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Thursday, February 10, 2011

In city council district 3, Bruce Kraus ain't backing down

Posted By on Thu, Feb 10, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Five years ago, when Bruce Kraus first ran for city council in a special election to replace Gene Ricciardi, I often felt he was campaigning by saying as little as possible. During one interview, I recall, he objected to my use of the phrase "bully pulpit" -- because he thought the word "bully" had negative connotations. 

Things have changed since then. Kraus lost that race, but won a regular election the following year. And now, three years into that term and facing re-election, no one can fault him for not speaking his mind. 

"Love me or hate me, no one will ever accuse me of not taking a position," he says. 

Indeed, Kraus now faces three rivals. And two of them, Gavin Robb and Jason Phillips, have complained already that he's been too divisive, that his strong advocacy has contributed to a communication breakdown among city leadership.

On one level, Kraus acknolwedges that he is "an independent voice, and I relish that independence." That stand has often put him at odds with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Even so, he says, "Part of the role we have as councilors is to advocate for our neighborhoods. So when I see things that aren't in the best interest of my constitutents, do I speak up? Yes, I do."

Moreover, Kraus can point to a series of accomplishments on council.

Kraus has been a core member of a council majority -- which includes Bill Pedtuo, Doug Shields, Natalia Rudiak, and president Darlene Harris -- that often lines up against the mayor. But that majority hasn't just sought to thwart Ravensthal's agenda; it's successfully pushed an agenda of its own.

Citywide, Kraus helped press the case for a campaign finance reform law, which limits the size of campaign contributions to city office-seekers. He also joined with the council majority to pass a prevailing-wage bill applying to grocery, hotel, and other workers whose employers get local tax subsidies. He's backed a citywide ban on drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, and a measure requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms. 

Kraus says more than a third of the shootings that take place in the county happen in the poorer "hilltop" communities of his district. "It was huge for this council to take a public stand" in the face of opposition for gun-rights groups, he says.  (Though he stresses his own position was not about curtailing those rights, but insisting on "responsible gun ownership.")

Some of these measures may be more effective than others. As we've previously reported, for example, the gun ordinance has yet to be used by police. Kraus' opponents, meanwhile, seem likely to try tarring him with the council majority's less-than-inspiring performance on another issue -- financing the city's depleted pension fund. Council, which rejected Ravenstahl's plan to fund the pension with proceeds from leasing city parking garages, came up with its own solution: Fund the pension with a promise to devote future tax revenues to it. Essentially, council's plan is the equivalent of writing an IOU, and hoping the state will accept it as a cashier's check.

It remains to be seen if the plan will work -- and in any case, council's effort involved a series of 11th-hour machinations that ended only hours before a state-imposed deadline on New Year's Eve. But Kraus -- who notes that he played a comparatively quiet role in that debate -- bridles at criticism of council's handling of this issue.

"What you saw was a council that was dotting it's i's and crossing the t's to make sure what we were doign was 100 percent responsible," he says.

But ... wouldn't the responsible thing have been to complete all that due diligence before the final days of 2010? 

"It's an imperfect world," Kraus acknowledges. But he says his rivals have little grounds for criticism: "We had 19 public meetings on the pension issue, and there was ample opportunity to e-mail or call in to the offices of city council. Neither of the [rival candidates] you've talked to chose to do that." 

On the neighborhood level, Kraus also touts a series of initiatives, including a satellite office in Arlington to address neighborhood concerns. And new initiatives will be bearing fruit in the months ahead, he says -- like a "spray park" for summer use at the Warrington Recreation Center, and an off-leash area for dogs in the South Side's Riverfront park. 

But the issue getting all the attention, of course, is Kraus' ongong effort to clean up the Carson Street bar scene. 

Kraus has pursued a variety of solutions, including passing an ordinance prohibiting public urination and defaction -- and adding a seperate fine for those who "fail to clean or remove the material deposited immediately." 

It's not clear what impact such measures have had -- Kraus was unsure about whether anyone has been cited under the urination/defecation ordinance since the measure was passed in 2009. But at the very least, he says, "The positions I've taken have sparked a broader conversation about responsible behavior in the public space." 

And while rival Gavin Robb acknowledges not having a "silver bullet" to solve the problem,  Kraus boasts "I do have a silver bullet" -- and tosses a copy of an 88-page 2009 proposal onto the table.

Titled "Inviting, Safe and Cohesive," the document makes a host of recommendations, ranging from disount "sleep it off" rates for drunken partiers at area hotels to Breathalyzers in bars, police "party patrols," and the creation of a "community covenant" that bars and other businesses will agree to, in consultation with residents.

