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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Specter Giving Up the Ghost?

Posted By on Thu, Oct 15, 2009 at 8:54 AM

Yet another poll showing that Arlen Specter is losing his mojo for the 2010 Senate race. This comes courtesy of Rasmussen:

The latest Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Pennsylvania voters shows 45% would vote for Toomey if the election were held today. Forty percent (40%) would vote for Specter, while six percent (6%) prefer a third option. Nine percent (9%) are undecided.

If Sestak wins the Democratic nomination, however, the race is a toss-up: 38% for [Democratic Congressman Joe] Sestak and 37% for Toomey.

That's actually an improvement for Specter, who Rasmussen showed trailing Toomey by double-digits this summer, at the height of the healthcare fracas.  And for what this is worth, Rasmussen has a reputation for skewing conservative.

But what's most interesting to me is that this poll shows that Joe Sestak appears to be viable, and electable ... despite the fact that Gov. Ed Rendell and other powerbrokers have lined up behind Specter.

Sestak was in our office recently, and I'm going to do a blog post about that encounter by day's end. For now, suffice it to say that it's pretty clear what's driving the numbers here: Republicans are more excited about beating Specter than Democrats are about electing him. From Rasmussen:

Eighty percent (80%) of Republican voters now favor Toomey in a match-up with Specter while the incumbent senator draws just 65% of the Democratic vote.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Government so transparent that no one has seen it

Posted By on Wed, Oct 14, 2009 at 1:36 PM

I'm a little surprised at you, blogosphere.

After all our many years together, complaining about pay-to-play politics in city government ... it seems like hardly anyone has noticed this: a Web site created by city controller Michael Lamb to track city contracts and campaign contributions

To tell the truth, the "Open Book Pittsburgh" site got lost in the shuffle for me as well. In a profound example of bad timing, Lamb unveiled the site with a press release on Sept. 22 -- the same week as the G-20. I think I was being fitted for my gas mask that day. It didn't get a hell of a lot of attention elsewhere, either -- just a brief in the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review.

But I was reminded of the site the other day, and it looks promising.

It allows you to search pretty much everybody who gets a check from the city -- from neighborhood groups receiving grants to construction firms getting 7-digit contracts. You can search for various types of allocation, or by various keywords. (Curious about who the city pays to help figure out its pension predicaments? Type in "pension" and find the answer here.) 

And the navigation is pretty straightforward.  At the top of each page are tabs for "city contracts" and "campaign finance," allowing you to toggle back and forth between them. For example, you can pull up a list of work done by the Michael Facchiano contracting firm. And then you can look at the (comparatively paltry) number of contributions Lamb's office has on file. Campaign contribution data only goes back to the 2008 annual contribution reports filed in January of this year ... but you've got to start somewhere.

Even so, I'd say the site is still a work in progress. For example, if you look at the list of contracts handled through the city's finance department, the majority of contracts either list $0 contract amounts, or simply have blank fields. (The controller's office says that much of the information in this database was simply imported from older databases, so wonkier entries have probably ALWAYS looked this way -- it's just that we can see them now.) 

And that brings up a slight wrinkle that isn't Lamb's fault: A lot of city contracts are handled through the Finance Department, even though they're being done for other departments in the city. For example, the Finance Department features a $65,000 contract for an audit of the City Controller's office itself, by the firm Binkley Kanavy. But you won't find that contract on the Controller's list of contracts -- even though the audit was initiated by, for, and about the controller himself. There's nothing suspicious or unusual about that: This is SOP at the city. But citizen-journalists should be aware that the information you want sometimes isn't in the first place you'd expect to find it.

Similarly, don't be fooled by the appearance of the Urban Redevelopment Authority on the list of departments whose contracts you can search. There are only a couple contracts up, because the URA handles its contracting separately -- though I'm told the agency is open to providing the data if logistical issues can be worked out. Contracts issued by the ever-controversial Water & Sewer Authority aren't there either. Considering that authorities are where a lot of skeletons get buried, that's a problem ... though not one Lamb's office is positioned to solve.

I've given the controller's department the heads-up about an issue or two already. And they invite other coments and suggestions about the site through their contact page. I hope some of the good-government types out there take them up on the offer. Maybe some enterprising bloggers could crowd-source this a bit, exploring the site and testing its merits and shortcomings? If you're starting to feel depressed by the mayor's race, this might give you a channel for your energies. 

