Slag Heap | Pittsburgh City Paper

Thursday, November 12, 2009

City GOP reacts to tuition tax

Posted By on Thu, Nov 12, 2009 at 6:21 PM

If you're anything like me, the first reaction you had to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's tuition tax (or as I'm calling it, the "Get the Hell Off My Lawn" tax) was, "Well, that's all fine and good. But what are city Republicans going to think of it?"

Well, wonder no longer, my friends. For Bob Hillen, the ever-affable chair of the city GOP, has sent out the following missive late last night.

Text below, and italicized for your convenience. Two things strike me as interesting about it. 

1) Will union apprenticeship programs be subject to the tax? 

2) On the central issue at stake here -- the question of whether non-profits should be taxed -- Hillen and many local Democrats are in agreement. Too bad that state law makes it almost impossible to challenge non-profits, thanks to a 1990s-era law sponsored by a noted Republican, Melissa Hart.

At a time when the Community College of Allegheny County is offering classes to the unemployed and our elected officials say they are trying to keep our young people and attract new people. Our city administration comes up with this counter-productive new tax.

The mayor calls this tax "The Fair Share Tax. He compares the tax to the fees that colleges charge their students, and believes that makes the tax acceptable to the students and their families. Many of the students and their families already find some of the fees they pay as “questionable”. It seems as we are back to the old idea, that two wrongs do make a right.

The administration says it doesn’t matter who is paying the students tuition, whether its being paid by the student, a parent, the government, or a scholarship. It’s also said that all post secondary education would be subject to the tax, from Trade Schools to Graduate Schools to non-credit night classes. Does this mean that the Building Trade’s (Unions) Apprenticeship classes would be taxed, and if so what do the Unions have to say? The Mayor may find that he maybe taxing people that he didn’t think would come under this burden.

In the past, the city has made financial decisions based on politics, instead of long term solutions. It is time for financial reality to be the priority. Until the mayor can step up his efforts to join with more municipalities throughout the state, and persuade the General Assembly to tax these "Non-profits" (i.e. Hospitals and similar places) that enjoy yearly "surpluses" (instead of what they should be called, PROFITS), the city is going to have to learn that you can’t spend, it if you don’t have it.

By the way, wasn’t the Casino supposed to take care of the city's financial troubles? I guess that's another story for a later date.

The students! United! Will Forever Be Retweeted!

Posted By on Thu, Nov 12, 2009 at 10:10 AM

Oh, you've done it now, Mayor Ravenstahl. You have awoken the sleeping -- or perhaps hungover -- giant. In response to the mayor's 1 percent tuition tax, students have launched their own Facebook page

The Facebook group -- called Pittsburgh College Students Against the Tax on College Students -- already has 137 members. Which ain't bad for starters. (UPDATE: By day's end, the number of members was nearly twice that. And there's another Facebook group -- Students Against the Proposed Pittsburgh Tuition Tax -- dedicated to the same cause.)

I'm a bit skeptical about internet activism, to be honest, and one wishes a Web site authored by college students didn't include verbage like "If thats there soul reasoning ..." But maybe there is potential for this to grow into something more. As Ravenstahl pointed out when he first proposed the tax, Pittsburgh is a city of just over 300,000 people -- with nearly 100,000 students enrolled in its institutions of higher-learning. That's a lot of potential activists. 

Plus, as I've written before, the Oakland area was the site of what could be the first crowd-sourced citizen-journalist project in Pittsburgh history. College students with digital cameras helped document G-20-related demonstrations, and the police reaction to them. Obviously tax policy is much less photogenic, but students really could create their own campaign here. And who knows where that might lead? The G-20 footage has spawned investigations into police conduct, and considerable public debate. 

Granted, Bram is probably right that were some folks happy to see students get pushed around during the G-20. And maybe people won't worry too much about a tax on students either. But I'm told that some city councilors have been hearing complaints about this tax from quarters you wouldn't necessarily expect -- including working-class areas where folks are going to night-school. Besides, as I tried to suggest at the end of my column this week ... if students feel like they're getting the shaft by intransigent non-profits and thoughtless city officials, well ... that's how their neighbors have felt for years. You are all Pittsburghers now. Solidarity! 

