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Monday, October 26, 2009

Look for the union label -- just don't put it in your ads without permission (UPDATED)

Posted By on Mon, Oct 26, 2009 at 2:22 PM

As I first reported here yesterday, mayoral candidate Dok Harris announced the endorsement of Ironworkers Local 3 this morning. But Harris has been hearing from another union as well -- and not about an endorsement.

Over the weekend, the Service Employees International Union sent a letter to the Harris campaign, demanding that Team Harris take down an advertisement featuring SEIU members and Gabe Morgan, who is the union's director for Western Pennsylvania.

The ad in question asks "Where's Luke?" and features numerous speakers -- from Barack Obama to local residents -- commenting on the mayor's habit of going AWOL. One part of the commercial shows footage from a protest held at the City County Building this past July. The demonstration, carried out by members of the SEIU and the United Food and Commercial Workers unions, sought to ensure that taxpayer-funded development would provide "living wage" jobs. (Our coverage of the July protest is here.)

The commercial shows union members -- identifiable by their T-shirts -- chanting. Morgan then appears and tells them, "We don't know if the mayor's here or not." The ad has aired on television in addition to being posted on Youtube.

Sent by union attorney Terry Meginniss, the SEIU letter charges that the Harris ad uses the footage of the protest "out of context" and in a way that "distorts the message that was delivered."

Meginnis set a deadline of 5 p.m. Sunday for the campaign to "advise me what steps you will take to meet the demand set out here." The letter threatens "legal and other appropriate remedies against the campaign to ensure that the public is not misled."

In a phone call this afternoon, Morgan told me the SEIU "has been waging a campaign to lift standards for working people in the city of Pittsburgh. And the Harris campaign was tying that on to other footage, and shoehorning it into a political campaign. They took our message out of context, cut it into an ad and used it for their own purposes ... We think the ad implies a relationship that doesn't exist, and to us, it feels exploitive. We take our endorsement process very seriously."

The SEIU has not endorsed any of the three mayoral candidates: The union is remaining neutral in the race, Morgan says, because it has chosen to advocate for specific policies rather than politicians. 

Would the SEIU be satisfied if the Harris team just took down the ad? "We'll see what happens," Morgan told me.

I'm waiting for a call back from the Harris campaign, and will post their response here. (UPDATE: Harris' campaign manager did respond -- see below.) But for now, I'll note that nothing in the ad suggests Harris has been endorsed by the SEIU. And the July protest was a public demonstration, attended by local TV news and lots of people with cameras of their own as well. Moreover, as I pointed out to Morgan, plenty of demonstrators did complain about the mayor's absence during the demonstration. Some joked he'd surely be around if they were golf celebrities or campaign contributors. 

"Did those union members tell you they were supporting Dok Harris?" Morgan shot back.

So I'm not sure what legal requirements apply in this situation. On the one hand, it's a real bad idea to use people's likeness in an advertisement without permission. On the other hand, labor activists were staging a public protest, about an issue of concern -- an issue that Harris has made part of his campaign. (As Harris' Web site makes clear, the candidate "support[s] tools ... to ensure that publicly funded development actually supports our working families.")

But speaking politically, as opposed to legally? Talking to the SEIU before rolling out the ad would have been a smart idea. 

UPDATE: Michael Capozzoli, the Harris campaign manager, got back to me this evening. His first response was "Ahhhh, uhhhhhh, ohhhhhh ... and you can quote me on that." 

Capozzoli was, shall we say, puzzled by the SEIU's response to the ad. "We have the utmost respect for the SEIU," he said. "They're a very important voice for the working families in this city." But, he added, "We're confused, because they've been at loggerheads with this mayor since he took office." He reiterated the point I've raised above -- that Harris has been much more sympathetic to causes the SEIU espouses, like wage guarantees on developments funded with city tax dollars. 

As for the legal claims made in the SEIU letter, Capozzoli says "We're very confident that we didn't use any material inappropriately. They were in a public place, doing a public protest publically." 

The footage, he says, was shot by independent filmmaker Chris Ivey, who has been shooting footage for the Harris campaign. 

But Capozzoli says he empathizes with the SEIU: "When you're shaking up the status quo, even the good guys can get scared." Members of the Harris campaign itself, he says, have been told they'll never find political work in Pittsburgh again. 

Capozzoli says the ad was scheduled to come off the air Wednesday anyway, when it will be replaced with another ad. In any case, he adds, none of this will disrupt the Harris campaign's momentum. "This race is a lot closer than any of you can really report," he says.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Harris poised to get union endorsement?