Kraus plans to continue pushing that initiative. Nor is he cowed by facing no less than three challengers in the May primary. His predeccessor, Gene Ricciardi, once gave him a bit of advice, he says: "Gene told me that if you aren't making a wave or two, you aren't doing your job." 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

What's the story at the Post-Gazette?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 9, 2011 at 11:24 AM

You know, there used to be a time that if a Pittsburgh newspaper was going to be accused of catering to the interests of its publisher, that paper would be the Tribune-Review

These days? Not so much. 

In the past 72 hours, we've seen evidence to suggest the Post-Gazette, too, is being used as a platform for its owners to settle grievances. Only instead of Richard Mellon Scaife going after the Clinton administration, the Post-Gazette seems to be crusading so its owners can get better football seats.

As you probably know, this past weekend's Super Bowl was marred by the fact that Cowboys Stadium hadn't finished construction on several hundred seats -- seats for which Super Bowl tickets had already been sold. Some ticket holders -- who'd traveled thousands of miles to see the game -- were given seats elsewhere, but about 400 were only given the option of watching the game on TV screens or in standing-room-only areas. Refunds were promised, but lawsuits seem certain. 

The P-G ran a front-page story about the seating controversy. In itself, that makes sense -- among the angry, disappointed fans were plenty of Steelers backers. Hell, on game day, at least one local TV station, WTAE, was running "breaking news" coverage of the problem, complete with angry fans talking about the fiasco live via cellphone. 

But as it turned out, among the aggrieved fans was one Allan J. Block, who happens to chair Block Communications, the Post-Gazette's owner.

Block, in fact, appears in the story himself -- recounting his own bad experiences at some length: 

Allan J. Block, chairman of Block Communications Inc., which owns the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said he and his guests, Norah Lawlor and Jeffrey Bradford from New York, were among those who entered the stadium and made their way to their seats only to be told they would not be able to sit there.

They first were taken to a lounge where they could watch the game on television but could not see the field.

"For $900 tickets, we would have been watching the game on TV as we could have anywhere," Mr. Block said.

When Ms. Lawlor protested, an usher took them to a handicapped seating area and placed folding chairs there.

"To see the monitor you had to look straight up and you could only see what was happening in the end zone," Mr. Block said.

But what was particularly unsettling, he said, was that they spent the game worrying that someone would arrive to tell them they were not allowed to be sitting there, or that they would be kept from returning to the seats if they left for concessions or the restrooms.

"We were humiliated and kept insecure for the entire time. We were not allowed to know we were authorized to be there," he said.

"The NFL pretends they took care of people, but they didn't," Mr. Block said.

Now of course the first question that occurred to me was -- what was Allan Block doing with $900 seats, where he'd be stuck amongst the hoi polloi? The Rooneys couldn't squeeze the guy into a luxury box?

But the broader question stems from the fact that, generally speaking, mainstream newspapers try not to put themselves in the middle of their own story. It goes against the grain of seeking to provide objective, dispassionate coverage of events.

Yet the very same day the P-G reported on the seating controversy, it also expressed its outrage in a blistering, 670-word editorial.  The seat fiasco was a "travesty bordering on fraud," the paper thundered, "and it should not be inflicted on any fan, let alone the loyalists who spent much time, money and effort traveling to Arlington, Texas, for America's premier sporting event."

The NFL had an obligation, the paper added "to make these fans whole by covering all costs, plus a premium paid for their disappointment, humiliation, pain and suffering. The sum of $50,000 per ticket would not be too high."

$50,000? Really? (ADDED: Also -- "pain and suffering"? Really?) The editorial cites no basis for this number, and I couldn't see one in its news story either. (The highest losses I saw cited in th news story were those of a fan who paid $8,800 for two tickets. The P-G would reimburse that person a total of $100,000 -- which seems like a lot even factoring in travel and lodging expenses.)

In any case, it's unusual for a daily newspaper to produce an editorial about a story being reported in the very same issue -- for the above-mentioned reasons of seeking to provide objective, dispassionate coverage. It's also unusual for the P-G to run a nearly 700-word editorial about anything.

For example, a recent P-G editorial about food safety got fewer than 500 words. Would it have gone longer if Allan Block had recently gotten food poisoning? Because the 500-word length is much more typical. That's the length of a recent piece concerning GOP efforts to restrict abortion access, for example. Another recent editorial, on whether to try children accused of murder as adults, was just over 500 words.

Today's three editorials -- concerning the state GOP's attempts to nullify federal health care law, the fate of the Civic Arena site, and the future of U.S./Egyptian relations were 370, 230, and 390 words long, respectively.

But seriously: Would the owners of the Post-Gazette, the city's historic paper of record, really use the paper to pursue the personal interests of its publisher?

Don't ask me. Ask Clementine.

As we've reported before, Clementine is the household pet of another member of the Block family, J.R. Block. And she's appeared in the paper's pages as well -- without disclosing the family ties.