The students could use a snappier acronym, though. I mean, even highly contagious diseases get better acronyms than PCSATCS. How about Pittsburgh-Area Students Supporting Education and Denouncing Outrageous and Unfair Taxation? 


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Burgess in the running for city council president

Posted By on Tue, Nov 10, 2009 at 1:18 PM

So much for the post-election lull. City councilor Ricky Burgess is campaigning to be the next president of city council -- a position  currently held by Doug Shields. And while such contests are usually of interest to only a small number of City Hall junkies, who becomes council president next year may say a lot about the future, and the relationship between a newly-elected mayor and the legislators across the hall. 

Interviewed in his office, Burgess said he decided -- "somewhat relucantly" --  to seek the post, which will be chosen by the nine-member council early next year. The president, he says, must "serve all nine members of council," while being a "fair negotiator with the mayor and his administration. I believe the position cannot be an audition for mayor, but must be held by someone who can work honestly and collaboratively with the mayor, so we can work to address the needs of the city." 

There needs to be "open dialogue between the administration and council," he says. And "discussions via accusations, slander, and calling for criminal investigation are not the best way to move our city forward."

Does that sound like Burgess might have some problems with the often-irascible Shields? Well, let it be noted here that Burgess didn't say that.

"I am not running because of anything anyone has done," he says. "I'm running because of what could be."

Now I know what you're thinking, or at least what you're worried about. Is all this talk about collaboration and "moving the city forward" (paging Ms. Montanez!) a sign that Ravenstahl would have a reliable ally at the head of council's table? 

"My history on council has shown me to be an independent person," Burgess says. "I have a long track record of being independent, and I don't see why two years on council should trump all my years of community service." 

Burgess gives credit to Ravenstahl for "doing more to empower the minority population than any mayor in history." (He points to the fact that the city's police chief and fire chief are black, and that Ravenstahl appointed Dara Ware Allen to the school board --  which he points out may be the first black school-board appointee to represent a district that was mostly black. "I don't think that's gotten enough attention," says Burgess.)

Still, he says that there will likely to be issues on which he -- and the rest of council -- will disagree with the mayor. The problem isn't the disagreements themselves, but the fact that they have become so acrimonious. To address that problem, Burgess says, he's wants to hold regularly scheduled meetings with the mayor, and to designate a council staffer as a liasion with the mayor's office. 

Burgess says it's high time to change the dynamic on Grant Street, in part because the mayor has, finally, won a four-year term. Both sides of city government have frequently been in campaign mode, he says -- but as of now, "This mayor has been elected by the vast majority of the city. It is time to realize that he is the mayor, and for council to begin that process of engaging him in a constructive way." Burgess says one reason he's a natural go-between is because "I don't have mayoral ambitions." 

What does Shields think of all this? Suffice it to say the council presidency appears to be the one thing he isn't feeling worked up about.

"I'm certainly open to new leadership on council," he said. "I've served two terms as president, and it's not easy. I'm in my 17th year on the fifth floor [having served as a councilor and aide to the late Bob O'Connor], and I don't have a lot of illusions left. Whether I'm the council president or someone else is, the communications problem will remain. Because for this administration, council isn't something to work with; it's something to be ignored. If Mr. Burgess thinks that will change, he's fooling himself."

When I asked if Shields even intended to run for the spot again, he made it clear he wouldn't run very hard.  "Do I need the presidency to launch a run for something else?" he asked. "Not really. Do I need to prove anything more? I think I've earned a reputation for being hard-working, and for having integrity. I'm secure with myself."

Shields says that if his fellow councilors "vote for me, I'll accept it. If people want to move on, that's OK too."

Will the rest of council be so philosophical? It remains to be seen. So far, I've heard speculation about presidential aspirations on the part of at five councilors -- a majority of the body. But as one councilor told me, "That's how it always is at this point. It's like an episode of Law & Order: The first suspect is never the person who did it." 

