the suburbs who are depending on the city's pension fund remaining solvent. The city might want to think about mobilizing them. 

I'm not sure that will work: The number of suburban-dwelling retirees isn't that large, relatively speaking. And who knows whether they'd want to tax their current neighbors to help out people they used to live next door to. But I guarantee one thing: If you could find retirees who would help make the argument, they'd be more sympathetic figures than Luke Ravenstahl. 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Following the money in district 4

Posted By on Thu, May 21, 2009 at 5:21 PM

In a discussion that followed from a post I wrote a couple days back, a commenter asked about how much money had flowed into the district 4 race from outside sources. There have been some questions circulating about just how much money the race's winner, Natalia Rudiak, was getting from outside the district. 

It seemed like an interesting question, and while I've looked over the campaign finance reports previously, I hadn't done a systematic look at that side of it.  I thought it might be interesting to try.

Besides, my wife is at a social function ... so it's either do this analysis, or the sinkful of dishes waiting for me at home. 

Anyway. What follows here is something between a back-of-the-envelope calculation and a thoroughgoing review. It includes only the contributions between January and early May. Rudiak had raised quite a bit of money in 2008, and of course there was money flowing into this race in the final days of the campaign. But I figure January-to-early-May is a large enough sample to get a feel for the patterns here. 

In any case, it's hard to be TOO definitive about this stuff, for a couple reasons which I'll outline in a boring disclaimer at the bottom of this post.

So what follows is a breakdown for the source of each candidate's contributions, based on address information provided by the reports. Please note: I'm leaving PAC contributions out of this analysis, for reasons stated in the disclaimer, and also contributions of less than $50, for which donor information is not recorded. These numbers track contributions from individuals giving more than $50 only.

For purposes here, I'm assuming any donation coming from the following ZIP codes are "within the district": 15210, 15216, 15226, 15227, and 15234. ZIP codes don't precisely overlap the district's boundaries, I realize, but it's really all I've got.

Donations identified as being from "elsewhere within the region" are those that come from ANY ZIP code that begins with a 151 or a 152, except the district ZIPS mentioned above. "Out of state/region" come from any zip code lower or higher than 151xx or 152xx.

Got it? Here we go.

Anthony Coghill

Contributions within the district: $4,625 (or 21 pecent of non-PAC contributions)

Contributions from elsewhere within the region:  $14,475 (66 percent)

Contributions from out of state/region: $2,900 (13 percent)

Note: Coghill's "within the district" total includes a $1,600 contribution he made from his own pocket. The "within the region" total includes an $8,000 amount made by Lisa Orlando, his campaign treasurer. Obviously those contributions are a sizable chunk -- nearly 40 percent -- of his total fundraising, and affect the numbers above accordingly.

Patrick Reilly

Contributions within the district: $3,180 (24 pecent)

Contributions from elsewhere within the region: $3,390 (25 percent)

Contributions from out of state/region: $6,950 (51 percent)

Natalia Rudiak

Contributions within the district: $2,595 (or 12 pecent)

Contributions from elsewhere within the region:  $15,405 (72 percent)

Contributions from out of state/region: $3,600 (17 percent)

Notes: Rudiak took in $2,300 from individuals beyond state lines -- the largest amount.

So ... what conclusion do we draw from this? 

Much of Rudiak's support from outside the district came from East End areas like Squirrel Hill, Lawrenceville, and Point Breeze. That's no surprise, really: From day one, it was clear Rudiak was going to be able to tap those progressive voters, who previously haven't exerted much influence outside their leafy precincts. 

Is that proof she's an Astroturf candidate, as the commenter on my previous post speculated? Eh, I don't know. I've looked at a lot of campaign finance reports in my day, and nothing sinister leaps out at me here.

She got a lot of money from elsewhere in the city, sure -- much of it in $100 amounts from progressives. But to keep it in perspective, Coghill got the backing of folks like Todd Reidbord (of Walnut Street Properties fame), parking baron Merrill Stabile. So which bothers you more? 