In terms of journalistic outrage, this is all pretty small beer. The Super Bowl seating fiasco is definitely newsworthy, and no doubt the P-G editorial page would have taken up the cause of angry Steelers fans sooner or later, even if one of them hadn't been the paper's publisher. Stories about dogs don't do anyone any harm -- which is something you can't say so easily about the Trib's apparent score-settling coverage of, say, the Clinton administration. 

What's more, in a lot of ways the city benefits from the fact that the Block family takes a personal, and proprietary, interest in what the Post-Gazette publishes.

While the paper has gone through buyouts and cutbacks in recent years, it could have been much, much worse. And I'm sure it would have been if the paper had been owned by a big chain. Everything I've ever been told about the P-G's finances leads me to believe that the Blocks accept much lower profit margins in good times -- and much worse losses in bad times -- than a chain like Gannett would tolerate. Arguably, a few shaggy-dog stories are a small price to pay for a paper that is still willing to invest in long-term investigative projects like "Mapping Mortality." 

But man. At some point, this stuff is gonna make it hard to take those worthy projects seriously. You've got an editorial that -- to all appearances -- took a much more strident tone because its publisher was pissed off. If that sort of thing can happen, how can we be sure the paper's editorial endorsement of Tom Corbett doesn't just reflect its publisher's wishes? God knows little else could explain it, since the endorsement itself makes clear that the P-G agreed with Corbett on few issues other than liquor-store privatization. 

Having met a member of the Block family, I think its owners are serious about journalism. But if this stuff keeps up, it's gonna get harder to take their journalism seriously. 

ADDED: A final, additional, piece of advice to the Blocks. If you really want to use the leverage that comes from owning a daily newspaper -- next time you should make the Rooneys save you a seat. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Dennis Roddy's farewell letter

Posted By on Fri, Feb 4, 2011 at 8:14 PM

Today was Dennis Roddy's last day at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I'll have a story about it in next week's print edition, and my understanding is that the Sunday Post-Gazette will carry a farewell piece from him. But in the meantime, if you somehow failed to notice his contributions to local journalism, you may be wondering why people are making such a big deal out of his departure from the scene. 

A good place to learn would be the archive of the columns he once wrote. But for now, you could do worse than read the e-mailed note Roddy sent to his Post-Gazette colleagues about 45 minutes ago -- just before he headed out to the bar. A few of them have forwarded it to me, and I've reprinted it below:

Dear Colleagues,

A wise man once told me, "You're fired." His name was Ron Stephenson. He was the news director at WJAC-TV news in Johnstown and working for him was like spending six months at sea with Captain Queeg. The genius in the remark was that I did not spend my later years working in the newsroom of a small television station that used to bump the Pirates games for the Billy Graham crusade.

I went into newspapers -- a rollicking choice that, for nearly four decades, has given me more exhilaration than a crime spree. I got to be Robin Hood without the tights.

I leave at a time the industry is in a mess. Which means I could have left anytime after I first walked into the offices of The Nanty Glo Journal. This industry always seems to be in a mess because it is a messy industry. We manufacture no corporeal goods beyond information, and we sell the space between the words in hopes that our readers are in need of both knowledge and hearing aids. There is no cogent reason that newspapers should ever have existed except that some people need to tell a story and some people need to read one. The unalloyed irrationality of the whole enterprise is conclusive proof it can't be killed because when death is logical, only the logicians die. Can it be mangled? Horribly. Dented? Deeply enough to make a pond. Eliminated? You might as well try shooting down the sun.

If I were to leave you with any profound wisdom I would surprise myself and defeat my purpose. Profound wisdom is almost always useless because it is either self-evident or it’s written in Latin.

So here's a small, parting thought. I came into this business when Watergate was at its peak and from there the combined hubris of our side and the malign dishonesty of theirs created a love of hating. The hatred was directed as us, at journalists, and it was cynical and calculated and successful.

For the span of my career, my profession has been demonized, its practitioners caricatured and assumptions of our character so distorted that if half of it were true I’d be writing you from hell.

Here's the lesson I learned:

Save for ending the occasional sentence with a preposition, we're doing nothing here we need be ashamed of. What we do is good. Forcing out facts and conveying them honestly is inherently good, as much a part of natural law as faith and charity and trust.

Journalists don’t do well. They do good. I'm humbled to have been among you. Now, it remains for me to admire from afar.

God bless,


Getting to Know District 1 council candidate Bobby Wilson

Posted By on Fri, Feb 4, 2011 at 7:20 PM

[Editor's note: As we reported yesterday, city council President Darlene Harris is facing not one but two challengers in the Democratic primary this May -- and their names may not be familiar to most readers of this blog. Reporter Chris Young caught up with one of them, Bobby Wilson, earlier today. Young's take on the candidate follows.]

Bobby Wilson is a political newbie who is preparing a grassroots campaign to unseat the incumbent. The 28-year-old attended the University of Pittsburgh, earning both an undergraduate degree in political science, and a graduate degree in physiology. His resume includes work experience with his alma mater and UPMC, where until recently he worked as an analyst in the strategic planning department.


