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Friday, May 28, 2010

Peduto seeks ethics ruling on Ravenstahl appointment

Posted By on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 8:35 PM

Late this afternoon, city councilor Bill Peduto formally requested the city's Ethics Board to look into Adam Ravenstahl's being named to the board of Alcosan. Adam Ravenstahl, of course, is the brother of mayor Luke Ravenstahl.  

Addressed to board chair Sister Patrice Hughes, the letter notes that tby the terms of the city code, "no public official or public employee shall appoint, hire [or] advance a member of his direct family to a positionthat is under the juridiction or control of the city."

The city solicitor has argued that this language does not apply to Alcosan, because it's an independent authority whose mayoral appointees must be confirmed by council. When I talked to Peduto about that earlier this week, he called it a "half-ass legal interpretation."

His letter counters that, in fact, "the Mayor and City Council have jurisdiction over the nomination and appointement of all Board, Authority, and Commission members. The Mayor has the sole responsibility of nominating candidates to these positions and Council has the sole responsibility of approving [them]."

A copy of the letter is here. Anyone want to take bets on how much the brother has to fear from the Sister?

Involvement by Bill Clinton? THAT should keep the right-wing quiet (UPDATE)

Posted By on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 1:45 PM

The White House has now responded to simmering concerns surrounding Joe Sestak. And it turns out Bill Clinton played a role in what was supposedly a job offer to encourage Sestak to drop out of the race. 

The most important thing here is that White House is claiming that what Sestak was offered was an unpaid position, on an advisory board. ("The advisory positions discussed with Congressman Sestak ... would have been uncompensated," the memo reads.) In fact, the memo notes that Democratic leadership had "legitimate concern about the Congressman vacating his seat in the House." And Ed Rendell and others did, in fact, argue that Sestak shouldn't run for Senate partly because his old seat would be vulnerable to Republican takeover. Hiring Sestak to work full-time somewhere else would, then, defeat much of the purpose for urging him not to take Specter on. 

The memo also addresses speculation the position Sestak was offered was Secretary of the Navy. In fact, though, "The President announced his intent to nominate Ray Mabus" to that job last spring -- "over a month before Senator Specter announced that he was becoming a member of the Democratic Party."

But the memo has a downside as well. Because of all the ex-presidents in all the gin-joints in all the world, the White House had to recruit  President Bill Clinton as a go-between.

"White House staff did not discuss these optoins with Congressman Sestak." Instead, they "enlisted the support of former President Clinton." 

As we all know, nothing sets Republican hard-liners at ease like the apperance of Bill Clinton. And I gotta say -- the fact that the White House released this today, on the Friday before a three-day holiday, suggests a bit of uneasiness. 

UPDATE: Indeed, I can already see plenty of "meaning of is" type verbage bouncing around the interwebs. Though the more frequent response is, "Sestak said he was offered a JOB. That's not the same thing as an unpaid advisory post!" 

Naturally, the assumption is that this is a White House cover-up. Though even if you assume someone has been acting in bad faith here -- rather than speaking carelessly -- it's certainly possible Sestak was exaggerating  the offer to burnish his credentials. Anyway, here's the Sestak response:

Last summer, I received a phone call from President Clinton. During the course of the conversation, he expressed concern over my prospects if I were to enter the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and the value of having me stay in the House of Representatives because of my military background. He said that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had spoken with him about my being on a Presidential Board while remaining in the House of Representatives. I said no. I told President Clinton that my only consideration in getting into the Senate race or not was whether it was the right thing to do for Pennsylvania working families and not any offer. The former President said he knew I'd say that, and the conversation moved on to other subjects.

More on the Treehouse proposal

Posted By on Fri, May 28, 2010 at 9:35 AM

So today's Post-Gazette offers some clarity on the great treehouse dispute, and I'll try to further flesh out matters below. 

First off, it's worth noting that city councilor Doug Shields is now acknowledging that a staffer said something "inappropriate" to Amy Ambrusko in a phone conversation -- something he denied, sort of, in comments to me earlier this week. And while Shields was of the impression that the treehouse proposal was a "done deal," a Parks Conservancy spokesperson tells the paper, "I'm not sure why there was a perception that there was a memorial ready to go ..."The truth is that we're so early in the process that there was very little to share."