And hey, maybe the Post-Gazette's Rich Lord missed a glaring example of influence peddling out there.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Watching the political winds on Columbus Day

Posted By on Mon, Oct 12, 2009 at 8:13 AM

City Councilor Bill Peduto may never be mayor of Pittsburgh. He's not even running this year. But who needs it? The guy's already getting the perks: He was the first politician to march in Bloomfield's Columbus Day parade this weekend.

Peduto was placed there by recently departed Public Works head Guy Costa, who directed the parade's march along Liberty Avenue. There's good reason for Peduto's prominent placement: He's the city's only full-blooded Italian elected official. (Which seems kinda amazing, doesn't it? Aren't there any other Costas who want to run for something?) Still, one wonders: If Costa were still working for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, would he have put his boss behind Peduto, Ravenstahl's long-time nemesis?

In any event, Peduto basked in the attention. He was marching just a few yards behind his uncle, a longtime Knights of Columbus member who has headed up the parade for years. After he finished the parade, Peduto ranked his experience right up there with having a backstage Iron City with Donnie Iris.

For those of us who aren't Italian, such political vignettes are the chief attraction of the parade. While Ravenstahl tromped down Liberty alongside county executive Dan Onorato, city council President Doug Shields appeared with state Auditor General Jack Wagner. Wagner is likely to challenge Onorato in a gubernatorial race next year: Shields' presence was probably as close to a public endorsement as you can get -- at least until Wagner announces his candidacy. 

There was some mayoral politics evident as well. Franco "Dok" Harris, one of Ravenstahl's two challengers on the ballot next month, rode in a parade car driven by his campaign manager. In the front seat, Harris' father autographed white plastic footballs, which Harris the Younger tossed to onlookers. (These weren't exactly Bradshaw spirals: Dok Harris isn't much of an athlete, by his own admission, and he was working against a gusty wind. At least one football struck the side of a police cruiser.) Seated beside Harris was Al Vento, owner of a famed East Liberty pizzaria and founder of Franco's Italian Army.

Oddly, of the four men in that car, it was Vento who drew the most attention. I heard more than one onlooker shouting "Go, Al, go! Goooooo!" as Vento waved genially. And Vento's perch beside Dok Harris attracted some notice from city hall insiders too: "Vento LOVES Ravenstahl," one said to a companion as I eavesdropped shamelessly.

Kevin Acklin, the other independent challenging Ravenstahl in the race, was also on hand. Though not a participant in the parade, Acklin worked the crowd lined up along the route -- and he, too, traded on some starpower. Acklin's campaign spokesperson is retired WPXI reporter Andy Gastmeyer, who appeared to be more widely recognized than the candidate himself. 

Gastmeyer actually scored a bit of a coup at the parade's end: Costa, who was working a microphone to provide commentary near Del's restaurant, invited Gastmeyer to speak ... and Gastmeyer used the opportunity to make an impromptu speech on Acklin's behalf. ("I can't think of anybody more deserving of the job," Gastmeyer said. "I hope you'll think so too.")

All in all, though, one was hard-pressed to see much sign that anyone was even thinking about the mayoral race. The election is less than a month away, but along the entire parade route, I saw only a single campaign sign: a Harris for Mayor sign in the window of the Bloomfield Sandwich Shop. The only candidate who turned out in full force was Republican Tom Corbett, the state attorney general who is running for governor -- and whose balloons were clustered all along the parade route. 

And after the parade was over, I could see several pieces of campaign literature from both Acklin and Harris scattered on the sidewalk.

Nobody left behind any autographed footballs. 

Friday, October 9, 2009

This PR goes to 11

Posted By on Fri, Oct 9, 2009 at 11:42 AM

Maybe you thought all those riot cops in town for the G-20 -- and all the high-tech equipment they brought with them -- looked Orwellian.

Maybe you saw the LRAD, a vehicle-mounted amplifier system capable of driving protesters away by directing high-pitched sounds at them. Or maybe you heard its creepily automated announcement: "By order of Pittsburgh chief of police, I hereby declare this an unlawful assembly ..." And maybe you thought this was the kind of technology Big Brother would buy into. 

Well, you haven't seen anything yet. 

Because for pure Orwellian weirdness, nothing tops this doublethinking/doubletalking press release, sent out by the Bureau of Police yesterday.