(Disclosure: A few years ago, Wilson once worked alongside this reporter during a stint as a bartender/server at the Steelhead Brasserie & Wine Bar, Downtown.)

Was there a particular issue that sparked your desire to run for council?

The issue is procrastination. This pension issue has been going on for a long time. And the fact that [council] waited until the last minute ... this is an issue that should have been solved [a long time ago], not on New Year's Eve.

What kind of platform are you running on?

The main issue is always crime, and I feel there needs to be more of a proactive approach to [crime], as well as the reactive. My goal is to allocate money for structured programs for the youth. Drawing from my background being a part of the Sarah Heinz House Boys & Girls Club ... it's a big help to a lot of families to have an after-school program for the children. I have a vision for these after-school programs.

In terms of our city, we need shared services [with other county municipalities]. We have [130] municipalities in Allegheny County. We need to find ways to integrate our services.

How would you fit in on council?

I think I'd fit in more as a progressive. But I don't know that I can answer that question fully until I'm in there. I don't want to be a part of the, "I'm in this camp, and you're in that camp." We need to get beyond that and see the better for the city, regardless of what you feel about the mayor or Patrick Dowd or [Bruce] Kraus.

What distinguishes you from the incumbent?

I'm my own person ... I'm not already talking to one council person or not talking to another council person. A lot of people are saying, "Who is Bobby Wilson?" ... The greatest thing about me is that I don't have a past record with politics.

Tea Partier to run for county exec post

Posted By on Fri, Feb 4, 2011 at 4:18 PM

It's official: Local Tea Party leader Patty Weaver is entering the race for county executive. She's running as a Republican, of course -- Weaver became a state GOP committeeperson last year, after all -- though apparently the movement is still billing itself as non-partisan. 

About 15 minutes ago, the Pittsburgh Tea Party Movement Planning Committee sent out the following notice:

We invite you to attend an historic event on Thursday, February 10, 2010, at 10:00 a.m. in front of the City-County Building at 414 Grant Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15219. Our Pittsburgh Tea Party leader, Patti Weaver, will announce her candidacy for Allegheny County Executive at that time. Influential leaders in the Republican Party in Allegheny County and statewide have recognized her strong values, leadership ability, excellent educational background and various other skills and have urged her to run for this position. This is an important step to restoring common-sense leadership to our county with an individual who values free markets, fiscal responsibility and a limited government, who would use her education and private sector expertise to insure economic growth, job creation and the long-term health of our region.

While our tea party group is comprised of democrats, independents republicans, and other groups, our highest priority is electing leaders who will work for the best interest of taxpayers, our region, our families and future generations regardless of affiliation. Patti responded to the Republican opportunity to represent our values to like-minded citizens looking for new leadership in Allegheny County. As a grassroots group, we must take advantage of this opportunity to break from the special interest of the past and lead our region in the right direction.

Please join us as we send off our Pittsburgh Tea Party Movement leader with our blessings and thanks for her outstanding contribution to the grassroots movement of Western Pennsylvania.

The news comes as little surprise. And in fact, the blogosphere has already prepared her a warm welcome.

Getting to know District 9 council candidate Phillys Copeland-Mitchell

Posted By on Fri, Feb 4, 2011 at 11:57 AM

[Editor's note: As we reported last night, District 9 city councilor Ricky Burgess is facing not one but two challengers in his re-election bid this year. Joining Lucille Prater-Holliday in taking him on is Phyllis Copleland-Mitchell, of East Liberty. Our Lauren Daley spoke with her about the campaign yesterday evening.]

Phyllis Copeland-Mitchell is a relative newcomer to the political scene; she’s never run for public office before. A native of Larimer, the 54-year-old East Liberty resident has more than a decade in the social services field and a background in business, something she hopes to call on during her campaign for District 9 City Council.

She is currently the residential center manager at the Program for Offenders Inc. in Oakland where she oversees a women’s corrections residential facility.

Why throw your hat into the ring?

I really enjoy social service and have been helping the community more than 18 years, working with young mothers and fathers, men and women incarcerated. It's a passion of mine. Our community needs strong leadership and I feel I am that person to step in and just get the job done.

Was there an issue or a tipping point that occurred that you decided you wanted to run for city council?

Every time I drive out of my house, nothing is there. There's no gas stations, no store. We have nothing ... When I was young, everything was in Larimer. I hate that the community looks like this.

Talk about the platform you’re running on.

Crime is a big issue. I truly believe we need to see more police officers on the beat, they need to be more visible. We need to make seniors feel safer and get shelters at the bus stops ... This area also has a high number of abandoned houses.

How do you feel about how things are going in District 9? Are you unhappy with your current councilor's leadership?

