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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Fetterman in Fetters

Posted By on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 8:33 PM

Once again, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman is making headlines -- this time for being charged with trespassing yesterday after refusing to leave UPMC's global headquarters Downtown:

Pittsburgh police today charged Braddock Mayor John Fetterman with trespassing because they say he refused to leave private property during a Downtown protest.

Fetterman, 41, was protesting the closing and razing of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Braddock hospital outside the U.S. Steel Tower.

Fetterman, who was holding a sign but not causing any disruption, was charged after refusing to leave the Steel Building's premises and move to the sidewalk. Which seems fitting: a refusal to budge an inch has been symptomatic in the UPMC Braddock debate. And Fetterman's action, which comes even as Braddock Hospital is being torn down, has caused some to speculate about whether he has been pulling his punches as a favor to a political ally, county executive Dan Onorato.

In the wake of Fetterman's action, Save Our Community Hospital (SOCH), which has campaigned for more than a year to keep UPMC Braddock Hospital open, issued a somewhat perplexed-sounding statement:

The Save Our Community Hospitals organization welcomes the action of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman today at UPMC headquarters. Unfortunately, Mr. Fetterman's concern about the lack of emergency care in Braddock comes too late. The UPMC Braddock Hospital building is being demolished and the 26,000 patients that used its ER will have to travel much further for emergency treatment.

We are not clear why Mr. Fetterman waited until now to undertake civil
disobedience to draw attention to the lack of emergency care in Braddock. It may be that he was restrained due to his support of Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato's candidacy for Pennsylvania governor. In any event, we thank Mr. Fetterman and urge him to continue to pressure UPMC to provide emergency care for Braddock

Suffice it to say that there has been considerable tension between Fetterman and SOCH. As UPMC moved ahead with the shutdown, they have differed over goals and tactics, and political rivalries have factored in as well. So it's no surprise that when I contacted Fetterman last night, he disputed almost every part of SOCH's statement.

For starters, Fetterman says, he is not pressuring UPMC to provide emergency care for Braddock; Fetterman says there's no hope for such a facility, since ERs can't operate independently of hospitals. He is seeking an urgent care facility, much like those UPMC operates in Robinson Township or Shadyside. Urgent care facilities offer extended hours and express treatment for a variety of common medical complaints, ranging from broken bones to the flu. Such a facility, Fetterman says, would address "8 or 9 out of 10 medical problems that come up every day in Braddock. And it will be cost-effective for UPMC."

Fetterman says his appearance at the Steel Building was "not a protest but a plea -- a plea to UPMC that it's not too late to do the right thing."

The hospital giant has offered to ferry Braddock residents to facilities outside Braddock for health care. But Fetterman finds such efforts inadequate -- especially in comparison to the services available in Shadyside, where UPMC's urgent-care facility operates not far from Shadyside Hospital and the Hillman Cancer Center.

"They have an embarrassment of riches over there," he says. "But a kid is just as likely to get an earache in Braddock as he is in Shadyside."

Fetterman says he was "surprised" to have been cited, but says "it wasn't a 'keep your meat hooks off me' kind of thing. I didn't try to chain myself to the wall." Holding a sign urging the creation of an urgent-care facility, he refused to leave the Steel Building's premises because standing on the sidewalk "wasn't effective."

"It's been a bitter, bitter divorce between UPMC and Braddock," he says. 

There's also been an ugly trial separation, at least, between Fetterman and those who have gotten previous headlines for taking on UPMC.

Fetterman has been openly critical, for example, of a civil-rights lawsuit filed by Braddock Council President Jesse Brown, who alleged that closing a hospital in a primarily black community was racially unjust. That suit was settled in September, with Fetterman disparaging the outcome. When Brown first announced his plans at a rally outside the hospital a year ago, I found Fetterman on the periphery of the event, all but rolling his eyes. UPMC chief Jeffrey Romoff, Fetterman said, had told him there was no hope for the hospital's survival. And Fetterman was sure the lawsuit wouldn't change things.