To be sure, Rudiak had some heavy-hitting PACs in her corner too: A statewide SEIU PAC gave her $6,500, the Western PA Laborers $5,000. The teachers, plumbers and other unions kicked in as well. So did the Progress Pittsburgh PAC, a fledgling outfit that coughed up more than $1,500 to advance the progressive agenda. 

But it would be unfair to single out Rudiak from taking money from these sources. I mean, I can't even count the number of contributions I've seen from the Laborers over the years. 

So maybe the worst thing that can be said about Rudiak is ... she tapped friends and fellow travelers for support, along with some high-octane PACs. Which is to say, she played the game that almost every politician plays (or tries to). And she won. 

Now if you'll excuse me ... I hear those dishes calling me. 

Boring disclaimer: This analysis leaves out money from PACs, because PACs can represent people living within the district even if the PAC is based outside of it, and I can't think of a fair way to apportion the money from them.

In some cases, contributors list their work addresses rather than their home addresses -- I used whatever ZIP code was provided, but there may be some errors resulting from that. In some cases, ZIP code information was missing -- I left those out unless it was easy to classify the donor (as in situations where they listed another state in the address). 

All the reports I looked at were handwritten, sometimes sloppily. (I'm looking at you, Reilly campaign.) I did the best I could to decipher them. Finally, it's always possible I might have mistyped a ZIP or an amount here or there, though I think the numbers are pretty reliable, or else I wouldn't be inflicting this stuff on the internet. 

District 2: How the west was won

Posted By on Thu, May 21, 2009 at 8:48 AM

A few thoughts about district 2, where the action was a lot less dramatic than in district 4. So this post will be less dramatic than my previous one as well. (And yes, I realize that's saying something.)

The district 2 primary, of course, is a reprise of a special election earlier this year. The winner of that race was Theresa Smith, who ran this week for a full four-year term. She was challenged in both races by Georgia Blotzer.

Smith's performance in February wasn't stellar: She didn't win a majority of the vote, despite being the only person running as a Democrat in the race. (In a special, only the candidate endorsed by the Democratic Committee can use the party's label on the ballot*.)

Given Smith's anemic margin of victory, and the fact that Blotzer and anyone else could run as a Democrat this time around, rivals hoped Smith would be vulnerable in the primary. Instead, she improved on her performance, racking up 55 percent of the vote.

So what happened? 

For one thing, the track record is pretty good for candidates who a) win in a special election, and b) run in a regular election shortly afterward. This outcome, for example, was similar to Jim Motznik's 2001 run for City Council. Motznik won a special that winter with less than half the vote (he hadn't been endorsed in that race) ... but won the spring primary with 60 percent of it.

Among the other factors in this year's District 2 contest: the dark-horse candidates. 

Smith's stronghold is in the 20th and 28th wards, which make up the sprawling western reaches of the city. In the special election, though, Smith was hurt slightly by the fact that two other candidates, Chris Metz and Brendan Schubert, also had their base in that area. Neither Metz nor Schubert ran in the primary, though, and Smith took roughly two-thirds of the combined vote in those two wards. That's a 5-percentage-point improvement from her showing in the special. 

The dark-horse candidate in this week's race, by contrast, hurt Blotzer.

Blotzer's base is in the 19th ward precincts in and around Mt. Washington. Rob Frank hails from the same part of the district, and ran on a reformist platform similar to Blotzer's. It showed in the results. In the special election, she got nearly 64 percent of votes in the 19th ward -- but with Frank in the primary, she picked up less than 55 percent.

Of course, even if all Frank's votes had gone to Blotzer instead, she couldn't have beaten Smith. Blotzer had to make in-roads elsewhere in the district no matter what.

After the special election in February, the rap on her -- noted here and elsewhere -- was that she was little known outside the 19th ward. She did have some success addressing that weakness this time around. In February, she racked up less than 10 percent of the vote in wards 20 and 28. In May, she scored nearly 25 percent of the vote there.

But it just wasn't enough. The May primary drew nearly 1,800 more voters than the special election did ... and Smith racked up nearly 1,200 additional votes. It's tough -- mathematically impossible, actually -- to catch up that way.