Posted By on Sun, Oct 25, 2009 at 11:14 AM

Mayoral candidate Dok Harris is holding a press conference on Monday morning, and while I can't be there, I'm going to go out on a limb and guess Harris will be picking up the endorsement of Ironworkers Local #3. The presser is slated to be held at the union's Strip District headquarters ... and what's more, I drove past there last night and saw a Harris yard sign out front. If I'm right, the announcement will come on the heels of another endorsement announced late last week -- that of a veterans group. 

In other endorsement news, as first noted over at Null Space, independent mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin has picked up the support of Louis "Hop" Kendrick, a longtime black leader who's run for mayor himself.  Kendrick cites Acklin's "history of community involvement long before he decided to seek public office." As for Harris, Kendrick wonders if he's "running for name identification for a future political race? ... [O]nce I heard him on the radio explaining why he left town during G-20 it was definitely obvious to me. (link added)"

As for incumbent Luke Ravenstahl, to no one's surprise at all, Dan Onorato spoke warmly on Ravenstahl's behalf during this morning's broadcast of KD/PG Sunday Edition. Co-anchor Ken Rice also asked the county exec whether he dealt with the-suddenly-famous John Verbanac. Onorato acknowledge that Verbanac is "a friend," but not an advisor. Onorato added that he doesn't have the "relationship with [Verbanac] that the mayor does right now." 

Incidentally, I confess that I enjoy listening to Onorato's patter. Asked whether he could hope to win the support of restaurant and bar owners after pushing through a drink tax here, Onorato said he'd "probably have a shot -- "in 66 counties."


Saturday, October 24, 2009

For wonks only: a look at campaign finance reports

Posted By on Sat, Oct 24, 2009 at 11:05 AM

Campaign finance reports were due from political candidates yesterday. Over at the P-G, the headline noted that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's "pile of campaign chest [is] much larger than rivals."

Which is true, of course. Partly that's because Ravenstahl started out with so much more money. When this reporting period began in June, he had $328,000 cash on hand -- about twice what rivals Dok Harris and Kevin Acklin had.

In fact, during the reporting period itself -- which ended Oct. 19 -- Acklin raised the most money. Acklin raised nearly $94,000 from well-heeled individuals who gave amounts of $250 or more. But before anyone denounces Acklin as a white-shoe candidate, I should also point out that he also led the field in small-dollar contributions of under $50. He raised nearly $10,000 from such small givers ... nearly seven times what Harris and Ravenstahl combined raised.

Oh, and beleive it or not ... Acklin was the only candidate to raise money from a hall-of-fame football player in this period. You'll have to read further down to find out who it was. 

When you put it all together, Acklin raised over $135,000 overall -- more than either Harris ($113,600) or Ravenstahl ($127,500).

But then reality reasserted itself. Ravenstahl filed a supplemental report showing that, in the two days after the reporting period closed, he raised another 70 grand. In other words, in two short days, Ravenstahl raked in more than half the sum it took Ravenstahl and Acklin four months to assemble.

What follows here is a candidate-by-candidate look at notable trends and contributions.

Kevin Acklin:

Acklin's biggest backers included: his mom, Candace ($9,785); Frank Fuhrer ($6,000), the beer distributor king; Butler County investment guru Ron Muhlenkamp  ($5,000); former US Steel CEO Tom Usher ($5,000) and William Benter ($5,000), who runs a medical transcription service. (Benter, it appears, is the Daddy Warbucks of the Anyone But Luke crowd -- he's contributed mightily to the mayoral campaigns of Patrick Dowd and Bill Peduto in the past.) 

It's worth noting that some of Acklin's biggest backers -- like Milton Fine and the aforementioned Ron Muhlenkamp and  Frank Fuhrer -- are big GOP givers. But on the other hand, Acklin also has the backing of Georgia Berner -- a New Castle business owner who ran for Congress to the left of Jason Altmire (who ended up winning the seat). 

Oh, and how's this for hometown football credentials? Acklin got $1,000 from Dan freakin' Marino ... who, like Acklin, was a South Oakland kid who went to Central Catholic. 

Dok Harris

Harris' biggest single gift ($5,000) came from Citizens for Political Responsibility, a Sewickley-based PAC. I'm not familiar with the group, but it appears to have been involved in boosting Barack Obama. Its current mailing address is a condo owned by a couple that supported Obama last year. 

Harris has placed a voluntary limit on individual campaign contributions at $2,400. I did not find any contributions larger than that, and the cap makes it hard to single out the "largest" contributors. But as I've noted here before, Harris has made use of an extensive fundraising network that stretches far beyond the city limits. That trend has continued. Let's look, for example, at contributors who gave more than $250: For every dollar that Harris raised from such folks, nearly 80 cents came from outside city limits. 