Today, Fetterman still calls the lawsuit "frivolous" and "politically motivated," scoffing that "it's easy to be a bomb-thrower." 

But ... isn't standing outside UPMC's headquarters, and refusing to leave, a bit of Michael Moore-style theatrics as well? And why did he wait until now to take this step? Is it because he didn't want to embarrass Onorato during his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, as SOCH suggests?

There's no question that Fetterman and Onorato are tight. Fetterman backed Onorato's gubernatorial ambitions from the outset, and in fact Fetterman and his father have contributed more than $12,000 to Onorato since 2009. And while SOCH has faulted Onorato for not doing more to keep UPMC Braddock open, Fetterman says, "Their disdain of Dan baffles me. He is a profoundly honorable man" -- and one who has taken key steps to improve life in the Mon Valley. 

Even so, Fetterman says it is "absolutely false" to think he held off on challenging UPMC until after the election. Fetterman's efforts to turn Braddock around have made him a national phenomenon, and he notes "I've held UPMC accountable on [venues like] Huffington Post and CNN," naming just two of the national media outlets where he has appeared. "In every national platform, I'm the first one to name them."

Fetterman says he took this step because "the situation continues to deteriorate," and the civil-rights lawsuit has "dragged this [dispute] out." Settling the suit offered a chance for "the fog of war to lift," opening a "window of opportunity" to discuss Braddock's future.

As for his relationship to SOCH, "I'm not here to get into the middle of polarizing arguments," he says. "What's fueling the SOCH thing is more personal, and I don't want this to digress into 'SOCH says this and you say that.' They love this community as much as I do, and I invite SOCH to move past whathever differences they've had with Dan or anyone else, and join me with constructive dialogue that will bring urgent care" to Braddock. Fetterman says his appearance at UPMC's headquarters could be a chance for everyone to "hit the reset button" on the dialogue.

To that end, he says, "I'm counting on Sean Logan, who I think is a man of integrity." Logan is a former state Senator who left the legislature to take a community relations post at UPMC, a move that also prompted dismay at UPMC's influence. "SOCH has been very hard on Sean Logan," Fetterman adds, "but I couldn't disagree more."

There's nothing new, or strange, about Fetterman playing an inside game here. While others have taken a more directly confrontional stance, it's not a bad thing to have a mayor with warm relations to the region's top elected official. And Fetterman has been publicly critical of UPMC: Just to take one example, he slagged them when we discussed a Levi's ad campaign focused on Braddock.

Still, I can't blame SOCH for being confused by his recent action. Fetterman's refusal to leave the Steel Building has the whiff of old-fashioned grassroots activism ... except for the fact that he did it alone. UPMC Braddock is coming down -- the building "looks like a missile-testing site," Fetterman says -- and it's not clear that UPMC is any more likely to make new concessions now than it was a few months ago. Especially in a community whose leadership is still divided.

But who knows? One thing I've learned is not to underestimate John Fetterman. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Transit cuts usher in "a very, very dark day in Port Authority history"

Posted By on Wed, Nov 24, 2010 at 1:19 PM

After five months of waiting in vain for state lawmakers to come through with a funding plan, the Port Authority board of directors approved today the biggest service reduction in the transit agency's history.

The plan includes a fare increase, 35 percent service reduction, and approximately 500 layoffs. The moves are intended to fill a $47.1 million shortfall to balance its budget.

"Today is a very, very dark day in Port Authority history," Authority executive director Steve Bland told the board before the vote.

The agency expects the cuts to cost 15,000 daily riders. More than 50 neighborhoods will lose service entirely, and about 45 bus and light-rail service routes will be discontinued. "They will disappear," Bland says. "And it's a long walk from a lot of those places to the nearest bus routes."

A fare increase of 25 cents in Zones 1 and 50 cents in Zone 2 will go into effect Jan. 1. The service reductions and layoffs are expected in March.

The plan was first presented in July. A vote was scheduled for September, but the board postponed it in hopes that a funding solution could come through from the state after the mid-term elections. But at this point, transit agency leaders say, little other action can be taken.

"I don't believe it's the right choice. I do, however, believe at this moment, it's the only choice," Bland said.