I spoke to that spokesperson, Michael Sexauer, this morning, and he stressed the preliminary nature of the treehouse proposal. In fact, he said, "Part of the confusion is using the word 'treehouse.'

"That was a working title, and we felt it was a good one. We didn't want to call it a 'memorial,' since that's a word people associate with statues." But for starters, he says, you shouldn't be envisioning "a treehouse in the tradition of something several feet off the ground." (Any proposal would have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, after all.)

The RFP for the proposal does assert that "the primary vision ... is that of a tree house, which both chilldren wished for before their deaths." And designers were encouraged "to creatively interpret the notion of a tree house." But there are months of discussions and planning ahead, and there's no guarantee about what a final design might look like -- or where it might end up. 

The Conservancy is engaged in a broader attempt to add facilities throughout the park, an effort to replace the Frick Environmental Center that burned down several years back. It's possible, in other words, that the treehouse-that-isn't-a-treehouse could go in another location. A June 7 meeting on the proposal will begin to gather feeback, but that will be just the start of a series of discussions. It's very much up for grabs.

And that's what makes this all so "unfortunate," Sexauer says. ""People are passionate on both sides, but it's premature for anybody to pass judgment. The wonderful thing about the blogosphere is that it's a great way for people to share their thoughts. But we're seeing this week what can happen when there's not much information out there."

Indeed, there are some unedifying comments attached to my earlier post about this subject, in which Ms. Ambrusko is accused of "arrogance." And the rhetoric on the other side hasn't always been ennobling either. Witness, for example, Twittered accusations that Doug Shields suffers from a "hatred of dead children." [Editor's note: The author of that Tweet says he was being sarcastic. So it's a bad example. Use this one instead: "I am still murderously furious at these horrible, insensitive excuses for people who had a problem with a mom honoring her children."]

There's no shortage of confusion and dissent in Regent Square either.  Today's P-G story, for example, certainly delivers on expectations that neighbors would have head-scratching reasons for opposing the park. Resident Barbara Hicks confirmed that while parking was a major concern, she was also worried "the playground might become a haven for drug users, noting that the site has drawn such activity in the past." The paper quotes her asking "If you have a treehouse, what better place to hide the drugs."

I can think of a LOT of better places to hide drugs ... though of course I work at an alt-weekly, so maybe I have an advantage here. 

In any case, I've already heard from other active members of the Regent Square community who say they are baffled by this claim.  They aren't aware of any criminal activity in the area to speak of.

But some of them also tell me that the online rhetoric from project supporters has been disheartening too. They fear the June 7 meeting -- which was planned as an attempt to gather feedback and explain the (limited) progress made so far -- will end up being a "shouting match." 

Seems like everybody involved deserves better than that. 


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Those who argue over treehouses should not throw stones (UPDATED)

Posted By on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 6:12 PM

Or something.

Treehousegate has now gone to the NEXT LEVEL. 

Not long ago, Doug Shields' office released the following statement, blaming the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy for doing a bad job of speaking with the community.

The Conservancy did not fulfill its obligation to communicate with all parties when it partnered with Amy Ambrusko to create a memorial for Kate and Peter. This grieving Mom deserved better.

I am disappointed that the Conservancy was irresponsible when it led the community to believe that an appropriate memorial is ready to go when it is, in fact, only a concept at this time.

There will be ample time for all parties to share their opinions, and I encourage everyone to attend the June 7th community meeting. When citizens, government and non-profits work together, good things can happen. And I know that a grieving Mom will have a lasting tribute to her children.

The statement also included the text of a Conservancy blog post I referenced last night, viewable here.

Nobody asked my advice, but I'm not sure this was such a good idea.

UPDATE: I will say, though, that I wouldn't blame anyone in Regent Square for being confused at this point.

Compare, for example, the way Virginia Montanez describes the historic background:

Amy and the Parks Conservancy decided on a unique treehouse type of play area for children to play in at Frick Park ...

So, with money coming into the conservancy, proposed designs being drawn up, and a perfect spot in Frick Park identified, it appeared everything was moving along just swimmingly.

to yesterday's statement from the Parks Conservancy:

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy would like to address public opinion about an outdoor learning space concept proposed for Frick Park.  The concept is part of a larger effort to construct a new Environmental Center in Frick Park with supporting outdoor learning spaces throughout the park.