Still, there are some familiar hometown names: Legendary sports physician Freddie Fu gave Haris $500. (Curiously, Fu's wife Hilda gave the same amount to Acklin.) Eat'n Park exec James Broadhurst -- a frequent name on campaign reports -- gave Harris $1,000. Jack Piatt, the Millcraft Industries developer who has rebuilt the defunct Lazarus Downtown, gave him $500. So did Al Ratner, an executive with Forest City Enterprises. Forest City, of course, has been much in the news lately, because of its connections to politilcal insider John Verbanac. 

Luke Ravenstahl

Ravenstahl's big advantage was in contributions from Political Action Committees. He raised $57,400 from such sources -- nearly 10 times as much as Acklin and Harris combined. Much of that PAC support came from unions, including a whopping $11,000 from the Operating Engineers, whose members run heavy equipment on road and other construction projects.

Like Harris, Ravenstahl was getting a lot of big-dollar support from non-city residents: About 71 cents of every dollar raised from individuals giving more than $250 came from beyond the city. Though Ravenstahl's donors were much more likely to have businesses -- and thus business interests -- inside the city.

Ravenstahl's backers, in fact, drew heavily from developers and other usual suspects. The Pennoni Association, a Philadelphia-based developer, gave $3,500, and a PAC affilated with the business gave him an extra $1,500. Executives at Chester Engineers gave Ravenstahl $10,100. As the P-G noted earlier this year, Chester has long held -- and would like to keep -- a big contract with the city's water authority.

Some of the most interesting contributions, however, came after the Oct. 19 reporting period ended.  On Tuesday and Wednesday, Ravenstahl received $71,500. Among the big gifts:

-- $10,000 total from two executives from the developer Burns & Scalo

-- $5,000 from the construction management firm Parsons Brinckerhoff

-- $5,000 from Merrill and John Stabile, who own Alco Parking.

-- $5,000 from the CEO of Duquesne Light

-- and $5,000 from the law firm of Thorp Reed & Armonstrong

Oh, and -- need I say it? There wasn't a single dollar from John Verbananc.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ethical Quandaries

Posted By on Fri, Oct 23, 2009 at 10:26 AM

In the past couple days, I've come to have newfound respect for John Verbanac -- the political insider who has been at the center of ethics charges directed at Mayor Luke Ravenstahl by challenger Kevin Acklin. Because you have to say this for Verbanac: For a guy with such long arms, he leaves very few fingerprints. 

Consider, for example, the allegations that Verbanac has been improperly lobbying state and city officials. At a Kevin Acklin press conference yesterday, Acklin noted that Verbanac had been talking to state Sen. Jane Orie and other officials about the city's pension plan. Verbanac, Acklin alleged, "in effect was lobbying a state senator but doesn't show up as a lobbyist" in state-required lobbying-disclosure forms. (Today's Post-Gazette addresses the matter at some length.) Similarly, Acklin cited e-mails showing that Verbanac helping to write Ravenstahl's speeches. Why, Acklin asked, wasn't Verbanac being paid by Ravenstahl's campaign -- just as Acklin pays his own team of writers?

It's easy to see where Acklin is going with this: If neither the city nor the mayor's office cut Verbanac a check, then Verbanac must be expecting to get paid some other way, right? As Bram Reichbaum succinctly asked in a comment on my blog post yesterday, "Shouldn't [Ravenstahl] be paying for [his] own high-octane political consulting? Why do you suppose [Verbanac] is doing this for free?"

The idea here is that pleading the city's pension case, helping massage Ravenstahl's public image ... all of these could be efforts to build up a store of goodwill. And then, when Verbanac needs something from the city -- like, say, a tax subsidy for a project he's developing -- he can call in his markers. In politics, after all, cash is only one form of currency. 

The problem, though, is that cash is the only form of currency the law effectively tracks. Whatever else we learn from Acklin's accusations, we're learning just how slippery political influence can be. 

In general, to be considered a lobbyist, you have to get paid -- and usually by somebody else. The state's lobbying disclosure law, for example, flatly exempts "an individual who does not receive economic consideration for lobbying," from its requirements. So just because John Verbanac pled with Jane Orie and other state legislators to see things the mayor's way on pensions, that doesn't make him a lobbyist. In theory, he could be acting just as a concerned citizen -- albeit a concerned citizen who doesn't actually live inside the city limits. 

Similarly, the city's own lobbyist disclosure law defines a lobbyist as "any individual who is compensated to spent 30 or more hours in any consecutive three-month period engaged in lobbying activities [emphasis mine]." (As a side note: The city law wouldn't apply to the revelations in Acklin's e-mails in any case: The e-mails from 2006 through early 2008, and the disclosure law was only passed this spring.)

But of course, Verbanac wasn't always so selfless about the causes he fought for. In other e-mails turned over by Acklin's campaign, Verbanac pressures city officials to act favorably on behalf of his own projects. In a Febraruary 2008 e-mail, for example, Verbanac apparently wrote chief of staff Yarone Zober, asking about rumors the city would redirect $6 million in state money away from the old Hazelwood LTV site -- a project Verbanac was trying to develop.