The release, and an ensuing media demonstration of the LRAD, drew some media coverage. But it appears to be a response -- two weeks after the fact -- to concerns sparked in part by a phrase first used by The New York Times. The Times referred to the LRAD as a "sound cannon," and quoted city officials boasting about its use.

"Other law enforcement agencies will be watching to see how it was used," Nate Harper told the Times 

Or ... um ... maybe not. Because according to the line the city is peddling now, there's nothing special about the LRAD after all. 

"The technical ability of LRAD is not that of a 'sound cannon' nor is that the intended function or use of the device," insists the release sent out yesterday.

In fact, the LRAD is just "a long-range communication device." It's a "highly portable and mobile tool" which is "simplistic in its deployment." 

Well, that sounds like fun! In fact, I remember wanting one of those when I was a kid

The Pittsburgh police, the statement goes on to say, use the device in "tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving situations" in order to ensure that "communication can/will continue through/during police actions." The advantage of the LRAD, we're told, is that it "allows for visual verification and lets the operator(s) know that the messaging [is] being heard."

It's unclear what this "visual verification" would be. Presumably, though, it involves citizens clasping their hands to their ears and wincing. Because that's how folks responded to it during the G-20.

But really, what was their problem? Here are some of the places where such a system has already been used, according to the release:

-- Natural disasters

-- Large celebrations

-- Shore and land evacuations

-- Search and Rescue

-- Neighborhoods "which may [be] affected by a particular situation [and need] to take necessary safety precautions."

What? Nobody's thought to use it in Bingo parlors yet?

Notice, though, that the release is reversing the city's own previous  claims about the LRAD. When the Times was in town, city officials were boasting that Pittsburgh was the first to use the equipment. Now, though,  the city is claiming that "The LRAD device can/has been used in many SWAT, hostage and barricade situations around the country."

So ... I guess those law-enforcement folks weren't really watching Pittsburgh after all. Were they, Chief Harper?

It's pretty clear what's going on here. The police have a PR problem on their hands. The LRAD creeps people out, and the ACLU says one person may have suffered hearing loss as a result of exposure to it. So now the city is, belatedly, trying to put a happy face on the thing. 

Yes, the LRAD can be used for benign purposes. But as the release kinda sorta acknowledges, it can be used in a much more forceful way as well. 

"The LRAD system that is utilized by the PBP is capable of producing extremely high sound pressure levels," it admits. But while the volume could be boosted high enough to cause real pain, the release maintains, that didn't happen during the G-20 summit.

I absolutely believe that the volume knob wasn't turned up as high as it could have been. (After an encounter with the LRAD, a CP reporter overhead one protester say to the other, "That thing is just stupid.") But the city now seems to be pretending that, because the equipment wasn't used to its maximum potential, it's no more fearsome than an armor-plated ice-cream truck.

Which just makes me wonder: Why do the civil-rights protesters in this picture look so miserable? Don't they know that fire hoses are just used to put out flames?

The LRAD ... just another toy in the hands of law-enforcement. Nothing to see here folks, move along. 

ADDED: And speaking of law-enforcement toys, I'd be remiss if I didn't note this LRAD-based ring tone for your cell phone! Jon Stewart proposes, local media artist T. Foley disposes. 

Book Him

Posted By on Fri, Oct 9, 2009 at 8:33 AM

The tragic news that the Carnegie Library system will likely be shutting down several branch locations has provoked outrage -- and rightly so. (Brian O'Neill has said all I could ever say about this civic embarrassment in a terrific column earlier this week.) And because there's a mayoral election coming up, two of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's challengers have blasted the mayor for not doing enough to prevent it. (The city provides only $40,000 a year in direct funding, some critics grouse.) I've also heard plenty of muttering about lapses on the part of library management. 

But let's be clear. Whatever misjudgments library excecutives may have made, they are likely dwarfed by a misjudgment the rest of us made a decade ago.

And the blame surely isn't with Ravenstahl: The libraries are funded through the Regional Assets District tax, which was created, in fact, partly to provide a more stable funding source than local governments were likely to furnish. Yes, the city only shells out $40,000 a year ... but that actually ain't bad, given that it's under the thumb of two state financial-oversight boards. And the RAD tax -- a countywide 1 percent sales tax -- funds them to the tune of $16.7 million a year. 