The concept is part of a larger effort to construct a new Environmental Center in Frick Park with supporting outdoor learning spaces throughout the park.

Although none of these spaces has even a preliminary design, the idea is that they would be subtle, blend into the environment, and provide places to learn about nature in a playful setting.

The bolding in both those quotes was mine. Because on the one hand, it sounds like the design of this project is well underway. On the other, the conservancy is making it sound like it's barely begun. 

I've got a call into the conservancy, in hopes of clearing this up. In the meantime, I will say that based on what I've heard, this Treehouse is further along than the Conservancy's note makes it sound. 

MORE UPDATE: The Post-Gazette has a story out on this today that clarifies the picture. Shields -- who is now acknowledging that his staffer said something "inappropriate," contra to earlier claims made to me -- says that residents had the impression that this proposal was a "done deal." The Conservancy, though, says that they are only weighing preliminary designs and so on.

"I'm not sure why there was a perception that there was a memorial ready to go," a spokesman told the paper. "That certainly was not the case. The truth is that we're so early in the process that there was very little to share."

Government reform a pipe dream, ALCOSAN appointment shows

Posted By on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 10:19 AM

I'm a little late with the news that the mayor has appointed his brother, state Rep.-elect Adam Ravenstahl, to the Alcosan board. And others have already hashed out the question of whether such an appointment violates a city ethics rule barring the appointment of relatives. I'd just like to point out that this is the latest example of a long-standing, and largely unchallenged, practice by Ravenstahl: taking advantage of board members serving expired terms. 

Whether Brother Ravenstahl should be appointed to fill the Alcosan vacancy is one question. But another is why the vacancy existed in the first place. It existed because the guy Ravenstahl replaced, Dan Keller, has been serving on an expired term since last December.

As we've written repeatedly, the members of city boards and commissions are allowed to continue serving on boards even after their terms expire ... until the mayor either moves to renominate them, or to replace them with someone else.

So this is legal. But serving on an expired term is like living on borrowed time: You can be replaced at any moment. And that makes a mockery of the whole reason for HAVING appointees in the first place.

Appointees get fixed terms, after all, to reduce their susceptibility to political pressure. It's supposed to give them some breathing room for making tough decisions. It's also supposed to insulate them a bit from the rapid ups-and-downs of the political process. Obviously, that didn't happen here: Keller was running against Adam Ravenstahl in the state Rep. race, and was tossed out from his position practically the moment the ballots were counted. 

It occurred to me yesterday that there would be an easy way to stop this. The city could change the code with language that said something like this:

When an appointee's term expires, the mayor will have 30 days to either renominate or replace  the appointee. If the 30 days elapses with no action on the part of the mayor, the appointee shall be given another full term.

Optionally, the code could be changed in the opposite direction: If 30 days elapses, the appointee shall be automatically removed from the board. That would force the mayor to actually take an affirmative step of choosing a replacement, rather than this passive-aggressive approach of bringing existing board members under his thumb. 

I suggested this idea to City Councilor Bill Peduto, who has proposed a few reforms in his day. Peduto thought it was a good, workable idea -- and that it would make absolutely no difference at all. 

"If you have somebody who doesn't follow the rules," he said, "will adding more rules change anything?

"We could create that rule, but what happens when they disregard that one too?" he asked. "Or they come up with some half-ass legal interpretation. Then you have a debate about that instead, and you get off the subject."

He points to the Alcosan appointment as an example: While the ethics language seems clear, the city solicitor is arguing that it doesn't apply, in part because legally speaking, Alcosan is a standalone entity. 

"So now I have to argue that the mayor has jurisdiction over Alcosan, because he has the ability to appoint members and withdraw them," Peduto says. And passing my proposed change might look good on paper, but would do nothing to prevent a similarly bogged-down argument in the future.  "How much time should we waste trying to be baby sitters?"

So what is the solution? It lies with the voters, Peduto says. 