The prospect for an immediate solution "is very grim," he sad. "I'd be lying if I led anyone to believe that there is a short-term solution."

Board members placed blame for the cuts on state lawmakers. AndbBoard member Joan Ellenbogen argued that more than just local bus routes are at stake.

"While we may be feeling it most right now, more agencies and PennDOT will feel the squeeze," she predicted. "When those … in the middle of the state cry about crumbling roads and bridges, maybe [lawmakers] will listen."

Jack Brooks, chair of the board, agreed, telling CP after the meeting "Our elected officials need to stop pointing the finger at us and look in the mirror. It's not too late to act, but soon it will be."

Though similarly drastic cuts have been threatened in the past, Brooks says, the board "has always got around it because the governor came up with the money. There has to be a source of funding." And this time, "We don't have anything."

Port Authority primarily blames its financial woes on the federal government's rejection of a plan toll Interstate 80. Revenue from the I-80 tolling plan was already included in Act 44 of 2007, the state law establishing funding for transit projects. Tolling I-80, state officials estimated, would have brought $1 billion in transportation funding for roads, bridges and mass transit to Pennsylvania.

The Port Authority's share of the money would have been enough to reduce its budget to about $25 million. Without the hoped-for revenue, though the agency's shortfall is nearly twice that amount.

"Act 44 … has collapsed. It failed," Bland said. "But if anything positive comes out of today, maybe it'll let us redirect our energy to Harrisburg where it belongs."

But in the meantime, Bland says his financially-beleaguered agency is already facing a $20-$30 million shortfall next< year, and could further reduce service in July to balance its budget.

Activists like Jonathan Robison, president of the Allegheny County Transit Council, pleaded for lawmakers to come up with enough money to see the agency through until a more lasting solution can be found. "Bridge funding is a bandage, yes. But a bandage is nice when you're bleeding to death."

Before the meeting, about 50 transit activists staged a rally imploring the state to devise a funding solution. Brittany McBryde, of Point Breeze, held a black poster with a tombstone on it that read "R.I.P: Here lies Pgh Transit."

She, like many of the activists, has already taken Bland's advice by directing her outrage at Harrisburg. After all, she said, "Port Authority stands to lose just like we do."

Patrick McMahon, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, contended that "the answer lies in elected officials. They have failed us."

Friday, November 19, 2010

ICYMI: "60 Minutes" takes on shale drilling

Posted By on Fri, Nov 19, 2010 at 8:38 AM

If you were pre-gaming it for the Steelers/Patriots match-up last Sunday night, you probably missed it, but 60 Minutes took a look at the controversy surrounding "fracking." Those following the Marcellus Shale debate might want to check it out -- it beats watching game highlights, at least.

The first portion of the report plays up the job-creating potential of the deposits. Reporter Lesley Stahl does her patented mugging, expressing surprise at the size of royalty checks paid to Louisiana residents with drilling operations on their property, and she lauds the "gold mist" paint job on their new Caddies. 

But that upbeat material is followed up with warnings about the "thousands of accidents and safety violations" racked up at drilling sites around the country. Stahl notes, for example, an incident in Louisiana in which 17 cows died a "gruesome death" after drinking frackwater, which is composed of water and various additives that are shot underground to break up stone and release gas.

And when we meet Aubrey McClendon, the somewhat patronizing CEO of Chesapeake Energy, he makes an interesting statement (the key give-and-take with Stahl begins around the 9:20 mark). Asked about the hazardous chemicals in frackwater, he at first offers this bit of industry boilerplate: "You don't drink Drano for a reason, but you have Drano in your house." But then he adds, "You don't want to drink frack fluid. If you take away nothing from this interview --"

So frackwater is dangerous, then? 'Cause our local industry front group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, is fond of saying that it's mostly just "water and playground sand." (The Coalition allows that the fluid does contain "A lot of things that you probably shouldn’t drink" -- probably? -- but to my ear, the shale-drilling CEO sounds more circumspect than the group advancing his cause.)