Monday, November 9, 2009

Payne-ful Choices

Posted By on Mon, Nov 9, 2009 at 6:07 PM

Today's story about Daniel Lavelle by Rich Lord is a typically solid effort from the P-G's ace city hall reporter. But tucked into the piece about the new councilor-elect is an interesting disclosure: 

Mr. Lavelle has filed a written complaint against [incumbent councilor Tonya] Payne, who is the Pittsburgh Democratic Committee chair, for failing to support her party's nominee. Allegheny County Democratic Committee Chair Jim Burn said he will meet with Ms. Payne and decide if she will be stripped of her party posts.

What brought this on? There was an 11th-hour write-in campaign on Payne's behalf during the Nov. 3 election, even though she'd lost to Lavelle in the May primary. And Democrats generally don't look kindly on insiders who try to actively thwart the party. (Unless, of course, we're talking about Joe Lieberman.)

Ordinarily, a fight over Payne's party credentials might not be so interesting, but for two reasons.

First, I'm pretty sure we haven't heard the last of Tonya Payne. It's widely believed that she'll be running for office next year -- this time against state Rep. Jake Wheatley. Wheatley, like Lavelle, is part of a political faction aligned with former city councilor Sala Udin, who Payne defeated four years ago.

Second, there's a long history of complaints about committeefolk "going off the reservation," and opposing candidates who had the Democratic Party's backing. (In fact, a little lower in this post, we'll talk about a similar accusation lodged against blogger Matt Hogue, of the Pittsburgh Hoagie.) Slag Heap readers may recall that earlier this year, county chair Jim Burn wrestled with similar questions. But that dispute had to do with committeefolk bucking the party's endorsement before the spring primary. What Payne is accused of doing, by contrast, is trying to defeat the party's nominee -- the person backed not just by party elders, but by Democratic voters themselves. 

That's a whole different ballgame, Burn tells me. While there was little stomach for cracking down on dissenters during primary season, this was a general election. And state rules are very clear. A person is ineligible to hold a Democratic committee post if that person has "supported a candidate in a general or special election opposed to the duly nominated candidate of the Democratic Party in that election."

If Payne was involved in this write-in bid, that would constitute supporting a candidate other than the "duly nominated" Democrat: Lavelle. On paper, it'd be hard to see how she could maintain her committee post ... even though Payne is a Democrat herself.

So how involved was Payne in this write-in effort? She told the Tribune-Review that she "didn't ask for a write-in campaign" but that "people in the district didn't like the primary results, and they didn't care what I had to say on the subject, so they're going to do it."

Uh-huh. This is a wee bit hard to believe, since over the summer Payne actually wrote a letter to her constituents faulting them for not supporting her in the primary. 

Burn says, though, that he will "treat this thing objectively. I'm going to listen to everything Mr. Lavelle says, and everything Ms. Payne says, and we'll take it from there." 

The irony here, of course, is that Burn appointed Payne to the city chair in the first place. He did so when the previous occupant, Barbara Ernsberger, had to step down for an (unsuccessful) judicial run. Payne, he says, was the only person who expressed any interest in the post. In fact, when the party met to choose Ernsberger's replacement, "We didn't have enough people to make quorum," he told me. 

"So if you decide to remove Payne from the post," I answered, "you'll just have to find another replacement."

"You've just given me an idea," Burn said. "I could remove her and then, a month later, appoint her all over again."

He assured me he was kidding. A moment later, though, he noted that he'd ALSO appointed Payne to the state committee.

Then we both started laughing, hard. 

I know Burn is unpopular in some circles, but he's a good sport. In any case, he expects to have a decision by early December. If he decides against Payne, she can appeal to the state committee. 

In a related matter, local blogger (and committeeman) Matt Hogue was also the subject of a written complaint, and Burn confirms it stems from Hogue's online endorsement of Kevin Acklin in the mayoral race. But the letter was withdrawn "about five days later," Burn says. No explanation was given he says, and he's not likely to pursue the matter further. 