"People get the government they elect, and this is what they wanted."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In treehouse dispute, blogger's bite matches her bark

Posted By on Wed, May 26, 2010 at 11:04 PM

Pretty wild scene taking place over at That's Church concerning a proposed treehouse memorial for Amy Ambrusko's two children, who died in a tragic car accident. The memorial was to be installed in Frick Park, and as Montanez tells the tale:

Amy thought it fitting to raise the funds to put a playground of some sort in Frick Park for them.  Those plans grew and shifted and changed until Amy and the Parks Conservancy decided on a unique treehouse type of play area for children to play in at Frick Park.

She began silently raising funds to pay for the proposed treehouse, and secured donations from 700 people and groups all around the world … including me.

So, with money coming into the conservancy, proposed designs being drawn up, and a perfect spot in Frick Park identified, it appeared everything was moving along just swimmingly.

Until Amy sent me an email a week or so ago, to put me on notice that she was hearing rumblings that some residents in the Frick Park area planned to oppose the treehouse. She and I couldn’t fathom why.

It's worth noting here that, by the Conservancy's own admission today, "no formal presentation has been made either to the community, or to the city, or to Councilman [Doug] Shields," who represents the district. Montanez, as a contributor to a silent fundraising campaign, may have known more about the proposal than some of the Regent Square residents living a few doors down from it. And as we'll see, neighbors had some reason to be on edge anyway. 

More from Montanez:

A representative with the Parks Conservancy met with [some neighbors] to hear their concerns and told Amy ... that their minds are made up. That one person went so far as to say something along the lines of, “Why does this woman think that just because her kids died and she raised all this money, she’s entitled to put a playground in our neighborhood?”

A public meeting on the park was scheduled, but then, Montanez reports, a staffer in Shields' office reportedly urged Ambrusko to drop the matter, and said, "Do you really want your kids' names to be part of this controversy?"

That, to Montanez, "went beyond the pale" by playing the "You'll tarnish the Names of Your Dead Kids card." 

There was only one thing for it: Montanez called out her supporters to contact Shields' office and tell him "[t]hat you object to their methods. That you object to their callousness."

And lo! So it came to pass. Shields tells me he got more than 100 e-mails, many of which were in the "Doug is a jagoff, and how can he be so horrible" mode. (One correspondent informed him that "You are going to rue the effin' day" he refused to support the treehouse; another called him an "ogre.") City hall observers say Shields was "flipping out" as the missives came in.

Needless to say, this did not endear Shields to Ms. Montanez, or her legion of adherents. Montanez "published this without ever consulting me," he says -- and after doing so, she Tweeted the request that reporters "not ask me for comment ... I am merely the bullhorn."

Montanez has a standing policy of not talking to reporters on the record, even in innocuous situations. (For example, she declined to give an interview to City Paper for last year's "Best of" issue.) But as far as Shields is concerned, what the policy amounts to is, "She just lights this fire, and then runs away."

I quoted the claim that Shields' office had played the "You'll Tarnish the Names of Your Dead Kids" card. Shields said, "That's not what Judy [Feldman, his chief of staff] is telling me, and it's not what I'm saying now."

As a city councilor, Shields says, it's not his job to support or oppose a project right out of the gate. His job is "to get in the middle of these situations, and act as a mediator" between different sides. "That's never happened here" -- in part because the Conservancy hadn't kept him up to speed on developments, or put a formal proposal on the table.

But why would a community oppose a treehouse in the first place? Shields says the  proposal came along amidst protracted discussions about the expansion of an environmental charter school nearby.

"Regent Square is an active community, and there was a great deal of concern about the school's expansion," he said. And there was, it seems, a considerable amount of confusion about the treehouse proposal -- whether it be part of the school's expanded "footprint," whether it would be a simple bench or plaque, or something else. 

The treehouse is proposed to go in "Turtle Park," which adjoins the school. Residents are concerned about building "an attraction" there, Shields says, in part because of a dearth of parking nearby.

The formal presentation of the thing is still scheduled for June 7. It's scheduled for 6 p.m. at the Wilkins School community center (7604 Charleston Avenue). And now, of course, Montanez's het-up blog readers are pledging to attend. Perhaps they will share sentiments like the comments-thread claim that opposing the treehouse "boils down to race and class and geographical dividers." Then the healing can really begin!