But then follows this exchange, in which Stahl and McClendon talk past each other.

"Isn't there a possibility that you go down, and something seeps ... into the aquifer?" she queries.

"There is almost two miles of rock between where we are active and where freshwater is drawn from," McClendon parries. 

Well, OK. But by this point, we've gotten the sense that the most immediate danger is not what's going on two miles below us, but what's happening right on the surface. We've seen footage of leaky pipes, vapors coming off storage tanks, and dead cattle. And McClendon has already acknolwedged that, hey, accidents happen.

What's more, like everyone else who's ever done a story about shale drilling, the 60 Minutes crew traveled to Dimock, PA, to be amazed at footage of people lighting their tapwater on fire. In interviews, residents blame new Marcellus drilling for the problem.

I've seen enough of this particular visual to have become a little weary -- and a little wary -- of it. The whole lighting-up-the-tapwater thing makes great TV, but it may not be quite as daming as some make out. As The New York Times recently pointed out, some Dimock residents have objected to seeing their community treated as the poster-child for the perils of shale drilling: 

[A] group of Dimock Township residents gathered on a recent evening to ... issue a defense of gas companies like Cabot [whose wells have been accused of despoiling local well water]. They planned, they said, to formally charter an organization called Enough Already.

Among the residents was Martha Locey, 78, who has lived on her family's farm since 1932. "My father dug our well in 1945, and we knew it had lots of iron in it, and we thought it had something else ... because it had lots of bubbles in it," Ms. Locey said. "So my nephew took it to school in the '60s, and the science teacher lit it, and it burned, so he said, 'It’s methane.'"

"The truth is, our well has been that way since 1945," added Ms. Locey, who has signed an affidavit in support of the gas company’s legal case. "I don't think Cabot was here back then."

The whole tapwater-lighting business has been at the heart of the shale-drilling controversy ever since being featured in Josh Fox's documentary Gasland. Industry supporters note that in the cases Fox cites, the methane is coming not from the shale being drilled, but shallower gas pockets that lie above it.

On the other hand, Fox's respose to industry criticism counters (on page 8) that even if the methane in question didn't come directly from the shale deposits being drilled, the act of drilling can disturb those shallower gas deposits, causing the gas to migrate into previously untainted water supplies. Marcellus Shale drilling, in other words, can result in methane in your water ... even if it doesn't come from the Marcellus Shale itself.

But maybe all this begs the issue. After all, if you're a homeowner who suddenly has methane in your water, you probably aren't terribly concerned about which layer of rock, precisely, it came from.

And it got me to thinking: Maybe the debate about shale drilling has focused too much on the things about the process that are new -- high-tech processes like "fracking" and "horizontal drilling" -- and not enough about the dangers that are old. Like human incompetence, corner-cutting, and laziness. 

There's quite a bit of people talking past each other in the 60 Minutes piece. But then there's quite a bit of that in the broader debate as well. Guys like McClendon seem to focus on what they are doing miles underground, presumably because the dangers there seem so remote, and that's where all the gee-whiz technology is happening. And interestingly, many of those who criticize drilling also focus on what's going on down there, in part because that's where all the gee-whiz technology is happening. 

But when you take away the high-tech bells and whistles, what you have is a business seeking to construct thousands, of tiny industrial sites all over the state. Every one of those represents a potential problem -- a place for a random accident or shoddy contracting job. And so each represents a potential drain on local emergency-responders who have to respond in the event of an explosion or leak. And we just elected a governor who opposes taxing the industry, even if the tax revenue would help local communities prepare for those disasters.

Despite the industry spin -- "probably"??? -- there's really little debate that this is serious stuff. The danger might not be glamorous -- leaky pipes, hungover truck drivers -- but it's real. And once we wrap our heads around what makes Marcellus Shale drilling a new industry, we probably ought to start thinking more about what it has in common with all the old ones. 

In other words, this might be the rare case in which we need more news stories that simply skim the surface.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

About that college turnout ...

Posted By on Thu, Nov 4, 2010 at 1:56 PM

One of the reasons Democrats got pummeled this week is that their GOTV efforts -- which relied heavily on reaching out to voters excited by Barack Obama -- simply didn't pan out.