Burn says that loyalty to the party shouldn't be too much to ask -- at least not in November. "We can debate this all we want in the spring," he says, "but once you cross that line in a general election, you may as well not even have a party." Still, he says, if somebody were to complain about Hogue now, "I'd really have some questions about their motivation and timing." Hogue's blog post, and the letter complaining about it, "haven't gotten much attention in the media, maybe, but it's all well known inside the party." 

All of this just goes to show something I've written about time and again: The Democratic "machine" is barely worth the name. Here you've got a city chair appointed to the position by default ... and even she, it seems, can't be kept on the reservation. And unless Burn was bullshitting me, Payne was the only person who'd expressed any interest in the city chair at all. That strikes me as a pretty damning indictment -- both of the party and, potentially, the reformers who insist it is resistent to change. 

So if Burn does strip Payne of the committee chair, there's going to be a vacancy there. Who's going to step up? 

If only to get the ball rolling, I nominate Matt Hogue. 

College kids: Here's one reason it's happening to you

Posted By on Mon, Nov 9, 2009 at 2:20 PM

There's an old saying -- I've heard it ascribed to FDR adviser Harry Hopkins -- that while tax policy often amounts to "robbing Peter in order to pay Paul," the person who does it can usually count on Paul's vote.

Which is an especially good deal if Peter doesn't vote at all. 

One way of looking at Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's proposal to tax college students is this: It's robbing the crowd at Peter's Pub  to pay the rest of Pittsburgh. And that's a politically viable idea because -- surprise, surprise -- college kids don't pay attention. 

To prove it, I took a look at nearly a dozen voting precincts in the city where at least 80 percent of the residents are between 18 and 39 years old. (I'm working from US Census data compiled by PA Voice, a project that tries to turn out young voters and others who historically don't show up at the polls much.) These precincts are concentrated largely in Oakland, Shadyside, and the areas around Duquesne University. And for the most part, these are the places where -- during the 2008 election -- students turned out in droves to vote for Barack Obama. 

The results this time were less than encouraging. 

Take Ward 4, District 8. This is central Oakland, home to a bunch of dorm housing. According to Census figures, nearly every single person -- 99.3 percent -- living in this area is between the ages of 18 and 39. In 2008, turnout in this district was just under half (48.5 percent).

What was it last week? A whopping 2.33 percent. 

Now granted, turnout was down across the county -- across the country. And Barack Obama's history-making campaign generated a huge amount of interest last year -- especially among the young. But this year's turnout was dismal even compared to the showing in 2007. A stunning 3.66 percent of voters turned out in Ward 4, District 8 two years ago. 

And so it has been across the board. In the 11 precincts I looked at, voting turnout averaged 13.95 percent. That's down from just under 57 percent in the 2008 Presidential election ... and even slightly lower than the 18.45 percent posted in 2007.

Now there are all kinds of caveats with this data, of course. I'm using Census data -- and nearly decade-old Census data at that -- to establish the number of young residents. But I'm using county voter-registration data to determine turnout ... and some of those folks no doubt moved away since 2008.

So this is a crude measure at best. But I think it offers some rough data to support what everybody already knows: College kids don't vote in municipal elections, and politicians can safely blow them off. 

Which is too bad for the two guys who ran against Ravenstahl. In Ward 4, district 8, indepenent challengers Kevin Acklin and Dok Harris both beat Ravenstahl by nearly two-to-one margins.  The mayor got 17 votes, while Acklin got 33 and Harris -- whose campaign HQ was on S. Craig Street -- got 32. 

The total number of voters registered to vote in this district? 3,610. 

So there's the (admittedly remedial) lesson in electoral math.

Class Warfare

Posted By on Mon, Nov 9, 2009 at 11:28 AM

Today witnessed the pomp and pageantry of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's annual budget presentation to City Council.  And as first reported in today's Post-Gazette, the linchpin was a sure-to-be-controversial tax on college students.