* Boring note: An endorsed candidate in a special gets an added benefit. Any votes cast by voters pulling the lever for a straight "party line" go to the endorsed candidate. Smith didn't have that advantage in the May primary, so I ignored any party-line votes when computing the numbers above. That way, we're comparing votes cast for actual, you know, people. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

May primary by the numbers: A tale of two wards

Posted By on Wed, May 20, 2009 at 5:43 AM

Chris Briem does this stuff better, of course, but as I get some free time in the next day or so, I'll try to post some breakdowns of the ward-by-ward totals here and try to make sense of yesterday's primary.

First, a look at City Council District 4, and specifically two important wards within it.

The first ward we'll look at is the sprawling 19th. This is where Pete Wagner holds sway ... and much of this race has really been a battle for Wagner's heart. Wagner threw off his previous support of Anthony Coghill -- part of a broader political feud -- and supported Patrick Reilly, who works in the office of Wagner's daughter, state Rep. Chelsa Wagner.  (To add a further element of intrigue, primary winner Natalia Rudiak is a friend of the younger Wagner's, though Rep. Wagner stayed neutral in this race.)

So who won the 19th? By my admittedly sleep-deprived count, it was Coghill, who took 1,363 votes in the ward. Reilly came in a close second with just over 1,200. Rudiak came in a more distant third with just under 950. (A fourth candidate, Richard Weaver, isn't included here because he garnered too few votes to make an impact.)

None of this is surprising, Coghill is a Beechview kid from way back, which apparently carries weight roughly equal to the mass that Wagner can throw around. But between them, Coghill and Reilly split the 19th ward, which both of them needed to carry the district as a whole.

That brings us to Ward 29, which is centered on the often-overlooked neighborhood of Carrick. This is Rudiak's homebase, and it is to district 4 what district 4 is to the rest of Pittsburgh: a place where people resent being overlooked in favor of more connected neighborhoods elsewhere. 

And in Carrick, Rudiak trounced her rivals. She took 821 votes by my fatigued reckoning. Neither Reilly (who won 335 votes) nor Coghill (249) were ever competitive here. 

Bear in mind that Rudiak won this race by just under 200 votes: She beat Reilly 2282 to 2088, and Coghill was a close third with 1940. You have to assume that if Coghill had Pete Wagner's support, he'd have gotten the vast majority of Reilly's votes in Ward 19. That would have made him unbeatable. And vice versa: If Reilly hadn't needed to compete with a Beechview kid for Ward 19s affections, it's hard to see how he could have lost.

This was, in fact, exactly how some of Rudiak's advisors predicted the race would play out. Rudiak needed Reilly and Coghill in the race to win ... and they have each other to thank for the fact that she did so. 

But I'm guessing that instead of thanks, there's REALLY going to be some bad feelings in the 19th ward this morning. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A big night for reformers

Posted By on Tue, May 19, 2009 at 10:13 PM

My early takeaway from tonight's election: a big night for reformers, and a huge setback for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Yeah, he beat Dowd -- handily. But this comes as no surprise, and in any case, the mayor will be looking at a much different council a year from now. Which is about all one could have hoped for. 

In the biggest surprise (to me) of the night, Ravenstahl has lost one of his most reliable votes on council: Tonya Payne in District 6. Don't be surprised if she's seen knitting a scarf with Sala Udin's face on it in the months ahead. Meanwhile, in District 4, Ravenstahl lost a chance to replace another reliable vote, departing councilor Jim Motznik, with ally Anthony Coghill.

The winner in that race was Natalia Rudiak, who ran a hell of a smart race -- and whose rivals ran incredibly dumb ones. This was the race I was most interested in, in part because from the outset, it seemed possible that Rudiak would benefit from Coghill and Patrick Reilly splitting the old-guard vote between them. What no one could have anticipated, though, was that the two Dems would end up bickering over the Democratic Party endorsement -- a fiasco that couldn't have gone any better for Rudiak if she'd scripted it. What she did script was a smart ground game and a great message. The best-run campaign of 2009, in my book.