The RAD could provide more. Except what we're really seeing here is the consequence of yet another economic bubble bursting. Dotcom mania and real-estate mania passed Pittsburgh by. But now we're paying the price for sports-mania ... and the highly speculative investments we made a decade ago in order to feed it. 

In the late 1990s, you'll recall, the Steelers and Pirates were demanding new playgrounds. And when a 1997 referendum to pay for construction by raising the sales tax failed, local officials -- led by Mayor Tom Murphy -- hit on a new idea. Why not use Regional Assets District money to finance stadium construction? The RAD fund was already paying out $10 million a year for sports facilities -- so why not add another $3 million or so to it each year? 

At the time, there were a few of us who thought this was a bad idea. The RAD tax, in our view, was supposed to benefit parks, arts groups ... and libraries. Wouldn't we be diverting necessary funds from those groups to build new luxury boxes? 

But the other side argued that hey, sports are cultural institutions too. I recall one Post-Gazette sports columnist -- I think it was Bruce Keidan, but I could be wrong -- arguing that he never used libraries, so why should his tax dollars go to support them? That was a not-uncommon sentiment at the time, and I sure hope those folks are happy today.

But in any case, the supporters argued that libraries and other groups wouldn't even feel the pinch. As one account of the period notes, "the RAD pool had been growing steadily over the past several years, reflecting a generally robust local economy. Therefore [supporters] argued, there would be more money for everything, including the new stadiums and the convention center."

It's clear now that much of the late 1990s/early 2000 economic prosperity was an illusion. But at the time, we chased priorities not much different from a hedge fund manager buying an $8,000 wastepaper basket. We invested in circuses when everybody had enough bread. And now that the economy is struggling, resources people need -- like libraries -- aren't going to be there for them. That extra $3 million might come in handy these days: It's more than twice the library system's current shortfall. But too late -- the money being spent on stadiums isn't discretionary. It's a legally binding contractual obligation. 

But look on the bright side: Maybe you can pick up a few extra bucks scalping tickets on Sunday afternoons. And the Pirates are bound to win someday -- I bet you'll feel much better about your job prospects when that happens. 

This space makes no apologies for Luke Ravenstahl. But if it's fair to blame any mayor for what is happening to the libraries, the guy to point the finger at is Tom Murphy. 

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Another Acklin/Santorum connection emerges

Posted By on Thu, Oct 8, 2009 at 3:14 PM

Independent mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin has -- quite understandably -- taken pains to distance himself from the far-right of the GOP. Acklin, himself a former Republican, has previously contributed to politicians like former Senator Rick "Man on Dog" Santorum ... even though Acklin takes a much more tolerant line on issues like gay rights. 

But there's another connection between Acklin and Santorum: Three Group LLC, the company that developed the Acklin campaign's Web site, was co-founded by a former Santorum campaign staffer.

Aaron Marks' official company biography notes that the founding partner "worked as a staffer on Senator Rick Santorum's re-election campaign in new media and political technology." Later, the site asserts that "[b]ased on his experience in political technology on Santorum's campaign and elsewhere, Aaron came to the conclusion that conservatives desperately needed a software solution that would give them an affordable advantage in elections." That solution is "Mission Control," the platform that powers Acklin's site.

Perhaps most curiously, Marks' bio asserts that he "[b]ecame frustrated by the disproportionate balance of news stories on Digg that were liberally biased." (Digg's content is generated and rated by users.) So "As a result, Aaron [launched] R-igg, a Pligg-based Digg alternative for folks who are right of center."

Does any of this matter? Three Group is providing an online platform, not the content --  and expense reports show that Acklin's campaign has paid less than $1,800 to the firm. In fact, Acklin says he "wasn't aware of" Marks' beliefs at all. 

"I wasn't aware of his political leanings," said Acklin, reached by phone while door-knocking in Lawrenceville. "Maybe that makes me a bad politician. We hired him because he's done some great work, and I'm very happy with what he's done for us." 

Acklin also notes -- as he has from the outset of his campaign -- that he is "trying to build a coalition." And that means conservatives and liberals both. "It's definitely been a challenge to build, but it's the only way we're going to win this." 