The tax would be a 1 percent levy on their tuition (room and board would not be counted). A Pitt student, for example, would be paying about $135 a year -- with Carnegie Mellon students paying more, and CCAC students paying far less.

Ravenstahl couched the matter in terms of fairness -- to the point of calling this the "fair share" tax. (The official name is the "Post-Secondary Education Privilege Tax.") And he played, none too subtly, on the town-and-gown fissures that tend to afflict any college town. (Hear an edited version of his remarks on the tax here.) 

He invited us to consider the tax burden borne by "Larry from Lawrenceville" -- and even city councilor Bill Peduto -- to help provide services to college students. Ravenstahl even got a laugh out of the crowd when he imagined South Side councilor Bruce Krause -- justly renowned for focusing on quality-of-life concerns -- calling the police when students got "rowdy" on the South Side. Who paid for the need to provide fire protection to college kids, and to "clean up the mess," Ravenstahl asked? We do. 

Yeah! Cutters rule!!!!

Whatever else it is, it's smart politics. Ravenstahl had previously floated the idea of a bed fee for hospital patients. Not only did that seem cruel -- taxing sick people was "offensive," his independent challenger Kevin Acklin complained during the campaign -- but it didn't make much sense. These days, hospitals are booting people out of their beds as quickly as possible, so the average patient isn't around for very long. But college kids are here for months at a stretch, and they tend to draw attention to themselves more than people on respirators do. Bruce Kraus isn't the only person in town who remembers the couch-burnings that took place in Oakland earlier this year. 

And quite apart from the politics, there are some pragamatic arguments in favor of this idea too. For years, we've heard about how commuters don't "pay their fair share" of city taxes. But even commuters tend to only be here from 9 to 5. Students, by contrast, are here 24 hours a day. And while the "poor college student" is always a sympathetic figure, the fact is a) they always seem to have money for beer, and b) as Ravenstahl pointed out, their institutions of higher learning already jack them up for a variety of fees. 

That said, city councilor Bill Peduto pointed out on serious drawback to the proposal: "The big question is whether this is legal."

Under state law, the city has the power to levy a variety of fees if it wishes. But it doesn't have the power to create a brand new tax. And Ravenstahl is structuring this as a tax -- a levy indexed not on the cost of providing the service, but on the ability of a person to pay it. Peduto's initial take is that if the levy were structured as a fee -- a lump sum of, say, $150 a year -- it might be easier to defend in court. 

"The universities already realize that," Peduto warned moments after Ravenstahl's speech, "and I don't think you need a crystal ball to know what their response will be." If the courts toss the tax out, he notes, it will blow a $15 million hole in the budget. 

(There's already speculation that the city will argue that a levy on students isn't much different from the city's $52 a year occupation tax. Being a student, after all, is a form of occupation. But you can already see two objections being raised to that. First, most occupations pay you for the work you're doing, whereas students pay for the privlege of being enrolled. Second, even the occupation tax is structured as a lump sum -- and the city couldn't raise that amount without state approval.)

But Peduto agreed that something has to be done about getting more money from non-profits: Taxing students "misses the target," he said, but sooner or later a solution needed to be found. Asked where the city would get $15 million in the meantime, and Peduto said, "I don't know." 

The problem, he said, is that "I haven't seen the big non-profits at the table" -- and council hasn't been either. Until this morning, Peduto groused, he'd been hearing about a whole raft of revenue-generating ideas, including the bed tax. 

But now that the discussion has begun, Ravenstahl is likely to find some people on council, at least, who are receptive to his ideas. Kraus himself seemed open to the possiblity of a student surcharge. He pointed out that during his campaign, he repeatedly insisted that big non-profit institutions were going to have to do more to help balance the city's books. 

Kraus noted that he values students: "I'm tired of students always being talked about as a negative. They aren't a drain -- they are life reinventing itself, and I love having them in my district." He also credited the University of Pittsburgh Police -- the second-largest armed police force in Allegheny County, by the way -- for "doing so much to contribute to the peace and tranquility in Oakland." But when students hit Carson Street, he says, they are on their own. 