Is it possible Doug Shields, daunted by Montanez's minions, is now engaged in a defensive crouch? Sure. Is it possible that race and class play a role in community fears about who will use the park? Maybe: They play a role in just about everything else, after all. Finally, is Regent Square engaged in a classic "not in my backyard" response? Well, as Shields himself acknowledges, there is concern about attracting more visitors than the area wants to handle.

But I gotta say -- if you're gonna blame Regent Square for being insular and tribal ... there seems to be a bit of that going around today.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Pirates critics switch to BRICKbats

Posted By on Tue, May 25, 2010 at 1:12 PM

I haven't been to a Pirates game in awhile -- I stopped going after a dispute over an order of nachos. But if the team is generating as much heat inside the park as it is outside, I may start going again. 

We start with the bleacher bums at the conservative Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, who we find crowing over the Pirates' poor attendance this morning:

As we have reported ... since 2007, Pittsburgh Pirates' attendance languishes among the lowest in the league. Since 2007, attendance has ranked 28th out of 30 teams. So far this season, attendance is still holding two spots above the worst level. Unless fireworks and special promotions over this summer boost attendance sharply from the current pace of 17,170 per game, the 2010 season will see only 1.4 million fans push through the turnstiles.

Of course, it's early in the season, and school is still in session. The Institute more or less acknolwedges that 1.6 million fans is a more likely number. Nevertheless ...

One of the arguments used by those who pushed so hard to get a new ball park was that Three Rivers Stadium was not a good baseball venue and a new park was needed to boost team attendance and revenue. [But]  during the last four years of play at Three Rivers Stadium, 1997 through 2000, attendance averaged 1.6 million. So it is safe to say that after ten years, PNC Park has not proved to be the answer to Pirates poor attendance.

But the Allegheny Institute aren't the only folks nursing old grievances. The Nutting family, which owns the Pirates, is apparently STILL sore over a short-lived possibility that Penguins owner Mario Lemieux might offer to buy the club from them. 

Exhibit A: this column by Paul Ladewski about the Penguins' playoff loss -- a piece that has been a staple of sports-talk fodder after it appeared on the Nutting-owned Pirates Report Web site. (It was later removed from the site, which is why this link takes you to a Google-cached location.) Even by the standards of a Pirates fan, it's a stunning display of cognitive dissonance:

Now that the Penguins have gone belly-up in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years in the Sidney Crosby era, maybe we'll hear less about how their ownership will turn around the Pirates in no time if given the chance.

... [D]id you know that, while the Pirates have gone 17 years without a sniff of .500, the Penguins have hoisted exactly one Stanley Cup in that period?

So if I'm reading this correctly, the defense for the Pirates' current ownership is this: Hey, at least the Pirates have never gone to the playoffs four times in the past four years! So there! Yeah!

Local sports writer John Perroto called Ladewski's piece "the least-credible bit of sports journalism in recent Pittsburgh professional sports history." But of course Perroto has grievances of his own with the Nuttings -- as his piece makes clear, they canned him not very long ago.

As Perroto notes, the column came out one day after a big Post-Gazette story on Lemieux's co-owner, Ron Burkle -- a story that reminds us of Burkle's interest in the Pirates.

Who's right? Who's wrong? I don't know. But I wish the Pirates played with the same passion as the people arguing over them.

Monday, May 24, 2010

State AG protects us from Twitter ... can he protect his own lead in the polls?

Posted By on Mon, May 24, 2010 at 10:49 PM

Last week brought a slightly worrisome omen for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dan Onorato. An early Rasmussen poll shows Republican Tom Corbett up by 13 points.

Should this worry you? Answer: No. 

Yeah, Corbett is up 49-36. And Rasmussen notes -- with impressive mathematical rigor -- that this puts Corbett "near the critical 50 percent mark." But this is, like 6 months before the election. And I can't help but feel like I've heard this sort of prediction before ... 

In fact, wait ... yes I have. Six months before the May primary, Rasmussen had another poll out, with remarkably similar findings. In that December 2009 survey, the odds-on favorite led a Democratic challenger by an almost identical margin of 48-35.

Except in that race, the favorite was Arlen Specter, and the Democratic challenger was Joe Sestak. We know how THAT turned out. 

Yeah, Onorato's got a tough climb, for all the reasons you've heard about. On the other hand, as noted here previously, being a prosecutor can bite you in the ass if people think you're motivated by partisan self-interest.