Of coure, it wasn't all good news. For some bloggers, the big disappointment will be that Theresa Smith absolutely trounced Georgia Blotzer in District 2. This outcome is hardly surprising, but honestly, some of the attacks on Smith have struck me as kinda desperate and over the top, especially given Smith's short stint on council. I'm not sure she's the automaton that some have made her out to be. Maybe I'll be proven wrong, of course -- won't be the first time. But in any case, tonight's results suggest that Ravenstahl's coattails aren't as long as the mayor might have hoped. I'm sure Smith will be thinking about that in the days ahead. 

What are the lessons here? I think they're pretty simple, honestly. One doesn't need to buy into any sweeping theory of millenial change, necessarily. Candidates who are out of touch with their districts (Payne) lose. The power of the "Democratic machine" has proven to be overstated (again). So, to a lesser extent, has the power of the blogosphere ... though probably its time is coming.

Another bonus win is Sharene Shealey in school board district 1. This is the one campaign I most wish I'd spent more time following. Shealey's personal story is compelling, she's smart and knowledgeable ... and more than anyone else in this whole contest, she re-created that Obama coalition of black voters and progressive Democrats (I know lots of folks in the 14th Ward loved her). In this race, and a couple of others, tonight's results promise to be something progressives can build on.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Catching Z's

Posted By on Mon, May 18, 2009 at 7:57 AM

I caught this headline from WPXI the other day: It seems that Gene Peck -- son of common pleas court candidate Michelle Zappala Peck, and nephew of District Attorney Stephen Zappala -- is facing charges for arson.

The fire was minor, no one was hurt, and Gene Peck (who works as a volunteer firefighter) helped put out the blaze. Also, his family says he suffers from mental illness. So let's hope he gets the help he needs, and that the justice system provides the fairness he deserves.

That said, this strikes me as a pivotal point in the history of our local justice system. The county's lead prosecutor is a Zappala. It's likely that after tomorrow's primary election, one of the county's judges will be a Zappala too. A federal appeals-court judge, Tom Hardiman, is already related to the Zappalas by marriage. And a Zappala runs a juvenile detention center outside the county, a facility much in the headlines lately.

Now, it seems, the Zappala family is providing not just law-enforcement officers, trial judges and appellate judges ... they've begun furnishing us with suspects too. Which means that the Zappalas are on the verge of being able to run an entire justice system without involving anyone else. If things go on like this, they'll just be able to sit around and judge each other.

Granted, that sounds like what my family does during the holidays. The difference is, we don't get taxpayer money for the purpose. 

Thursday, May 14, 2009

City Paper scores partial win in Scaife divorce case

Posted By on Thu, May 14, 2009 at 2:45 PM

Apologies for the delay in this blog post. It's been a sort of surreal few days. I mean, it's not every week that Marty Freakin' Griffin takes time away from  investigating ministers' sex lives to accuse us of disregarding people's privacy.

But anyway, here's the latest on our efforts to unseal some records in the Scaife matter, which moved Griffin to such concern.

After a hearing before Judge Alan Hertzberg last week, we scored a partial victory. The orders that sealed the case -- and were themselves sealed -- have now been released. The judge apparently agreed with our contention that, no, you can't just seal up a courtroom and everything going on inside it. You have to at least offer some kind of explanation about what you're doing and why. 

As a result of these orders, and testimony in a hearing held last week on the matter, we have a better sense of what motivated the court's actions in the first place. Not only do the Scaifes worry about their personal security and fear of embarrassment, but Mr. Scaife's attorney says that his client's wealth and prominence has been exaggerated. 

Hertzberg has apparently filed two orders sealing this long-running divorce. The first order, filed in 2006, is only a couple sentences long and merely seals all "court papers and dockets." The other, filed in 2007 after the Post-Gazette got hold of some files in the case anyway, is more extensive. It applies to "all hearings, trials, arguments, petitions, motions, and any and all other proceedings."

The truth is, there's not a hell of a lot to this order, making Mr. Griffin's touching -- and no doubt heartfelt -- concern for the Scaifes' privacy somewhat misplaced. We were not seeking juicy details of the Scaifes' personal lives (many of which have already been revealed). We were seeking an explanation about how and why the court gave the Scaifes a courtesy the average divorcing couple doesn't get: the ability to have their dirty laundry aired only in secret.