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Going to the dogs: P-G reveals story cribbed Wikipedia entry

Posted By on Sat, Nov 7, 2009 at 2:06 PM


Here's the sort of thing you hate to see in your Saturday morning paper. 

The corrections/clarifications section of today's Post-Gazette includes the following disclosure: "The last three paragraphs of a story Wednesday on African painted dogs were taken virtually verbatim and without attribution from This violates Post-Gazette and industry practices. The Post-Gazette regrets this incident and apologizes for it."

The story in question was written by Don Hopey, the paper's longtime environmental writer. At the time of this posting, the correction has not been noted in the online version of the story. The text currently reads as follows: 

The African painted dog, Lycaon pictus, also commonly called the painted hunting dog, African hunting dog, the Cape hunting dog, the spotted dog, or the painted wolf, is endangered by human population, habitat loss and hunting.

There were once approximately 500,000 African painted dogs in 39 countries, and packs of 100 or more were not uncommon. Now there are only about 3,000 to 5,000 in fewer than 25 countries.

In the wild, it is strongly affected by competition with larger carnivores that rely on the same prey base, particularly the lion and the spotted hyena. Lions often will kill as many wild dogs as they can but do not eat them. Hyenas usually follow them to steal their kills.

The original wikipedia article is here. The relevant portions of that entry appear below:

The African Wild Dog is a carnivore mammal. Found only in Africa, especially in savannas and other lightly wooded areas. It is also called the Painted Hunting Dog, African Hunting Dog, the Cape Hunting Dog, the Spotted Dog, or the Painted Wolf in English, Wildehond in Afrikaans, and Mbwa mwitu in Swahili ...


There were once approximately 500,000 African Wild Dogs in 39 countries, and packs of 100 or more were not uncommon. Now there are only about 3,000-5,500 in fewer than 25 countries, or perhaps only 14 countries ...


It uses very large territories (and so can persist only in large wildlife protected areas), and it is strongly affected by competition with larger carnivores that rely on the same prey base, particularly the lion and the Spotted Hyena. Lions often will kill as many wild dogs as they can but do not eat them. Hyenas usually follow them to steal their kills. 

Don Hopey's done some good stuff, and he's been doing it for a lot of years. Let's just hope the dogs are the only endangered mammals appearing in this story.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Buchanan enters Congressional campaign -- whether she likes it or not

Posted By on Fri, Nov 6, 2009 at 3:01 PM

Well, here's a first: Mary Beth Buchanan actually helping a Democratic elected official.

Western Pennsylvania's US Attorney, with whom we've had some differences, is stepping down from her post this month. And there's been word that the Bush appointee may be planning to challenge U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire in Pennsylvania's 4th Congressional District. 

Is it true? I'm not sure. But Altmire is already using the possibility as a fundraising tool. A dispatch from Altmire's campaign -- reprinted below -- just hit our e-mail inboxes. Reading it over, you can see the kind of race Altmire might run if Buchanan did take him on. The entire thing suggests that, while Buchanan has never run for office before, she's the same old, same old. Labels like "partisan" and "divisive" appear in the second sentence, and later in the piece as well. Altmire name-drops George W. Bush and his previous foe, Melissa Hart.

This is, of course, part of the reason Democratic partisans hope Buchanan does run. If you're Jason Altmire, obviously, you'd much rather convince the voters it was still 2006 or 2008. And it's a bit of a nostalgia trip for Dems as well -- a Buchanan candidacy would give us all a chance to bash the Bush years all over again. 

Anyway, the text of Altmire's e-mail below: The only change I made was to delete several CONTRIBUTE NOW links interspersed throughout the message: 

Here we go again! After fielding the most partisan, divisive candidate possible in Melissa Hart, Republicans are now actively trying to recruit an equally polarizing candidate to enter the race for the congressional seat they lost in 2006.