I don't like mud slinging. I want to serve the people. I don't like that kind of foolishness. Our focus should be on the community and the people. Why waste time on negativity?

Under Ricky Burgess, federal CDBG funds are currently distributed through the nonprofit Poise Foundation, instead of through the council office. Would you continue this practice, or take control of it? If the latter, what kind of programs would you direct it to?

I should have control of it [and would direct it to] some things with children’s programming. It really helps deter crime if you get to the child during when they’re young and developing.

District 9 stretches from East Hills to Garfield to Point Breeze to Lincoln. That’s a lot of ground. How would you approach the territorry?

They will see my face. I will visit them all. I can’t be a ghost candidate ... It's not just going to be where I live and that's what I'll fix. That's selfish.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

And they're off: Field of candidates expands in some Democratic primary races

Posted By on Thu, Feb 3, 2011 at 8:01 PM

A short time ago, I received the list of local candidates seeking the Democratic Party's endorsement in this year's May primary. Those letters were due today, and based on the response, this should be an interesting election season. Some Pittsburgh voters may well be treated (if that's the right word) to three- or even four-way races. But city council district 5 -- where chaos seemed to be in the offing -- is apparently not among them. 

In District 1, incumbent Darlene Harris, who just formally announced her re-election bid today, will face two opponents: Vincent T. Pallus, of Brighton Heights, and Bobby Wilson of Spring Hill. 

District 9 city councilor Ricky Burgess also faces two rivals for the party's backing. One, we've already written about: Lucille Prater-Holliday. The other is Phyllis Copeland-Mitchell, who we're told has the backing of Jacque Fielder, the chair of Ward 12.

And what of District 5, where a donnybrook was shaping up between incumbent Doug Shields and Corey O'Connor, the son of Shields' former boss? Not going to happen, apparently.

O'Connor is seeking the party's endorsement, as is Chris Zurawsky, the head of the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club, who has previously made his intentions clear. But Shields will indeed be running for a district justice seat, as he intended all along.

It seems, however, that Shields is in for a three-way contest anyway: Also seeking the party's nod for magesterial district 5-2-35 is Hugh McGough -- known to faithful readers in his role as solicitor to the city's police review board and a member of the county's Human Relations Commission -- and Squirrel Hill attorney Dan Butler.

Other city races present fewer surprises. Michael Lamb's bid for the party's city controller endorsement will apparently be uncontested. In district 3, Bruce Kraus is facing three opponents, but as reported here yesterday, only one -- former councilor Jeff Koch -- is seeking the party nod. 

For District 7 incumbent Patrick Dowd, the picture remains unchanged: Both Tony Ceoffe Jr., son of district magistrate and longtime Lawrenceville United head Tony Ceoffe, and artist David Calfo are seeking the endorsement.  

In the city school district, there appears to be only one contested school-board race. District 8's Mark Brentley -- always a lightning rod -- faces a challenge from Doris Lewis, of the Mexican War Streets.

On the county level, only one development may come as any real surprise: The county controller's seat -- which is being vacated by county executive candidate Mark Patrick Flaherty -- is being sought by four Democrats.

Three of the candidates had already expressed interest: current state Rep. Chelsa Wagner, longtime county real-estate office manager Valerie McDonald Roberts, and former clerk of courts George Matta. But a fourth entrant has also joined the fray: veteran activist Joni Rabinowitz, who for many years headed up Just Harvest, a local advocacy group for the poor.

At the top of the fight card, the county executive race, only Flaherty and Rich Fitzgerald, the county council president who formally launched his own candidacy last week, are seeking the party nod. 

To the surprise of no one, Stephen Zappala is the only guy seeking an endoresment in the District Attorney's race.

The Allegheny County Democratic Committee will hold its endorsement meeting March 6, after which some disappointed office-seekers may well drop out. Check back here for more details about these candidates as they come in. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Make that FOUR candidates in District 3 -- and an introduction to Jason Phillips

Posted By on Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 4:48 PM

Most of this post will be about Jason Phillips, who announced his candidacy in City Council District 3 earlier today. But first comes word of a new (sort of) entrant in the race.

As has been predicted previously, Jeff Koch apparently is running for the seat, which he held before losing it to current incumbent Bruce Kraus. 

Or at least Koch is seeking the party's endorsement: I have confirmed with local Democratic officials that he has formally submitted his letter of interest. With luck, we'll be hearing directly from Koch sometime soon. (And on a related programming note, look for Kraus himself to appear in this space early next week.)

In any case, this is shaping up to be an intriguing contest, with a lot of angles to it. Koch won the seat in a 2006 special election, but was later defeated by Kraus. This would be a rubber match between the two men. And Koch already has at least one factor distinguishing him from the rest of the field: Of the four declared candidates, he's the only one who doesn't live in the South Side Flats. He's a resident of Arlington, one of District 3's "hilltop communities." In a district where you sometimes hear resentment over how much attention the South Side gets, that might come in handy. 