"You know very well of our interest in the site," Verbanac wrote. "It cuts my legs totally out from underneath me, with my business partners, RIDC and a host of others."

Isn't that lobbying?

Not necessarily. People do, after all, have a right to plead their own interests. The state law, for example, "was very careful not to infringe on people's First Amendement rights," says Barry Kauffman, of the government watchdog group Common Cause.

If Verbanac was representing his own interests -- rather than being paid to represent someone else's -- Kauffman says this e-mail wouldn't count as lobbying under state law either. (In any case, the state law only applies to state officials, not municipalities.) Verbanac is the head of Summa Development, which sought to partner up with Forest City on the LTV site, and other projects too. 

What separates Verbanac from a lobbyist? A lobbyist is someone who gets paid simply to make an argument, whether that argument succeeds or not. Verbanac, from all appearances, would only make a dollar if his argument carried the day. In his press conference yesterday, Acklin accused Verbanac of being "a lobbyist and corporate developer." But in fact, it's because Verbanac is a corporate developer that he may not have run afoul of the rules governing lobbysts. 

So yeah, there's a paradox here. When he talks to Jane Orie about pensions, Verbanac remains outside lobbyist-disclosure laws because he has nothing at stake. When he talks to Yarone Zober about state tax incentives, he remains outside them because he has everything at stake -- his own business prospects. 

Of course, it may look a hell of a lot like Verbanac is leveraging his influence with state officials to exert influence over city officials. But  from the standpoint of ethics laws, Kauffman says there may not be much you can do about that.

So whatever else John Verbanac may be, he's a very smart guy, one especially adept at avoiding the public eye. In fact, Kaufmann himself was surprised to find that Verbanac's name never seems to crop up on campaign finance reports. (Which it doesn't -- one reason Verbanac's name has come up so rarely until now.) "I find it hard to believe a person of this cache isn't making donations," Kauffman told me. And it seems likely that Verbanac's activities probably fall outside the purview of lobbying-disclosure laws too. 

What to do about that? "There's an old saying that the two most dangerous things in government are secrecy and money," Kauffman says. "And when they unite, dangerous things happen." But he adds that "Based on what you've told me, none of this sounds illegal. But whether what he's doing is a good thing or a bad thing? That's something voters can decide." 

Which is, of course, what they're about to do. 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Will another shoe be dropping on Acklin charges?

Posted By on Thu, Oct 22, 2009 at 2:24 PM

Kevin Acklin held a press conference this afternoon, following up on the bombshell his campaign dropped yesterday: a series of e-mails suggesting a very cozy relationship between Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and political insider John Verbanac.

In his prepared remarks, Acklin said little that was new. He reiterated that "This administration is focused on personal and corporate favoritism, and it's hurting our neighborhoods as a result." And he called on Ravenstahl to "give us full disclosure" about the extent of his interactions with Verbanac. 

But in a Q&A with reporters, Acklin suggested that more was yet to come. The material he had already disclosed, he said, had led other insiders to turn over further material: "We are looking at documents that we have right now," Acklin said. And he predicted that his campaign would be turning those over in "a couple days," possibly early next week. 

Acklin was asked (by me) whether any of this information would concern Ed Grattan, the other name he dropped during the Saturday debate on KDKA. He intimated that it very well might: None of the material realeased so far has touched on Grattan.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, Acklin has cited two cases of influence peddling -- the deliberations about who should get the city's casino license, and taxpayer financing for developing the old Hazelwood LTV site. And in neither case did Verbanac get what he wanted. In both situations, Verbanac was tied to the developer Forest City, who teamed up on a losing casino bid with Harrah's, and who ended up missing out on state dollars for Hazelwood. 

But Acklin maintained that "the fact that [Verbanac] and his business partners didn't get [their way] means the Mayor is either incompetent or ineffective. It doesn't mean he's not corrupt." 


Even so, these things are never easy to prove. For example, Acklin noted that "As a city councilman, Mr. Ravensathl supported the Isle of Capri" -- the casino developer favored by the Pittsburgh Penguins, who wanted to create a joint casino/area complex in the Hill District. "After he became mayor, he urged the Penguins ... to support a Plan B, in which they would receieve payments from another casino licensee." 

Of course, such a Plan B would have made it easier for state gaming officials to approve Harrah's. Isle of Capri's ace in the hole was the threat that the Penguins would leave town if they didn't get their way. 

Ravenstahl's shift was indeed eyebrow-raising, and prompted some observers to contend "the fix was in." But of course Ravenstahl's supporters argued at the time that Ravenstahl -- who'd only just become mayor -- had a new role to play, with new responsibilities. Having a Plan B was simply prudent.