You may have seen this news report of the Republican National Committee's efforts to recruit the controversial U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan, appointed by President George W. Bush in 2001, to enter the race. Clearly they haven't learned from their mistakes. They want to turn back the clock to take back the seat that you helped win for the people of western Pennsylvania. Clearly they didn't get the message that the people of western Pennsylvania voted to move America in a new direction. Help me show that simply pulling a page from the same tired playbook won't lead the Republicans back into power to return to the policies that led this country to the brink of economic catastrophe.

You have been generous with your past support, and I hope that I can count on you again as we prepare for what promises to be yet another Republican campaign of misleading attack ads. It is obvious that the national Republicans are desperate and plan to find the most polarizing and divisive candidate out there. Unfortunately, this is the formula they have used to successfully carry this district before, but I hope you won't let them do it again. In order to make sure I have the ability to fight back, please consider contributing to my campaign today.

With a well-funded and well-known opponent and a Republican National Committee that has made it clear that they will stop at nothing to retake the seat they lost three years ago, I must have the necessary resources to tell the story of the change we have brought to western Pennsylvania. But responding in the media is expensive, so please help make sure that I have the essential funds to compete on a level playing field against another well-financed opponent. We have worked too hard and come too far to simply turn this seat back over to another Bush-era partisan ideologue.

Thank you again for all your past support.

Does anyone still care to talk about voter apathy?

Posted By on Fri, Nov 6, 2009 at 9:32 AM

There's already been plenty of talk about voter apathy in Tuesday's election, but I'd like to toss one last thought before the week is out. As happens in every off-year election, voters were given a chance to take an up-or-down "retention" vote on various members of the judiciary. Retention comes along for judges once every 10 years: The idea is to keep them honest.

It doesn't work.

Among the seven Common Pleas Court judges up for retention this year, for example, was Jeffrey Manning. Earlier this year, you might recall, Manning handed down a somewhat dubious decision related to  a Pittsburgh police officer, Paul Abel, accused of pistol-whipping an innocent man in a case of mistaken identity. Abel was off-duty and had been drinking at the time. Manning tried the case, but although he characterized Abel's actions as "inappropriate," he ruled that "It is not the obligation of this court to police the police department."

Now to me, if Manning feels that way, maybe he ought to give up his bench to somebody who does think that's a judge's job.

And a few months before THAT, Manning made another head-scratching ruling involving a former police officer. Sean Deasy was convicted of a DUI offense that killed the passenger in his car, but Manning acquitted him of the most serious charge Deasy faced. As a result, Deasy got six months in a halfway house. Alcohol-awareness groups called the light sentence "inappropriate." 

As we reported at the time, securing convictions for DUI-related fatalities is more complicated than it might seem. I'm sure one could argue both sides of the Abel verdict too.

But here's the thing: Nobody DID argue it. The Abel decision especially was controversial. But with a retention vote on the line, nobody -- and I include City Paper here -- thought it was worth talking about. No one.

The result? According to unofficial election returns, Manning didn't just win retention easily -- he did it by a slightly wider margin than some of his colleagues on the bench. 

Am I kicking myself in the ass for not raising this stuff before the election? Yeah. Do I think it would have made any difference? Nope. 

I used to believe in the principle of judicial elections -- it appealed to my impulse toward Jacksonian democracy. But every year that goes by, I see more evidence that electing these guys has done nothing to ensure accountability. Even if you think Manning should be retained, the fact that there was no debate proves how absurd the process really is. 

On a related point, a belated response to this post from Chris Briem, who argues that when you look at how Luke Ravenstahl's challengers have fared in recent elections, "You have to give greater respect to the campaign of Joe Weinroth when he ran for mayor just 4 years ago.

Despite having no money, little support, and running against Bob O'Connor, Briem notes, Weinroth "somehow came out with 27% of the vote in the city of Pittsburgh 2005 mayoral race... I said this before, but you just have to wonder what he might have done if he had had the money or support or the general circumstances Mark Desantis had 2 years later or any of the things going for him that either Harris or Acklin had going for them this time around."