As for Phillips, his campaign style can be, well, a little pugnacious, as the campaign announcement I posted earlier today suggests. He too has run for the seat before, part of a divided field in the special election that Koch won. He had, in fact, once worked on Kraus' campaign before a falling out. (An argument over wages went to court, though Phillips says the dispute with Kraus "has run its course. It's not as if we're best friends, but we serve on the Democratic committee together and have lively debates.") 

Since then, Phillips says, "I've mostly laid low and haven't done a lot in terms of politics," working instead as a business manager for a South Side glass studio. His highest-profile political activity, in fact, also resulted in his abrupt departure from a political campaign: During the 2007 election season, Phillips was working on the (ultimately successful) Supreme Court campaign of Debra Todd. He came forward with claims that a staffer in the office of -- take a wild guess -- Jeff Koch had made a political call from a city phone on city time. Koch and his staffer, Eileen Conroy, characterized the call as an "honest mistake."

Partly as a result of such stands, Phillips says,"People know me as having high ethical standards."

It might sound strange, coming from a guy who seems like such a lightning rod, but Phillips is running in part on a promise to reduce rancor. Just as rival candidate Gavin Robb did earlier today, Phillips faults the incumbent for last year's shrill debate on the city's pension problems, as well as on other issues. And that animosity, Phillips contends, makes it even harder to address the wretched excess of Carson Street's weekly bacchanals.

Says Phillips: "It doesn't help you get results when, instead of asking for more police on the street, you instead criticize the mayor for hanging out at a nightclub."  (Actually, while Kraus has criticized Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's handling of problems on Carson, to the best of my knowledge, that particular criticism was made not by Kraus but by his frequent ally on council, Doug Shields.)

What would Phillips like to see happen on Carson? One answer, he says, is to address the fact that much of the friction between bar-goers and nearby residents comes at the end of the night, when bar patrons often roam residential sidestreets, "going back to cars that they parked while they are sober." Phillips wants to see residential-only parking in the area, and suggests the city look into constructing a multi-level parking garage -- preferably one "with a restroom on the first floor."

In general, Phillips seems likely to steer a middle course between Robb -- who Phillips faults for a "pie-in-the-sky" view that doesn't take Carson Street's problems seriously enough -- and Kraus, who Phillips says is too punitive in his approach to bar and restaurant owners.

As for communities outside the South Side? Phillips has lived for the past several years in a South 15th Street apartment, but says he's lived in Arlington and in the South Side Slopes as well. And he says the problems there involve blight and crime -- problems that can be solved by more aggressive policing and demolition of abandoned structures. 

Of course, you could devise those solutions just by driving through the district; the question is where to get the money to pay for stepped-up services. Phillips admits long-term budget solutions are "tricky," but in the near future suggests raising money by selling off idling city properties -- like the vacated former Zone 3 police station in the Flats. 

How much backing can Phillips bring to the campaign? As of the end of last year, his political committee had a bit more than $3,000 in it. Most of that was in small-dollar contributions of less than $50, but Phillips did receive some bigger-dollar support from two Carson Street restaurants: The owner of the Cambod-ican restaurant and a co-owner of the Doublewide Grill have given Phillips $300 and $500, respectively.


Since this post was published, Phillips e-mailed a letter to the editor responding to it. I'm reprinting that response below, verbatim:

First, I would like to complement the City Paper on their coverage of local elections in the City of Pittsburgh. I believe the CP realizes the importance of municipal races and always appear to be fair and impartial in their coverage. Where the two major newspapers in our city often fall short, the CP writes in-depth articles about candidates, issues and the dynamics of the races.

I was particularly pleased that the CP dedicated an article to my candidacy for a seat on City Council in District 3. However, I believe the article spent too much time on the personalities of the candidates and not enough on the issues and policies of the campaign. For example, the cornerstone of my campaign will be creative ideas, the ability to connect, a spirit of collaboration, highly involved, and a partner willing to work for everyone.

So, while I complement the CP on their coverage, however, I was amused by the fact that I was described only as aggressive. I find that description quite interesting considering that my friends have described me as “passionate”, “driven” and “committed” to this race and other issues I’ve addressed throughout the years. Hence a better description would be that I am genuinely and sincerely passionate, driven by the issues and committed to protecting my neighbors.

In closing, the CP performs a wonderful service to its readers and I look forward to future interviews with them during this race. Keep in mind though that I will steer my campaign on the issues and present my ideas in an intelligent and respectful manner and not base my campaign on petty politics or personalities.

Introducing District 3 challenger Gavin Robb (AND another candidate enters the race)

Posted By on Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 9:01 AM

City councilor Bruce Kraus has his first two challengers in the spring primary. One is Gavin Robb, an attorney at Tucker Arensberg who currently presides over the South Side Chamber of Commerce. Another -- more about which anon -- is Jason Phillips, a previous rival of Kraus. 