It wasn't for lack of trying, either. Take college voters. PennPIRG, a public-interest group that engaged in voter-outreach efforts on campuses nationwide, went to considerable lengths to get students excited. As a press release this week asserted:

Over the past several weeks, student leaders at University of Pittsburgh organized dorm storms, mass Facebook "status updates," intensive phone-banks and even text message blasts to urge their peers to the polls. Expert analysis finds that such efforts, in which one young person urges another to the polls, are the most effective at boosting turnout.

In the weeks leading up to the election, student leaders with PennPIRG’s New Voters Project made more than 4500 get out the vote contacts with young voters on campus, a major reason for a strong showing at the polls from area students.

Last Thursday, for example, PennPIRG leaders asked students on their way to class to sign a "Why I'm Voting Banner," and "Pledge to Vote" cards. At their urging, dozens of students sent hundreds of text message reminders to vote to their friends.

What were the results? PennPIRG judged its effort by comparing voter turnout in three student-heavy precincts -- districts 7, 8, and 14 of Ward 4. That's a larger sample than I looked at on Election Night, but those are good bellwethers for student voting. And what do they show? The number of ballots cast increased from 1,498 in 2006 to 1,607 this year.

Now on the one hand, that's a 7 percent increase ... which isn't bad considering that voter turnout for Allegheny County as a whole shrunk by nearly 8 percent in the same time frame. On the other hand ... we're talking about 109 votes here. To put that in perspective, the increase in student turnout was swamped by the number of write-in votes (179) cast in the 14th Congressional District race -- a race that already had not one but two protest candidates.

But don't pin their failure on lazy Pitt students, or ineffective work by the groups working with them. Diminsihed interest among young voters was endemic to election battles all across the country:

In 2008, 18-to-29-year-olds made up 18% and those 65-plus made up 16%. Young people actually outvoted old people. This year, the young cohort was down to 11%, and the seniors were up to a whopping 23% of the electorate. That's a 24-point flip.

In fact, students in Oakland actually did a decent job of turning out, by some measurements. While saying turnout was "in the typical range for a midterm election," the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found that outside the Pitt campus, turnout was generally lower than in 2006

An estimated 20.4 percent of young Americans under the age of 30 voted in Tuesday’s midterm elections, compared to 23.5 percent in the last midterm election (2006) ...  Almost nine million Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 voted. Almost 10 million people in the same age group voted in 2006.

So when you measure against 2006, turnout among local students looks pretty good. But again ... the whole point of Democratic efforts was to build on the support from 2008. And using that scorecard, the GOTV effort seems to have fallen well short. In 2008, nearly 4,600 votes were cast in the three precincts PennPIRG tracked. Turnout this year was only 35 percent of that.

I'm on record as having doubts about the merits of that strategy. I suspect Democrats frittered away much of that early support -- and that new-found base -- by equivocal positions on issues like Don't Ask/Don't Tell. A pro-LGBT-rights position resonates well with younger voters, who typically skew more socially tolerant. And it may not be a coincidence that Joe Sestak -- who took a principled position on DADT, and who was one of the most liberal Democratic candidates on the ballot anywhere in the United States -- came as close as he did Tuesday night. 

But before we blame Democrats for depressing turnout, there is at least some anecdotal evidence that more nefarious forces may have been at work as well.   

The Pitt News has reported complaints that as many as 100 students were turned away at the polls. That may partly be a result of confusion on the students' part, or a failure to hand out provisional ballots in some cases, but there's also this worrying disclosure:

[Pitt first-year student Heidi] Patel told elections workers that she received a knock on her door in her campus dormitory sometime between the last week of September and the first week of October. Two people asked her if she was registered to vote. Patel said she told them she was not and filled out a voter registration card and gave it back to them.

"I was really excited to vote," Patel said, "I just turned 18."

Patel said she never received a voter registration card.

[Election judge Blithe] Runsdorf said people repeated stories like Patel’s all day.