This is Journalism 101, even if Griffin doesn't recognize it: If somebody says you can't get access to files or meetings that are ordinarily public, you ask why. And we now have an answer to that question.

The 2007 order expresses concern that personal and financial information on record in the case could "cause substantial embarrassment, humiliation and seriously infringe upon the parties' rights to have their personal lives and family matters remain private, without serving any useful purpose in the community." 

The order also contends that "if public access is given to any proceedings in this matter, it will create an increased theft and personal security risk by making public the location, extent and value of real property, artwork and personal property, as well as detailed financial informaion ... that can be misused by those who engage in financial scams and other illegal acts." 

In a hearing last week, attorneys for both Mr. and Mrs. Scaife contended that the estranged couple faced increased security threats after the P-G published documents related to the case.

The nature of these threats remains a bit hazy: There was talk of what may (or may not) have been an attempt to hack into Mrs. Scaife's computer, "cryptic" and vaguely threatening letters from strangers seeking financial help, cars that lingered outside their homes, and so on.

Neither of the Scaifes themselves appeared at the hearing -- instead, their attorneys called each other to the stand to testify. For example, Gary Gentile, a lawyer for Mrs. Scaife, acknowledged that although he couldn't recall the last time Mrs. Scaife had been threatened, he figured things would stay quiet only "until I guess something is published."

But during cross-examination, Mr. Scaife's longtime attorney, Yale Gutnick, seemed to have a hard time pointing to anything in the documents we were seeking that would compromise anyone's privacy or safety. Our ACLU attorney, Vic Walczak, asked Gutnick to explain, for example, what there was in the following paragraph of the 2007 order that jeopardized the Scaife's privacy or security:

The parties, recognizing the importance of safegaurding their private business and personal affairs, entered into a comprehensive confidentiality agreement dated March 16, 2006. The agreement was signed by the parties, their counsel, their experts and all others coming into contact with private information involving the [divorce].

What was the problem with having that information made public? Walczak asked. 

Gutnick's answer: "It clearly implies that there's something to safeguard."

Walczak noted that newspaper accounts have already noted that the case is under wraps. "So the fact that there's a confidentiality agreement," he said, "is not really new to anybody."

"It's new to anybody who hadn't read it," Gutnick answered.

Gutnick also offered a perspective on his client that might surprise some of Scaife's detractors. Scaife is, after all, routinely described as a billionaire who has helped bankroll the modern conservative movement. On the stand, though, Gutnick claimed that both parts of that description were exaggerated. 

When Walczak asked whether Scaife owned a billion dollars in assets, Gutnick's response was, "The answer is no. Not right now."

Similarly, Walczak quoted from the now-famous Vanity Fair story about the Scaife divorce, to assert that "In the 1990s, [Scaife's] gift of $1.8 million to The American Spectator funded investigations into Whitewater and Bill Clinton’s personal life. Gutnick said that contention "as reported is false." (The Arkansas Project was carried out by American Spectator magazine, a beneficiary of considerable largesse from Scaife foundations. But Scaife has previously denied any role in initiating the "investigation.")

Perhaps the biggest question arising from the Vanity Fair piece was ... "what the hell were the Scaifes thinking when they agreed to be interviewed?" The hearing offered an explanation for that too: Attorneys for both Scaifes characterized their clients' participation as a form of "damage control," and said they decided to do interviews only when they got wind of some of what Gutnick called "off the wall" assertions that the magazine would otherwise report. 

Once again, the toughest sell in the room was William Pietragallo, an attorney for Mrs. Scaife who denounced our efforts to open up a tiny portion of the record as a mere pretext. Seeking access to the docket index, he said, "is just another way of parading the Scaife divorce in the public eye ... What they want to do is drag this divorce through the media one more time." 

For Pietragallo and the other Scaife attorneys, the outcome of Hertzberg's decision isn't all bad. While Hertzberg gave us access to the orders sealing the case, he kept the docket -- an index of the date and general nature of every action taken in the case -- under seal. Again, Hertzberg wrote that revealing the information would harm the Scaifes.