Robb lives around the corner from Kraus -- on a block of Edwards Way just off Kraus' stretch of South 18th Street. And he says that, "Personally, I've always gotten along well with Bruce." (The two have served together on the Chamber of Commerce board.)

So why is he challenging Kraus? 

"I'm just not happy with the direction things are going, not just in my district but in the city," he says.

Robb points to the Great Pension Debate --"the pension debacle," as he calls it -- as Exhibit A. "Things should have been handled differently all the way around," Robb says. While he says he was no fan of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to replenish the pension fund -- a plan that involved leasing publicly-owned garages to private operators -- he faults council's handling of the matter as well.

"The fact that we were throwing plans against the wall three or four days before [a state imposed Dec. 31 deadline] -- that should have been done months before, if not years." 

In fairness to Kraus and his colleagues, part of the reason council didn't take action sooner was the mayor's request to put a moratorium on alternate plans for much of last year: Ravenstahl feared rival proposals would prevent his lease option from fetching the highest price. Robb, for his part, acknowledges that "It's hard to assign blame, because I wasn't in the room."

But, he says, the ugliness of the debate shows "a need to bring civility back to that office. There's been an inability to have dialogue between council and the mayor's office ... When you read the papers, you get the feeling that they can't be in the same room together.

"One of the overall bullet points I want to get out there [about the campaign] is that I'm a good listener," adds Robb, who cites his professional background as evidence. One of Robb's area of expertise is municipal law: He acts as an assistant solicitor to other Tucker Arensberg attorneys who work in several area school districts and municipalities. (Robb's work frequently takes him to communities like Upper St. Clair, Swissvale, Emsworth, and the Mt. Lebanon school district.)

Robb believes the need to work collaboratively applies not just in the City County Building, but in his district as well. Take Carson Street, whose weekly alcohol-fueld bacchanals have been a subject of rising tension in the community -- and between Ravenstahl and Kraus

"I don't think anyone would argue that there aren't problems some nights of the week," says Robb. "But this whole sky-is-falling perspective -- I just don't see that, and I think [problems in the South Side] are as much a problem of perception as anything. People's property values are where they are in part because it's an entertainment district."

That perspective may come as little surprise: Robb is, after all, a chamber-of-commerce guy who says that if anything, local businesses need more support. You can expect Robb's rivals to portray him as the candidate of choice for local bar owners -- in fact, as will become clear by the end of this post, it's already begun. 

So what would Robb's approach to the South Side's problems be? "I don't have a silver bullet for solving the problem," he admits, "but there's been an antagonistic approach taken so far." Robb says his own approach to problems in the Flats would have been more collaborative, and that there's a misperception that the situation is one of "residents versus business-owners." 

(Robb admitted to being less conversant with the issues outside the South Side area, though the district includes "hilltop communities" like Knoxville and Arlington. "I do plan to sit down and be a good listener to those folks,' he says.)  

But all this talk about working more collaboratively raises an obvious question, one prompted by incorrigible cynics who see this year's elections as a chance for Ravenstahl to regain control of council. And Kraus is, after all, one of Ravenstahl's staunchest opponents on council -- a rock-solid vote alongside Ravenstahl foes Bill Peduto and Doug Shields. So was Robb put up to this race by Ravenstahl and his allies? Is he part of a broader effort to remake council into a more pliable body?

"I can appreciate that this is what people will think," says Robb. "But I'm going into this with an open mind, and with no preconceptions about being pro-mayor or anti-mayor. Sometimes that might make the mayor happy, and sometimes it might not. But maybe that's not being accomplished right now -- when the mayor says one thing, it seems the councilman jumps to the other side."

But if Robb hasn't talked to the mayor, he does acknowledge that he's had some "informal" conversations with mayoral allies: "I won't say I haven't made it know to those folks of my interest."

Robb says that starting about nine months ago, he was approached repeatedly by contemporaries in the South Side urging him to run. While he scoffed at the notion intially, he says, "The more I thought about it, the more excited I got."

Robb says his campaign is supported by local business and community leaders, as well as some elected officials elsewhere in the city. He declined to name them at this early point in his campaign. He also demurred to answer specific questions about his fundraising efforts -- in part because he has a fundraiser coming up this weekend that he didn't want to jinx.

He'll need all the help he can get: Kraus, the incumbent, raised more than $62,000 in campaign contributions last year, and has nearly $35,000 in the bank. 

AND THIS JUST IN! Just as I was wrapping this post up, I got word of another entrant in the race. Jason Phillips, who worked on Kraus' first campaign for the office, and later ended up running against him, has just sent out a release advertising his own run. I'll try to have more from Phillips later this week, but for now, here's his official statement:

Yesterday, Jason Phillips, Allegheny County Democratic Committee Member, announced his candidacy for Pittsburgh City Council District 3.