Could Pitt students have been the victim of some sort of voter-registration scam? It's possible. You may recall that in 2004, there was a spate of complaints that local college students had their party affiliation -- and their address -- changed without their knowledge. Then again, maybe some students just got confused, or were making excuses. 

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Elections a gas for Marcellus drillers

Posted By on Wed, Nov 3, 2010 at 10:45 AM

Among the big winners in Pennsylvania last night: the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry.

Obviously, the most significant win for the industry is Tom Corbett's victory in the gubernatorial race. Corbett has, after all, pledged not to levy a severance tax on gas taken from beneath the state ... even though Pennsylvania would be the only major gas-drilling state without one, and even though the industry itself seems willing to accept one. With more than $835,000 from the industry, Corbett was also the #1 recipient of gas-drilling donations, blowing away Democrat Dan Onorato's comparatively meager $112,800.

But a look at Marcellus Money -- a website that tracks donations from gas-drillers to state politicians -- shows the industry did well down-ticket too.

In the state Senate, the industry backed winners 100 percent of the time. Out of the 15 candidates whose seats were up for grabs -- and who receieved at least $1,000 from the Marcellus industry -- all won reelection.

In the state House, the industry's record was a slightly more mixed bag. All House seats were up for grabs this year, and of the 50 candidates who receieved at least $1,000 from the industry, I count three that appear to have lost: Philadelphia Republican John Perzel, who of course was caught up in an ethics scandal; Democrat John Pallone; and one of the night's big surprises -- Democrat Todd Eachus, the House majority leader.

Another race involving a recipient of Marcellus money, David Levdansky, is too close to call, though he appears to be trailling. Even that wouldn't really be a setback for the industry, though: Levdansky has pushed  for an aggressive tax on shale gas.

Of course, there's no secret to the industry's success. It bet heavily on incumbents, and while some races were competitive -- like Democrat Tim Solobay's succcesful bid for an open seat in the 46th Senate district -- many of its choices were facing no opposition at all. (And not everyone who took a few bucks from the industry is in its back pocket: Consider Levdansky, or state Senator Jim Ferlo, whose $1,050 in contributions from the industry hasn't exactly muted his criticism of it.)

I still think it's possible that we'll see some form of tax, despite Corbett's pledges. The state is facing billion-dollar deficits, and I'm not sure where else the money is coming from. But if a tax does happen, it's clearly going to be on terms of the industry's choosing: You could probably expect lower tax rates in the early years of a well's operation -- when most of the gas will be taken out -- and a "forced pooling" provision as well. 

But the bottom line remains: It's not just Democrats who should feel the ground moving beneath their feet this morning.

You'll have a chance to make some noise about it, though: This afternoon, environmental activists will be holding a gas-drilling protest outside an industry convention at the David Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.

Picking over the wreckage

Posted By on Wed, Nov 3, 2010 at 2:41 AM

Well, there's no point putting this off. Let's take a first quick -- and somewhat fatigued -- look at what went wrong in tonight's Senate race, where Joe Sestak lost to Pat Toomey.

It's pretty clear that the Democrats overhyped earlier claims of massive turnout. Just to take one example, earlier today I passed along claims that there was a surge in voting among college students at the University of Pittsburgh. It is true that additional voting machines were ordered late in the day for the Pitt campus. But in the final analysis, turnout at Posvar Hall  -- which handles students in Litchfield Towers -- was slightly below totals in 2006. 

Four years ago, when Bob Casey beat Rick Santorum, nearly 750 votes were cast in Ward 4, District 8. Yesterday, only 726 votes were cast. This election's numbers are unofficial, of course, but the point remains: Turnout among young voters, who Democrats hoped would follow up on their support for Obama, was flat.

And students didn't just fail to make an impact in Oakland. A week ago, the irreplaceable Chris Briem noted a spike in new voter registration in Centre County, which includes State College. That too lead some to hope there might be a spike in voter participation among students. 