Oh, and by the way... you knew Corbett dropped his Twitter subpoeana, right? Turns out the guy he was supposedly after, Brett Cott, got 5 years in prison even without Corbett having to prove Cott had been denouncing prosecutors online.

Gotta say though, that sentence seems extreme. As PoliticsPA notes, former Philly state Senator Vince Fumo got 55 months for Bonusgate-related offenses. Fumo was one of the most powerful figures in Harrisburg -- surely he did more to make Harrisburg what it is than Cott, a legislative aide no one has ever heard of. Then again, no one ever accused Fumo of using Twitter, so I guess he deserves a break.

A final note. Worth a look is this Tribune-Review story last week about UPMC board members receiving big-dollar contracts from the health-care behemoth. It isn't exactly breaking news -- in fact, the very same writer did a very similar piece more than a year ago. But in these days of sanctimonious hand-wringing about political patronage, it's nice to be reminded that the big shots in the private sector do the same thing.

In fact, I guess it's worth noting that there's an unacknowledged conflict of interest in the Trib's story about conflicts of interest. Note this passage:

According to the returns, the Downtown law firm of Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick and Raspanti earned $348,616 in legal fees. William Pietragallo is a UPMC board member. The law firm paid $792,215 to UPMC for heath insurance.

Pietragallo said he filled out a conflict-of-interest form, as he has in past years.

"It reminds me of how much I pay for health insurance," he said.

UPMC isn't Pietragallo's only client, of course. Another of his clients -- as we here at City Paper know only too well -- is one Ritchie Scaife. That's right: The same Ritchie Scaife who is in a protracted divorce dispute with the Tribune-Review's publisher. That's the problem with these conflict-of-interest stories -- and I speak as somebody who's done a few. It's not that there are so few of these connections. It's that in a town like Pittsburgh, there are so many. 

For neurotics only: why you shouldn't feel buyer's remorse about Sestak

Posted By on Mon, May 24, 2010 at 7:46 PM

For a guy who called Joe Sestak's campaign viable back in the lonely days of winter, I started second-guessing even as everyone else was warming to the guy. 

That's what they call being a contrarian. Or just plain neurotic. But whatever you call it, I'm not alone. I know more than a few people who began feeling "buyer's remorse" after Sestak beat Arlen Specter in last week's primary. A few of them sound, somewhat belatedly, like Arlen Specter's backers sounded a few weeks ago, worrying about whether Sestak can win in November.

It's to those second-guessers -- the people just like me -- that this post is addressed. 

Let's admit the obvious. If you're worrying that Joe Sestak is going to have a hard time beating the GOP's Pat Toomey this November, Sestak's appearance on Meet the Press yesterday won't assuage your doubt's. Sestak's answers to questions -- especially concerning whether the Obama administration offered him a job to drop out of the race -- sometimes sounded evasive. (Although judging from coverage elsewhere, it doesn't sound like Sestak dreamed up the job offer on his own.) 

Too, at least some evidence suggets that part of Sestak's support was coming from an "anyone-but Arlen" constituency. Note, for example, that Sestak has polled well among voters who thought health-care reform was a bad idea, even though Sestak voted for the reform too.

It's a good bet that Toomey will try exploiting that little paradox. That's why Gregory's questions about Sestak's support of the Obama agenda sounded a bit ominous to me.

Another worry: Does Sestak really have the ground game he'll need for November?

That sounds like a dumb question considering last week's result. And when I put the query to Sestak supporters on Election Night, city councilor Doug Shields told me, "You've just seen the ground game. We didn't have any help from the party establishment." He pointed out that no matter how the endorsements went this spring, groups like labor will certainly back Sestak in the fall. A victory for Toomey, who has long been affiliated with the anti-labor Club for Growth, would be too awful to consider.

Still, there were fewer than 50 people at Sestak's Pittsburgh HQ on Election Night. I've got a feeling that won't be enough: Rank-and-file Democrats turned out to vote against Arlen Specter, but that doesn't mean they'll be as motivated to vote for Joe Sestak.

So let's acknowledge all those concerns, second-guessers. And let's be glad Sestak won anyway. Because no matter what happens in November,his candidacy was a good thing.