Phillips stated that, "We need to elect a new council member with five (5) traits that our community has been missing for six (6) years: creative ideas, the ability to connect, a spirit of collaboration, highly involved, and a partner willing to work for everyone."

Mr. Phillips strongly believes that our first priority needs to be a balanced budget. The city of Pittsburgh can longer spend more than we collect-- Mr. Phillips would have been a steady voice in the most recent pension bailout fiasco that occurred. He also believes that we need to start doing the little things well.

The crux of his campaign focuses on our need to fix our roads, improve snow and ice removal from our secondary street, pick up garbage, demolish blighted homes, eradicate graffiti and most of all, provide Police, Fire and EMS services to our residents. Mr. Phillips invasions a City Council tenure where constituent services rank highly.

Many voters may be unaware of the vast war chest some candidates have accumulated, however, Mr. Phillips believes that the obscene money that candidates are raising and spending from federal to municipal elections needs to be addressed. It is immoral that special interest groups and organizations have put their claws into our elected officials. Mr. Phillips will run a grassroots campaign with his campaign volunteers by going door to door throughout the district.

The Friends of Phillips Committee sees their candidate bringing the youth, vitality, and innovative ideas to City Council along with maturity and a stable voice.

Mr. Phillips characterizes himself as a candidate of the people, whereas candidate Kraus hasn’t worked well with the administration or community, to be announced candidate Jeff Koch has collected a city paycheck for 20+ years, including taking a job created especially for him after losing his past election and Gavin Robb, the bar candidate who was recently presented to the community by millionaire land developer Damian Soffer and Adam DeSimone owner of Diesel Night Club.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Post-Gazette's Dennis Roddy to leave, take job in Corbett administration

Posted By on Tue, Feb 1, 2011 at 2:11 PM

Dennis Roddy, a fixture of Pittsburgh journalism for nearly four decades, is leaving the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and taking a job in the fledgling Corbett Administration.

"It was time for me, at age 57, to find out if I possess any transferable skills," says Roddy. 

Roddy's job will be in communications. And while he says his exact duties have yet to be defined, he won't be a spokesman: "Let's face it -- no one would believe anything a reporter has to say."

Roddy will start the new position, which will require him to split his time between his Mt. Lebanon home and Harrisburg, next week. 

Roddy says several factors motivated him to take the job. 

While he's upbeat about the long-term future of the newspaper industry -- "I remain convinced that we're coming into an extraordinary era of journalism," he says -- he also anticipates a painful period of transition.  New online revenue streams needed to support the industry have yet to be devised. "In 20 years, it will be possible to earn a solid middle-class living at this," he says. "But for a guy in his late 50s, the transition won’t be easy. A lot of people will drop to the side or move on and find something else. I'm one of them

"I can’t spend too much time complaining about it," he adds. "I've had a lot of fun over 37 years, but if I’m contemplating a change, I have to do it now. This could be a good call, this could be a bad call. I might regret doing this. But if I don’t make this change, I know I'll regret it."

In any case, Roddy notes that his family currently draws two salaries from the paper -- his wife, Joyce Gannon, is also a P-G employee. "That's the economics of it." 

Roddy's decision to join the Corbett administration may surprise some: When he's written columns or op-ed features, he's often written from a left-of-center viewpoint, particularly on economic issues. And my own sense of him has largely been that he's the quintessential Johnstown Democrat -- a strong supporter of unions and progressive economics, while a working-class Catholic who often skews more conservative on social issues. (ADDED: Though he's hard to pigeonhole -- in union negotiations at the paper, he's agitated for domestic-partner benefits for same-sex couples.)

Roddy declined to discuss his political affiliations-- and I'm in too much of a hurry to run down to the county elections office and look up his party affiliation. But he agrees that "In Cambria County, a Democrat was someone who was socially fairly conservative."

More importantly, he says, "Tom Corbett is going into office as a reformer, a guy who went in and prosecuted the very people who write his office’s budget. I think that’s very very hopeful." And in any case, he adds, "This is bigger than party politics. This is just another way of trying to tell a story" -- a chance to learn how government works from the inside.

Whatever the reason for it, Roddy's departure will be a big loss for the Post-Gazette: He's been one of its strongest and most distinctive voices, breaking stories on everything from mine safety to political scandals. But he's often been a cantankerous figure in the news room, with a reputation for butting heads with his supervisors on many occasions. When I told him the paper would miss him, he said, "Some of them are going to miss me for my reporting -- and some of them are going to miss me because they didn’t adjust the scope on their rifles.

"I pitch a lot of fits, and I make a lot of trouble, I know that," he confesses.  In December, he says, his hard drive crashed, "and one thing that struck me was that one of the things I lost was 11 years of resignation letters.

But "Those letters were written out of minor outrages," he adds. "This was a resignation letter written in a major hope."

More details on this story to come.


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