If so, it didn't help Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak. In unofficial results, Sestak got 21,602 votes from Centre County. In 2006, meanwhile, Casey got nearly 24,600

That was the pattern for Sestak all across the state. I can't find one county where he improved on Casey's performance. Which seems like such an obvious factor that I wouldn't even mention it ... except for the fact that I spent most of my evening at the Sestak gathering over on the North Side. And as the evening wore on, there was some grumbling about Philadelphia letting us down. After all, the conventional wisdom was that this election was goign to be "all about Philadelphia."

But actually, Philly is one of the few counties where the Democrats' Senate candidate didn't lose much ground between 2006 and 2010. Sestak earned 84 percent of the vote there -- the same portion that Casey got four years ago. True, he netted 7,000 fewer votes in Philly. But compare that to Allegheny County, where Sestak came up nearly 70,000 votes short of Casey's 2006 total. Had Sestak just repeated Casey's 2006 performance in Allegheny County, that would almost have been enough to tie the entire election up.

So while it's tempting to blame Philadelphia for all our problems -- starting with Ed Rendell -- it was Democratic shortcomings everywhere else that really hurt  Sestak. In the weeks leading up to the election, Democrats told me that some of my more cyncial blog posts underestimated Democratic "get out the vote" efforts. And they tried to tout those efforts right up through this evening. But at this point, I see little evidence that they had anything to boast about.

(ADDED: Minutes after posting this, it occurred to me it was unfair. Considering everything the Democrats were up against this year, and considering the much larger margin of defeat in the governor's race, it was a hell of an accomplishment just keeping Sestak so close.)

Of course, it's possible I'm missing something really obvious: I'm pretty fried. And I don't mean to slight the efforts of all those folks who worked so hard to turn out voters. Earlier on Election Day, Toomey told Politico that he planned to make his victory speech at 10 p.m. -- had it not been for Democratic field workers, he would have gotten that wish.

In any case, there are plenty of other people to blame for this year's election debacle. Including me, I think. And come to that, more needs to be said about that Post-Gazette endorsement of Tom Corbett. But for now, we'd probably all be better off if I got some sleep.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Could students actually be voting in a non-presidential election?

Posted By on Tue, Nov 2, 2010 at 7:14 PM

We're getting at least some anecdotal evidence that -- whatever happens with this year's election -- college students may actually be voting in it.

While younger voters tend to be more liberal, they're also fickle -- with rates of voter participation that often lag older voters. But state Democrats recently sent out a release noting that "there is a 45-minute wait to vote on the Pitt campus, prompting the opening of a second polling location on campus."

As proof, they're circulating a photo which shows students waiting in the ground-floor lobby of Posvar Hall. Posvar contains the polling place for voters in Ward 4, District 8, which includes Pitt's Litchfield Tower dormitory.

I'm told by a Pitt employee who works in the building that Posvar's ground floor has been more crowded than usual today. And a short time ago Izzy Goodman, an organizer with progressive organization PennPIRG who has been active in trying to engage Oakland students, told me more that more than 450 votes had been cast at Posvar. That's with three hours to go in today's voting.

Dems need those students to turn out. In the 2006 general election, 750 votes were cast in District 8 by day's end, and Democrat Bob Casey beat Rick Santorum in that precinct by a margin of 4 to 1. Indeed, the Democratic release notes that "[y]ounger voters trend heavily Democrati," and linked the news to encouraging "reports of high turnout in Philadelphia" -- another Democratic bastion. 

So this is good news, though obviously there's a long road ahead. I remember in 2004, early news was that Dems were doing a good job turning out their voters -- and I can even recall Pitt Democrats standing along Fifth Avenue, waving to drivers. We know what happened back then, of course: We learned that Republicans can turn out their base as well. 


To Noam is to Love Him: Chomsky on the election

Posted By on Tue, Nov 2, 2010 at 4:37 PM

Lots of e-mails coming in from state Democrats boasting of high turnout and grassroots fervor on Election Day. It's premature to say whether their collection of anecodtes means anything, which is why I'm not going to quote it at any length. (And of course, there's high-for-an-off-year-election turnout in Republican strongholds like Cranberry too.) But clearly the goal is to make sure that claims of an "enthusiasm gap" don't become self-fulfilling.