I think the answer to that is simple: If Joe Weinroth had the resources Mark DeSantis had ... he would have done about as well as Mark DeSantis.

I have a theory that in American politics, you can count on roughly 20 percent of the population to support almost any major-party candidate -- no matter who that candidate is. George W. Bush's approval rating, for example, was 22 percent just before he left office. Another 6 months and he might have been at 20, but I think it may be impossible to get any lower than that. 20 percent is probably the Absolute Zero of politics.

In 1997, for example, Tom Murphy defeated Republican Harry Frost handily -- but Frost still garnered a bit more than 20 percent of the vote. And Frost may have been the silliest candidate in the modern history of Pittsburgh politics: If memory serves, the guy had been living on his mom's couch because of problems with his personal finances.

In every election, some of the voters will be cranks, contrarians, people who punch the wrong button because of problems with hand-eye coordination, lunatics, deviants, city Republicans, and other statistical outliers. I don't know what it's like in other cities, but as someone who spends a lot of time using mass transit, I think it's safe to say that such people make up 20 percent of the electorate here. Maybe more.

In honor of Frost, we could call this 20 percent threshhold the "political freezing point" -- if you poll below that, you are probably laid out on a slab somewhere. The real test of a campaign is how many percentage points you can score above that. Weinroth did about 7 points above it, which probably reflects lingering doubts about O'Connor more than anything else. DeSantis got 35 percent. Ravenstahl's two challengers this year combined to get 44.5 percent.

Subtracting that 20 percent of bedrock opposition -- looking only at the votes they earned -- Dok Harris and Kevin Acklin got about one-quarter of the ballots cast. Combined.

Incidentally, there's a bedrock for the number of people who will vote "no" on judicial retention too. No matter how good you are, a certain percentage of people will vote to kick you off the bench. That number appears to be 29 percent. Which is exactly what Manning got.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Stomach-turning turnout numbers

Posted By on Thu, Nov 5, 2009 at 12:28 PM

Still trying to parse this election in digestible amounts -- i.e. amounts that don't upset my stomach. 

As we've noted before, perhaps the most important (and most overlooked) race in this election was for state Supreme Court. Which Democrat Jack Panella lost, to Joan Orie-Melvin.

What happened here? The P-G notes today that turnout was the big factor in these statewide races. Republicans showed up, Democrats didn't. Really, that's all there is to it. 

For example, compare the 2009 Supreme Court contest with the one in 2007, where Democrats won both of the seats up for grabs. And just to keep things simple, let's contrast the Orie-Melvin/Panella match-up to the top Democrat vote-getter in 2007, Seamus McCaffery, with the top GOP contender, Maureen Lally-Green. 

On paper, these would seem to be similar races. Lally-Green, like Orie Melvin, was a female Republican from the western part of the state. McCaffery is a Philly guy; Panella hails from that part of the state as well. 

But McCaffery crushed Lally-Green, whereas Panella lost. What gives?

Well, for one thing, McCaffery was a great candidate. Panella ... not so much. But in judicial races, actual qualifications are sort of beside the point. 

The big difference, as our story warned, was that Philly had a mayoral race back in 2007, and so lots of reasons for Dems to turn out. This time around, they had a transit strike.  In 2007, McCaffery got 205,000 votes in Philadelphia County alone. Panella, by contrast, got just over 93,000 votes.

That's 112,000 fewer votes coming out of Philly for the Democrat.

Orie-Melvin beat Panella by 113,000 votes. 

Yeah, Philly is an extreme case, but the pattern held true. Panella got just over 100,000 votes here in Allegheny County -- one-third fewer than McCaffery earned two years ago. (And this space has previously speculated that a lack of interest in local elections was -- just maybe -- something Republicans were trying to engineer.) Orie, by contrast, got only a couple thousand fewer votes than Lally-Green did.

There were drops across the state for the GOP candidates too. In 2007, Lally-Green repeated just under 995,000 votes. Orie, by contrast, is in the mid-930,000 range. But Dems just stayed home in droves, and we're going to be paying a price for years to come. 


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