As a result, it's impossible to know, for example, how many court hearings there have been in this case, how many people have been called as witnesses for it, or anything else. Not only is the case taking place inside a black box -- but we don't know how large the box is, or how much stuff is inside. All we have now is an explanation for why it is locked. 

I'll have more on some of the issues arising from this dispute in next week's edition. And we're currently talking with its attorneys about what our next legal step, if any, will be. Hertzberg's ruling was a mixed decision, and accordingly, we have mixed feelings about it. But we're glad that the judge agreed with what is, after all, a really important principle: Even assuming that sealing a courtroom is necessary, the public is entitled to an explanation about why it's being done. It's not enough for a couple of attorneys and a judge to say, "Let's just keep this to ourselves, shall we?"

In fact, I'll close by quoting the words of Ron Barber, an attorney who represented the Tribune-Review in its effort to unseal the will of the late Senator John Heinz. The fact that that door of a courthouse "is open to the public is one of the things that makes us different from the rest of the world. And today that door was open to the public once again" -- even if just a little bit.

Somewhat ironically, though, in this case Barber was representing Scaife -- and his efforts to keep the door closed.

Friday, May 1, 2009

End of Week Wrap Up: News on Dowd's ambitions and more

Posted By on Fri, May 1, 2009 at 3:02 PM

First off, a little something for the political junkies. I hope to be posting more about the mayoral debate City Paper co-sponsored this week. But here's one item worth noting: 

In a written question, some obvious Ravenstahl plant in the audience* noted that Dowd had a penchant for running for office, and that he wasn't even halfway through his first term on council. So why, this anonymous apologist for the Democratic machine* asked, should we think Dowd was up to the task of running for mayor? And why should we think he won't be running for something else a couple years from now?

Dowd explained that "the number-one issue for me and a lot of people is public education." But the more he worked on the school board, the more he realized that the schools couldn't solve problems like violence and blight -- which tend to filter in through the schoolhouse door.

Then Dowd dropped this assertion: "I am more than willing to commit myself to this office and that's it ... I'll be interested to see if the mayor ... will make the same commitment."

So there you have it: Dowd says his political ambitions end here.

* OK, I confess: I'm the guy who asked the question. I gave it to moderator Vince Sims in advance, along with questions from some of the other cosponsors, but I guess it got lumped in with the audience questions by mistake.


Over the years, I've gotten increasingly skeptical about the whole system whereby we select judges. Currently, they're elected directly by the voters, but the candidates typically say so little -- for fear of prejudicing a case down the road -- that it's almost impossible for voters to decide who to back. You just end up seeing who got recommended by the bar association -- if you even do that much.

But I had a small experience at a Brookline political forum earlier this week that reaffirmed my faith in direct democracy.

Most of the evening was spent on the candidates for City Council district 4. But school board member Sherry Hazuda was also on hand. And she had a charming tale about how she'd taught a little first-grader named Kevin ... who grew up to be a candidate for Superior Court judge, Kevin McCarthy.

Hazuda asked that "If you don't know anyone else running for Superior Court" -- and honestly, who does? -- "please vote for Kevin."

"He has good family, Christian, values," she added. "He's one of us, and he's a good person."

I'll confess that the first thing I thought was -- "good Christian values? I guess I know who I won't be voting for." (And here's the thing: I'm actually a Christian.) 

But in fact, there are plenty of good reasons to vote for McCarthy. He's "highly recommended" by the county bar association, and he's supported by the Allegheny County Labor Council as well as the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, a pro-LGBT organization in town. 

It's gratifying that such candidates are considered "one of us" in a church social hall out in Brookline. If Republicans are wondering why they've lost their mojo with working-class folks, this may be the reason: It's not that a LGBT endorsement will necessarily help a candidate in such communities -- I don't even know whether Hazuda is aware of it. But the backing doesn't necessarily hurt anymore either.  

I guess the irony here is that McCarthy may be one of the most progressive folks on the ballot this May  -- even though a lot of progressive voters themselves may not have heard of him.


Finally, for those of you following along at home, they've scheduled the next hearing in our effort to open up some of the record in the Scaife divorce case. It's next Thursday at 9:30 a.m. We'll let you know what happens. If we're still allowed to talk about it by then.  


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