Acklin and I had a bit of back-and-forth on this, and afterwards one of his staffers pointed out that Acklin's position was similar to one I myself had taken a few years ago.  "You were second-guessing yourself," I was told. 

Which is true. But I second-guess myself all the time. And anyway, the larger point is that suspicions are one thing, proof is another. And while Verbanac may be pernicious, he ain't stupid. Trying to get the Pens to sign on to Plan B was arguably a pretty cagey political move. Consider this e-mail Verbanac sent late in 2006:

How does not one plan to build a new arena and fund it but two -- Plan A and Plan B -- result in uncertainty with the team's future [as the Penguins were claiming]? ...

Answer: Because [Isle of Capri] is the one plan that makes the most money for Ron Burkle. Ron Burkle is willing to play Russian Roullete [sic] with the franchises's future to make the most money. It's a gun to the head of Pittsburgh strategy ...

I actually think that's true. Even if Verbananc did have ulterior motives for pointing it out. 

I don't mean to diminish the important of this stuff. What Acklin is turning over may well prove to be the Rosetta Stone of this administration. (Though so far, his e-mails are dated no more recently than early 2008.) Some of it is funny -- the parts about trying to handle the Post-Gazette's Rich Lord are great reading. And some of it is just plain sad.

In a June 2007 e-mail, for example, Verbanac damns the Murphy administration, urging Acklin to "Call the past performance on the carpet ... Let's restore people's faith in government. Let's lead. Let's fix the City." The next e-mail in Acklin's packet is an apparent Verbanac communique urging the administration to spare a "less than exemplary performer" at the URA because of the employee's family connections.

Perhaps Verbanac had in mind a different meaning of "fix the City"?

Some have cast doubt about whether this will have a real impact on the election: Acklin himself allowed that it probably would have a political downside for him. He also acknowledged that he had no evidence of any money actually changing hands between Verbanac and the city.

So where does this any of this go? It isn't clear yet. But one thing is certain: It isn't over. 

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Following the money ... and the logic

Posted By on Tue, Oct 20, 2009 at 10:33 AM

Before I get into the meat of this post -- a back-and-forth over campaign promises in the mayoral race, and the broader issue of what "campaign finance reform" means -- a bit of housecleaning:

Early this morning, we got word that Dok Harris has been endorsed by NOW, the women's group. Add that to his endorsement by the LGBT advocates at the Gertrude Stein Political Club

Now for something far more long-winded. In the wake of Saturday's mayoral debate, the campaign of Dok Harris traded dueling press releases with Kevin Acklin's crew. The issue: whether Harris has lived up to his self-imposed limits on campaign contributions.

Harris' Web site pledges to "voluntarily adhere to strict campaign contribution limits. I will limit an individual's total contributions to $2,400, and I will limit a household's total to $4,800." During the debate, though, Acklin challenged him on that claim, saying that he'd violated his self-imposed rule numerous times. Harris conceded that "maybe one check" exceded his limits, but said otherwise he'd followed his own guidelines.

Acklin's camp later sent out a "fact-check" e-mail which said the following:

A quick look at his 30-Day Post-Primary Campaign Finance Report proves that Mr. Harris has, indeed, failed to abide by his own rules:

• 1 donor from New Jersey gave $5,000, which is more than twice his self-imposed limit.  

• 5 donors each gave $4,800, which is twice his self-imposed limit.

• 2 of those donors, Raymond and Roseann Park of 93 Spanish Gate Drive in Las Vegas, Nevada, gave $4,800 each. Each of their donations is twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for individuals; their combined donations are twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for a single household.

• 2 more of those donors, Dan and Elaine Park of 3 Way Hollow Road in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, gave $4,800 each. Each of their donations is twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for individuals; their combined donations are twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for a household.

I've verified that all of these donations were made. But as the Harris campaign has previously explained, when Harris set these limits, he did so per election. He's counting the May primary as a separate election -- even though, as an independent candidate, he didn't run in the primary at all.

Now on the one hand, this might strike you as a bit slippery. When Harris' Web site says "I'm limiting contributions to $2,400," you don't expect to see contributions larger than that. And it's not like there's fine print on his Web site, explaining that you could make the maximum contribution twice.  

On the other hand, the Harris campaign has pledged to me that the $2,400/$4,800 limit will apply to all contributions made since the primary, and continuing up to Election Day. Assuming they hold to that promise, the worst you could say is they've "grandfathered in" a small number of (admittedly large) donations made early in the campaign.

But something else crops up when you look at Harris' June finance report-- which is that Harris is getting massive amounts of money from outside the city and, quite frequently, outside the state. By my count, as of June, at least 75 cents of every dollar in the Harris campaign coffers was raised from a municipality beyond the city limits. 