The R-igg site is currently down "due to a recent influx of spam." But Marks also occasionally contributes to a blog for and about young conservatives, NextGenGOP. And some of his posts suggest that on social issues, Marks comes closer to Acklin's more tolerant position than Santorum's ... if only for purposes of political pragmatism:

"[Y]oung voters are going to find it difficult to support the Republican Party if it remains the party that condones government intervention in such issues as gay marriage or the behavior of two consenting adults in their own bedroom.  These socially conservative issues may be important to voters in the other generations, but in the eyes of many of my peers, government has no place in getting involved in these matters.

Still, of all the online consultants in all the gin-joints of all the world ...


Debating about the Debates

Posted By on Thu, Oct 8, 2009 at 1:23 PM

First there was this release from mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin's camp at 1:12 this afternoon:

After three months of challenges and delays, the competing candidates for Mayor of Pittsburgh have accepted Kevin Acklin's call to debate, agreeing to participate in three televised events. Neither Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, nor Franco "Dok" Harris, agreed to take part in a town hall forum debate, which the Acklin Campaign proposed and at least one local station was interested in hosting.

"I'm thrilled that voters will be able to see all three of us on the same stage," Acklin said, "But I'm also disappointed that the other candidates refused to answer questions directly from voters. As candidates for public office, we have a responsibility to interact with voters and directly address their concerns."

"I'm out in the neighborhoods talking to voters every day, and they always get straight answers from me. That will be my commitment when I'm elected Mayor."

The debates will be broadcast on KDKA, WPXI, and WTAE. The KDKA Debate will be taped on Friday, October 16th, and most likely air the next day. WPXI will tape on the 29th and air on WPXI Saturday, November 1st, and on PCNC November 1st and 2nd. WTAE will record its debate on Wednesday, October 21st, and most likely air it that night at 7pm -- making it the only prime-time debate this election cycle.

All three debates will be podium-style and will not be filmed in front of a studio audience, despite calls from the Acklin campaign for a more interactive, voter-friendly format.

Acklin's statement was followed up by THIS release from Franco "Dok" Harris' camp just a few minutes ago: 

Kevin Acklin released a misleading statement today regarding the willingness of Candidate for Mayor Franco Dok Harris to engage in specific debate formats.  "This amounts to a flat out lie by the Acklin campaign and we’d like to see it retracted," commented campaign manager Michael Capozzoli.

The Franco Dok Harris campaign has been expecting to engage in debates since their initial announcement in March. Furthermore, the initial release requesting debates included Town Hall Meetings as a desirable format.

"This kind of inaccurate and insinuating release has no place in a progressive and above board campaign," says Franco Dok Harris.  "It’s a minor point, did we ask for town halls or not, but it’s sleazy and is exactly the tactic that I am campaigning against. To somehow insinuate that I am unwilling to debate and answer voters or that he was the sole individual pushing for debates is ludicrous."

In fact, the debates were organized by Franco Dok Harris' campaign manager, Michael Capozzoli.  “The Mayor has one person on staff who happens to be an old friend of mine.  When we approached them about putting together debates, he asked me to help set them up, whic we did. So, in reality, Acklin is accepting our invitation.  While we could have spun that to make Acklin look insignificant, we chose not to. We intentionally took the high road because Dok believes this should be about ideas and about who is the best candidate, not about who can lie or spin most effectively,” said Capozzoli. "Furthermore, in my conversations with the stations, I heard strong resistance to trying to do a town hall based on logistical issues. I suggested taking questions by email and Youtube and a number of possible ways to incorporate voter questions.  In the end, we settled on the format the broadcast outlets wanted. We’re just happy the Mayor agreed to debate at all, frankly."

The Harris campaign is calling on Acklinto issue a retraction of that statement and to clean up their campaign to exclude this kind of pointless politicking and focus on the issues.

Why do I get the feeling that, before the debate has even begun, Luke Ravensathl has somehow won the first round? 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Dan Onorato's Big Day

Posted By on Tue, Oct 6, 2009 at 7:49 PM

It wasn't supposed to go down like this for Dan Onorato.

Today marked the official announcement of something everyone has known for years: Dan Onorato is running for governor. ("[W]hat you may not know is that everything I have done over the last 20 years has helped prepare me for today," said Onorato in a press release prior to the event. Actually, I'm pretty sure lots of us came to that conclusion on our own.) Onorato had been traveling across the state to make the announcement, and his visit home was going to cap off the big day. 