First and most obviously, the threat of a Democratic challenger kept Arlen Specter in line for a year of critical votes, most notably on healthcare. God only knows what he would have done without Sestak waiting in the wings. 

Second, the fact that Sestak was in the race may have brought more Dems to the polls last week. And if GOP spinmeisters can be believed, that turnout have spelled defeat for the GOP in a critical special election to replace John Murtha. Granted, that explanation for the GOP's loss may be an attempt by Republican insiders to cover up their own shortcomings. But to me, it's not too big a stretch to say Sestak inspired folks to turn out -- either to vote for Specter or against him -- once they realized Specter had a viable challenger. 

Of course, if Sestak were to lose in November, having Mark Critz in Congress would be little consolation. (And that assumes Critz will retain his seat in the regular election this fall anyway: That race will be a rematch with Republican Tim Burns.) But here's the thing: I truly don't believe Arlen Specter would have beaten Toomey anyway. 

I've sort of been bemused by all the attention given to Sestak's attack ad on Specter, which is widely being touted as the turning point in the race. Didn't we all know that ad was coming? If Sestak hadn't aired something like it, Pat Toomey would have. And then where would we be in November? We've always known Specter didn't have any support among Republicans. What we learned last week is that Dems were never that gung-ho about him either. Would that have changed if Sestak hadn't challenged him? I doubt it. More likely, the lack of Democratic enthusiasm would have manifested itself in November, when we could least afford it. 

So what's the worst-case scenario of this Sestak win? Sestak loses to Pat Toomey, an ultra-conservative in the Rick Santorum mold. That'd be bad, but there's a good chance Specter would have lost anyway. Along the way to November, meanwhile, Sestak's presence in the race ensured a reliable vote in the Senate for healthcare and other Democratic initiatives. And whenthe primary itself rolled around, Sestak may have helped capture a critical swing seat in a special election. That result gave Dems across the country a bit of badly-needed optimism in a difficult year. It's already paid dividends in the form of an especially idiotic Jack Kelly column which contends that somehow, the win was actually a bad thing for Democrats. (Does anyone think Kelly would have made the reverse argument had the GOP come out on top? Anyone?)

So let's be of a resolute good cheer and move forward -- without taking anything for granted, but also without the self-doubt that so often afflicts those of us on the left. Sestak has already been a winning proposition. And this is just getting started. 

Friday, May 21, 2010

P-G columnist takes on Pat Buchanan

Posted By on Fri, May 21, 2010 at 4:49 PM

Go get 'em, Samantha Bennett!

Courtesy of Media Matters, we learn that Bennett -- who contributes a regular column to the Post-Gazette -- is taking on Pat Buchanan over this column.

In that now-notorious piece, Buchanan expressed concern that if the Senate confirms Elena Kagan's appointment to the Supreme Court, the court will be packed with Jews and Papists:

If Kagan is confirmed, the Court will consist of three Jews and six Catholics (who represent not quite a fourth of the country), but not a single Protestant, though Protestants remain half the nation and our founding faith.

Finally -- somebody willing to speak out about the shameful exclusion of Protestants from public life. It's the last acceptable prejudice, I tell you!

Bennett's own column typically stays out of the partisan fray. But in addition to her P-G gig, Bennett  is president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. And in that capacity, she more or less takes the piss out of the Buchanan, telling Media Matters' Joe Strupp that

"Pat Buchanan used to be kind of the fringe guy. But he has been surpassed in that role. I guess he feels like he has to come up with something more outrageous and potentially offensive to stay in the spotlight and keep his position."

Buchanan, Bennett suggests, is trying to cling to the spotlight in "the theater of outrage. This has been our public discourse. It is who is shouting the loudest." Strupp adds such right-wing blather may be "hurting columnists as a whole," since as Bennett says, "[I]t can put more pressure on the rest of us to be more out there."

Actually, I wish that were more true. If you look at the Post-Gazette roster of columnists, for example, nobody comes anywhere CLOSE to being as bonkers as Jack Kelly, the Burghosphere's bete noir. That's too bad, in my book. But these days, an ultra-left perspective is about as hard to find on a newspaper editorial page as it is on the Supreme Court. 

In fact, THAT may be the last acceptable prejudice.


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