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Acklin and Ravenstahl have receieved out-of-state backing too. Harris' percentage is much larger, that but that's no suprise: His father is a national celebrity, and Harris has traveled about for school and work as well. Maybe it's a little creepy to think of "outsiders" buying elections. But hey -- one could argue that out-of-town contributors should worry us less. After all, faraway contributors aren't trying to get local tax breaks.

But Harris isn't just imposing limits on himself. He's faulting his rivals for not adopting them too. In a press release of his own Friday night, Harris "urge[d] the other candidates to join me in finance limits." He then asserted they wouldn't do so because "they don't want to handicap their efforts." 

True enough. But the worst you can say about that is ... they aren't stupid. Adopting Harris' limits would, arguably, play directly into Harris' own inherent fundraising advantage.

Harris, clearly, has access to a much broader base of well-heeled donors than, say, Acklin does. And because that base is broad, it doesn't have to be deep. If I've got 10 friends with $1,000 each to burn, and you've got one VERY close friend with $10,000, guess who's hurt more by limiting contributions to four-digit sums? 

And indeed, through June, Harris had outraised Acklin by nearly two-to-one. So I'm guessing its easier for Harris to corral four contributions of $2,400 than it is for Acklin to get one gift of $9,600. 

Of course, that's just too bad for Acklin. And please understand: I'm not faulting Harris for anything, or trying to say he's being other than shrewd. I'll bet some of those out-of-towners could give him $10,000 if he asked. Instead, he chose to hobble himself. So let's give Harris credit where it's due -- both for the savvy and the prinicple.   

Outside of this particular mayor's race, though, this points up a distinction to be made when we talk about "campaign-finance reform."

Generally, reform efforts have focused on limiting the size of the individual contributions, rather than the total amount of money raked in. In other words, we limit the amount an individual can give to candidates, not the amount a candidate can spend. Some other countries do have such limits, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in its landmark 1976 case, Buckley v. Valeo.

The lesson here is this: Current finance-reform rules are all about creating a level field for campaign contributors -- not for the candidates themselves. To do that, you'd have to set up a hard ceiling, or publicly finance campaigns completely. (Or do both at once: The Buckley decision did permit spending limits on Presidential candidates, if they accepted public financing for their campaigns.)

Why is any of this important? In part because next year, the city will have a binding limit on campaign contributions.  That's useful, even vital. But at best, those reforms will help reduce any one contributor's influence. That's not the same as limiting the influence of money as a whole.

The upshot: Despite those limits, there's every chance that, four years from now, Luke Ravenstahl will look every bit as invincible -- and have a war chest every bit as large -- as he does today.

Limiting contibution size is a good step. But there's a long way to go before we have a democracy free of the influence of money. 

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Fatheaded 'Calfe

Posted By on Mon, Oct 19, 2009 at 4:59 PM

If you haven't heard about the latest Daryl Metcalfe outrage, you probably need to check your e-mail inbox.

But just when you thought there was no one left for the Butler county state rep to insult, the Pride of Cranberry may have found a new group to demonize: veterans. 

Courtesy of the folks at Keystone Progress -- and a few other lefty groups whose e-mail list I'm on -- comes this news:

A group of veterans are traveling across the country on a 21-state bus tour to talk to citizens and local community leaders about the dangers of climate change and its threat to national security ... The tour is sponsored by Operation Free, a coalition of veterans and national security groups working together to raise public awareness about national security threats posed by climate change and the importance of building a clean energy economy that is not tied to fossil fuels.

Sounds harmless enough, right?

But allegedly, Daryl Metcalfe took offense. When he received word of the tour, says Keystone Progress, he fired off this e-mail reponse:

As a veteran, I believe that any veteran lending their name, to promote the leftist propaganda of global warming and climate change, in an effort to control more of the wealth created in our economy, through cap and tax type policies, all in the name of national security, is a traitor to the oath he or she took defend the Constitution of our great nation!

Remember Benedict Arnold before giving credibility to a veteran who uses their service as a means to promote a leftist agenda.

Drill Baby Drill!!!

I have to confess that this almost too crazy even for Metcalfe. (Who does do shit like this all the time.) I mean, I can believe the guy demonizing immigrants, or ignoring the plight of battered women, or drop-kicking fuzzy animals ... but veterans? Really? 

As yet, I haven't been able to confirm the authenticity of this message, though it's been featured on the Huffington Post as well as Daily Kos and other sites.  And at least one Harrisburg Democrat has apparently called a press conference -- at a VFW hall no less -- to respond. 

[UPDATE: It's true. Good God.]

If it's true ... wow. First of all, that is some mighty fine sentence construction up there. If Harrisburg had levied a tax on dependent clauses, our budget crisis could have been resolved before the summer solstice. And what's really great about this message, of course is the idea that servicepeople -- the same folks willing to die in far-off lands -- should keep their mouths shut when they get back home. If a solider actually practices the freedoms he fights for, he's a goddamn traitor.