On the surface, it looked like it was going to be a great event. The crowd was packing the IBEW hall on the South Side. And among the supporters was none other than ... Braddock Mayor John Fetterman. He of the Rolling Stone profile, and all that other publicity.

Fetterman is a hero to many progressive types who don't care for Onorato, or for his protege, Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl. But he was foursquare behind the county exec.

"I'm making a full-throttle endorsement," Fetterman told me. "Dan has done a lot for the disenfranchised people in the Mon Valley. How many years did the Carrie Furnace site [a historic remnant of the old Homestead Works, now slated to become the keystone of a national historic park] sit idle until Dan came along?

"If anyone doesn't think much of Dan, I think they're mistaken. He's trying to make the Mon Valley a real showcase for revitalization."

But even as Fetterman was crowning the exec with laurels, there were signs of trouble. As the crowd filtered in, I noticed at least a half dozen faces familiar from protests in the wake of the G-20 summit. Several had appeared at a recent protest at the University of Pittsburgh. There, they denounced police tactics on Sept. 24 and 25 as heavy-headed. Among them was Naomi Archer, a veteran protester involved with the Three Rivers Climate Convergence. 

"Are you here to support Dan?" I asked. 

"Oh yes," she said. And then added, with heavy irony, "The leadership Dan has shown has really been inspiring. And one thing I like about him is he really knows how to put boots on the ground." 

Not long after, Onorato took the podium. And so did Archer. Just as Onorato was beginning his remarks, she leapt to the stage, and gave him a hug. Onorato gestured to security off-stage as Archer said into the microphone, "I just wanted to let you know that the G-20 protesters ..."  She was dragged away before she finished the thought, to applause from the crowd.

But it wasn't over. Moments later a group of Pitt students, standing on a riser to the side of the podium with duct tape over their mouths, unveiled a banner reading "What Happened at Pitt?"

One of them, Jonathan LaTourelle, was soon clapped in handcuffs because he refused to leave. (The IBEW hall is, after all, private property.) But even before the police arrived, the students were scuffling with the attendees standing behind them -- a group of steelworkers. 

LaTourelle was taken out of the hall and put into the back of a police cruiser. He was later joined by five of his colleagues, including Archer. They were released not long after -- once Onorato's speech wrapped up -- and were given citations for defiant trespass. 

For LaTourelle, it was the second offense in a week: He'd also been charged for failure to disperse in Oakland on the night of Sept. 25. But what seemed to bother him even more than the charges was the behavior of the steelworkers -- who protesters said took their "What Happened?" banner.

LaTourelle, a member of Pitt's chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, told me, "I have asked the Steelerworkers to come into my school. I support the Employee Free Choice Act. I've supported labor all of my political life. And it was the Steelworkers who first took our signs."

Protesters saw the event as PR coup. "The message is going out," local gadfly Albert Petrarca told me. "Right here in his hometown, Onorato is having trouble. And that's going to be the message. This was a public-relations disaster for him, because this is going to be the lead story tonight." 

Some seemed worried that Petrarca was right. One Onorato supporter urged media not to focus on the arrests. "The real story is inside" where Onorato was speaking, he said. The protest, he added, "is just poor manners."

"So is imposing a police state," Petrarca shot back. 

I caught up with Onorato briefly after his speech. 

"The protesters wanted to know what happened at Pitt," I said. "What do you think happened?"

"I'm not even going to comment on that," Onorato said. "We can talk about that some other time, but not tonight."

I asked if he had any concerns about the G-20 summit, or if he'd watched Youtube video of the events in Oakland.  "No," he said. "I'm not going to comment."

We shifted to less contentious ground, and discussed the upcoming campaign. No doubt I'll be reporting on this down the road, and Onorato was short on specifics, promising a slew of policy papers down the line. But two things that might be of interest to Slag Heap readers: 

-- Onorato's campaign literature noted his support of gun-ownership for hunters and people who want to have a firearm for self-defense. But he's not a Second Amendment absolutist. He says as governor, he would support legislation like Pittsburgh's controversial "straw purchase" bill, which would require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms.

-- Onorato's literature also touted Allegheny County's recently-enacted LGBT anti-discrimination ordinance. (Allegheny is "one of the only [counties] to enact legislation that protescts the rights of all -- regardless of their race, sexual orientation or gender identity," says his advance statement.) And it also takes pains to address "the mischaracterization of my positions" on abortion. Onorato identifies himself as a "practicing Catholic [who is] personally opposed to abortion. But as Governor I will not change Pennsylvania's current laws." 