And they shouldn't be. The polls won't close for hours, so it's way too soon to assess turnout. But enough people have shown up at the polls that you have no excuse. 

As we prepare for a long night of awaiting poll results, however, I thought I'd offer a bit of reading material for your delectation. Last night, famed linguist and progressive Noam Chomsky came to Pittsburgh to be honored by the Thomas Merton Center (whose annual dinner also had a heavy turnout).

Chomsky met with reporters before the event, and was asked what he made of this year's election climate. I'll reprint his answer below, because if things go badly for the Dems, there's gonna be a game of "whack-the-progressive." (In fact, it's already started.) One thing Democrats and Republicans have in common, it seems, is their desire to blame lefties for all their problems.

I should point out that this is an edited answer: In the best Chomskyiate fashion, his actual answer ran nearly 10 minutes. Chomsky is aging, but there's nothing wrong with his lung capacity:

The election is kind of an interesting illustration of the almost total collapse of the democratic culture of the United States. As everyone recognizes, the dominant theme of the election is rage, hatred, and distrust of everything. So the reputation of Congress is in the gutter ... Last time I looked, about two thirds of the population thinks that the whole Congress should be thrown out, and start from zero. The Democrats are hated because they are regarded as the apostles of big government, and the Republicans are hated even more in the polls because they are regarded as in the pocket of big business.

The scientists are distrusted, because "why should we believe these pointy-headed elitists?" Which is a very severe matter because it means that things like, say, global warming -- which is going to destroy the species -- are dismissed. It's rather interesting that the corporate sector is pouring huge resources into trying to convince people that it's a hoax, though the people running those propaganda campaigns are just as aware as the rest of us that it's all real, and that it's going to destroy what they own, and destroy the possibility of a decent life for their grandchildren. Which raises an interesting question as to why they are doing it, and that takes us back to market systems and the way they function.

It's very striking. I mean, there are very good studies by now about the attitudes of ... a large sector of the population that says, "We want big government off our backs. We want small government, we want to reduce taxes." If you look at the attitudes of those people, they are basically social democratic. They want more money spent on education, more money spent on health, more money spent on infrastructure, more money spent on assistance to the poor, but not welfare. Ronald Reagan succeeded in convincing a great number of people that "welfare" means black women driving in their limousines to the welfare office to pick up our hard-earned money. So not welfare, but yes, help for the poor. No foreign aid -- because none of those undeserving foreigners should get help -- but we ought to provide more aid [to Americans], maybe twice as much as we do now.

So it goes across the board: People's attitudes are pretty much social democratic, "liberal" as it's called in the United States. On the other hand, they want to get government off their backs, get rid of the banks, get rid of taxes and so on. You can say it's just irrationality, which it is of course, but it raises the question of "why?" And there are reasons.

Most people have been through over 30 years ... in which their real income has pretty much stagnated. Working hours have increased, benefits which were never very great have declined by international standards. There's a tremendous burden on families just to keep going, and the way they've done it is with two members of the household working ...

People have survived by basically going into debt and by asset inflation [i.e. banking on increasing home prices] ever since Reagan. [People] aren't suffering by third world standards, but they are suffering by the standards of what they have every right to expect in a rich country. And they can see that there is plenty of wealth -- wealth has been created in these years, but it's gone into very few pockets. [Economic] inequality is back to the 1920s, maybe worse.

And people who live in those circumstances have a right to ask for answers: "Who's doing this to me? Why is it happening? I'm a good, hard-working person; why is this happening to me?" But we're not going to get any answers from the perpetrators in the Democratic and Republican parties. They're the ones who did it, but they're not going to say, "Well, this is happening to you because our policies advocated and pursued the financialization of the economy, the transfer of massive wealth and power to the financial institutions ... And we've also cooperated in helping corporate management ship production abroad."

[Voters] are not going to hear that from Democrats, they're not going to hear it form Republicans. So they're getting no answers ... So people are angry and upset and frustrated, and they are taking it out in very irrational ways -- shooting themselves in the foot.


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