What to do if it is true? Clearly protests directed at Metcalfe are a waste of time, and probably only enhance his status amongst conservatives. Maybe it's time to start boycotting Cranberry itself? The rest of us had to suffer for this guy's hijinks for years ... maybe it's time Cranberry's voters smelled what they've been shoveling. 

The problem is, this: It's tough to boycott a place you'd never go to anyway. I don't really know of a single thing in Cranberry worth imposing a ban on. Would a boycott of all Shmuffins from Butler County Sheetz locations be practical? Ideas, anyone? 


Sunday, October 18, 2009


Posted By on Sun, Oct 18, 2009 at 7:49 AM

That tearing sound you just heard? It was bloggers, campaign aides, and political progressives tearing their hair out after they reached page B-2 of today's Post-Gazette.

The Post-Gazette endorsed Luke Ravenstahl today.

Sure, there were some caveats:

After three years as mayor, he has yet to articulate a vision for the future. He does not have a reputation for working with the state legislative delegation. And he needs to put some distance between himself and the party machine, to generate independent thinking for Pittsburgh's growth and progress.

Still, the paper credits him for imposing fiscal discipline, favoring city-county consolidation and building on the city's "green" reputation.

All of that could be argued -- given that the state is governed by two state financial-oversight boards, for example, it's not like a mayor has a choice about imposing financial discipline. But the part that really has to gall the opposition is the shout-out to Yarone Zober:

Mr. Ravenstahl has been well served by various aides in his administration, including a capable chief of staff.

That squishy, pulpy sound you just heard? The sound of numerous frontal lobes exploding. 

As for challengers Dok Harris and Kevin Acklin, the P-G hands out some Miss Congeniality awards, but largely writes them off in a single sentence:

[I]t's hard to argue that either has a shot at winning the mayor's office and the ability to take charge of the city's $453 million budget and 3,500 employees.

It's not like a P-G endorsement would have made a difference. The paper endorsed Republican Mark DeSantis back in 2007. It endorsed Patrick Dowd in this year's primary. We know how those races turned out.

But that track record raises a question: What has Ravenstahl done to earn the P-G's respect? Back in 2007, the P-G fretted over the fact that

Mayor Ravenstahl began treating the city to a series of well-publicized disappointments, embarrassments and outrages, and he was slow to accept responsibility for some of his actions.

Whereas this time around, the P-G gives Ravenstahl credit for growing in the job:

Despite a bumpy start including a few ethical lapses after taking office upon the death of Bob O'Connor, the Summer Hill resident has proved that a smart staff can focus an administration on key priorities.

I won't argue that Ravenstahl has matured -- I've said as much before, as recently as yesterday. But it's a strange argument for the P-G to make. Because when it endorsed Dowd just five months ago, it did so by arguing

Pittsburgh doesn't have time to wait for Mr. Ravenstahl, 29, of Summer Hill, to gradually evolve toward more sound positions. The city needs a stronger, forward-looking mayor who can move Pittsburgh ahead now.

For Democrats in the May 19 primary, Patrick Dowd is ready, even though his tenure on City Council has not been long

So ... back in May, we didn't have time to wait for Ravenstahl to grow up. But in the five months since, Ravenstahl matured faster than he did between 2007 and this past spring?

Of course, it's a fool that looks for consistency in a newspaper's editorial page. Reading this thing over, I really think the argument just boils down to "well, neither Harris nor Acklin has a prayer, so we may as well get behind the incumbent and hope for the best."

No doubt this, too, will cause some rending of garments: The Pittsburgh Comet just argued yesterday that the media focuses too much on challengers' dim prospects for victory, and not enough on what they are actually saying. By extension, if a newspaper doesn't take campaigns seriously, how can it criticize those candidates for not having a serious shot?

What does any of this matter? Editorials don't sway votes, true. But they can confer a philosophical legitimacy to a challenger, and make them feel not quite so alone. After all, it's often hard for challengers to see tangible backing anywhere else. It's a little easier to knock on Esplen's doors when you feel like you've got a major daily behind you. Tomorrow, Acklin and Harris set out on their own once again.

UPDATE: Since I posted this at around 9 or 9:30 this morning, there has been one reaction apiece from each of the 2 political junkies, both very much in the gnashing-of-teeth mode. And indeed, the praise for Zober does seem to be the part that rankles over at the Comet as well.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Debate 1: Ravenstahl Crushed It

Posted By on Sat, Oct 17, 2009 at 12:05 PM

People aren't going to want to hear this, I know, and even before the debate aired today, the Dok Harris campaign put out a statement asserting that Harris "came out of the gates strong." But I have to score today's KDKA-TV debate as a convincing win by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Obviously, in these situations an incumbent wins just by not losing. As long as you don't projectile-vomit onstage, or admit to a major ethical lapse, you're probably going to be OK. But Raventahl wasn't just playing defense.   