But what would Onorato do about marriage rights for same-sex couples? Here he had less to say -- while he believes that "marriage is between a man and a woman," he did not spell out his position on civil unions. That plank of his platform would be forthcoming later, he pledged.

Did the protest trouble Onorato's big day? Hard to say. Statewide media was in attendance, and maybe the ensuing coverage will alert some folks in places like Philly -- where Onorato is a largely unknown quantity -- that not everyone out west is enthralled with the county executive. (Actually, if folks in Philly really want to get an earful about Onorato, they should talk to the bus driver who drove me to tonight's event.)

Then again, voters out in Crawford County might feel better about a candidate opposed by college kids.

I will say, though, that when I went to a favorite watering hole after the event, the bartender asked me, "What the hell happened at Onorato's thing? The TV had it up as 'breaking news -- Onorato event disrupted'!"

Friday, October 2, 2009

Students Recount Battle of Oakland at Pitt Rally (with audio)

Posted By on Fri, Oct 2, 2009 at 10:09 AM

About 200 people gathered outside the University of Pittsburgh's student union last night, speaking out in opposition of police tactics used in Oakland during the G-20 summit. 

A promised speaker -- Ryan Geibl, who allegedly spent several hours in the ICU after exposure to gas canisters -- did not appear. (Friends cited last-minute cold feet.) But several other students were on hand to provide their own eyewitness accounts of what happened. And in case you missed it, here are audio clips of some of the students' perspective on what took place that night.

"This is my city. This is where I live." (2 minutes, 51 seconds) 

 "I've had the very dubious modern privilege of watching myself get arrested on the Internet." (3 minutes, 5 seconds)

"These were not police." (3 minutes, 11 seconds)

"Anything they do to me now, it can't be worse than that night." (1 minute, 55 seconds)

"I was frisked by a female officer, while multiple male officers stood around, ogled, and whispered comments to each other." (3 minutes, 11 seconds)

"We still don't understand what happened ..." (1 minute) 

What happens next? It's early to say. Organizers say it's the beginning of a movement to hold police accountable, and there are other events already scheduled. The ACLU, meanwhile, is gathering accounts of what protesters and bystanders experienced during the G-20 as well. (They've set up a "G-20 helpline" at 412-562-5015.)

But those who plead guilty to charges -- even for a light sentence -- may be trading away their ability to file suit against the department down the road. There were efforts to register students to vote in time of the November election, and some in the crowd "Make Grant Street Accountable" and "Vote No For Mayor Luke." (Ravenstahl, of course, is facing two challengers on the November ballot, Kevin Acklin and Dok Harris.)

On the other hand, neither Acklin nor Harris have launched a full-throated critique of police tactics. (Acklin's brother, in fact, is a state trooper who was on duty in Oakland during the protests.) And there is a debate taking place in activist circles about whether there are any good options come November.

On the other hand, attendees were told that  Naomi Wolf -- noted feminist and lefty author -- is interested in collecting their accounts as well. They were advised to reach her through her Facebook page.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A final note on today's Pitt rally ...

Posted By on Thu, Oct 1, 2009 at 1:14 PM

Among the speakers who will be at a free-speech rally at Schenley Plaza tonight is one Ryan Geibl. Geibl allegedly spent 19 hours in the ICU because of being gassed by police, according to a release just issued.

According to prior conversations I've had with organizers of this event, Geibl will narrate how he was trapped in a stairwell, where he was allegedly exposed to multiple canisters' worth of case. The concentration of gas in a confined space, I'm told, resulted in lung hemorrhaging.

If all of that is true, it could give the lie to this statement made by Luke Ravenstahl earlier this week.

Like I said: We've only begun hearing from the students. 

According to the release, other speakers at the rally will include:

-- Genevieve Redd, Pitt ACLU President
-- Justin Wasser, Pitt Student Activist
-- Jessica Benner and Pete Shell, co-chairs of the Thomas Merton Center Antiwar Committee
-- Keith DeVries, Pitt student who was unlawfully arrested and will talk about repression of the press
-- Paradise Gray and Jasiri X of the community group One HOOD
-- Erin Gill and Sara Rose of the ACLU
-- "Other students who were traumatized by police or who witnessed events in Oakland Friday night"


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