Don't get me wrong: Independent challengers Dok Harris and Kevin Acklin did fine, even if Acklin did look a bit nervous. Harris got a football reference into his first answer, and Acklin got a reference to doorknocking in his. (I also counted at least three references to Beechview during the course of his debate: Acklin's campaign has focused heavily on the South Hills.) But for the most part, the sharpest barbs were directed at the challengers, not the incumbent.

Partly that's becuase the two challengers went after each other quite a bit -- a strategy I've questioned before. But it's not just Harris and Acklin's fault. Co-moderators Ken Rice and Jon Delano had some sharp policy-related questions for Ravenstahl -- about his proposal to tax college students and hospitals, for example. But on personal "character" issues, the toughest questions were for his rivals. 

Didn't use to be that way. Just two years ago, there were all sorts of questions surrounding Ravenstahl and his antics. There were shadowy trips to New York, trips to see Toby Keith in Homeland Security vehicles, and so on. But you don't see that kind of headline so much anymore. And this time around, the challengers were the ones facing questions.

Acklin had to address his previous support for Republicans like Rick Santorum, and Harris had to address questions about whether he was running on his father's name, and whether he met the city's residency requirement. That stuff came up in the first half hour, which makes you wonder how large of an audience saw anything else. 

Not that these questions could have been a surprise. Acklin has had to address his party registration already. And the Harris residency issue had been the subject of a press conference yesterday morning -- shortly before the show was taped. As has been established elsewhere, it's a pretty meaningless issue, but it led to the sharpest exchange of the hour-long debate. (Hear the excerpt here.)

Ravenstahl, by contrast, had to deal with some G-20 fallout questions, but he was prepared for those too. Harris and Acklin faulted Ravenstahl for urging Downtown business owners to stay open and then shutting Downtown. Ravenstahl acknowledged that Downtown was a "ghost town," but then contended that any short-term business loss would be more than offset over the long-term by increased convention activity as a result of hosting the international summit.

Ravenstahl then turned the topic around on his challengers and asked them if they'd have passed up the G-20. (An excerpt here.)

Acklin and Harris did their best to take on Ravenstahl: Given a chance to direct a question at Ravenstahl toward the program's end, Acklin asked Ravenstahl about the role played by Ed Grattan and John Verbanac in his administration. Grattan and Verbanac -- the latter once describe as the "ultimate political insider" -- are exactly the kind of shadowy figures the blogosphere gets excited by. But here's the thiing about political insiders: Only other political insiders really know who they are. I guarantee that most of the (miniscule) audience watching this thing said, "John who?"

In any case, Ravenstahl brushed off the allegation, characterizing Verbanac and Grattan as friends with no formal role in the administration. You've got to figure that Acklin is going to do make a campaign issue with this stuff. Because otherwise Acklin, an attorney, violated the most basic rule of cross-examination: Never ask a question unless you're sure you know what the answer will be. 

Even if Acklin does have the goods, he better hurry. The hour, it groweth late.  



Friday, October 16, 2009

Chicago Blues

Posted By on Fri, Oct 16, 2009 at 7:02 AM

I'll have that Sestak post up sometime today, I swear. But in the meantime, a super-secret contact from the Internet passed me along this story, from the Chicago Tribune:

Chicago police are investigating a video of officers who allegedly forced a college student to pose with them after his arrest during last month's G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.


"The officers involved in this incident went on their personal time to serve as part of the G-20 Summit security detail," Supt. Jody Weis said in a statement. "The Chicago Police Department does not tolerate misconduct by any of its members regardless of where it might occur."

In case you missed it, you'll find the video here. And you'll find Pittsburgh police chief Nate Harper trying to explain it away here

A "trophy arrest" video making the rounds on the Internet shows a person made to kneel on Forbes Avenue before a dozen or more officers for a group photo by their supervisor. That captures the work of a Chicago police contingent Friday night. Pittsburgh police Chief Nathan Harper stated that's not a "trophy photo" but the required documentation of the arrest.

Yeah, or maybe not.

We've already seen law-enforcement change its story about the LRAD, which quickly went from being a cutting-edge crowd-control technology to a just a glorified PA system. Then the DA dropped charges against P-G reporter Sadie Gurman ... suggesting that the police might have gotten a wee bit overzealous after all. Now this. 

Here's a prediction: You're going to see a steady trickle of these stories in the months to come. Once the civil suits get filed, it'll be like a form of legal water torture. 

But I'm guessing that's still better than being hit with OC spray or a bean-bag projectile. 


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