A Case of the Runs | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Case of the Runs

Mayor Murphy, we beg of you, promise not to run again.

Dear Mayor Murphy:


Forgive this public address; I generally avoid open letters. My preferred means of influencing you -- yelling at my TV set whenever you are on it and occasionally waving a mojo bag over copies of the city charter -- are much less overt.


But they aren't working. No matter how many animal sacrifices I conduct, no matter how many times I invoke the dread name of Asmodeus, you stubbornly refuse to do my bidding. (You've probably had the same experience with the state legislature.) I appeal to you as one frustrated would-be puppet-master to another:


Please, make it stop. All the talk about another term, about whether you are running for office again. Put it to rest. Say it ain't so.


Because for the past couple months we've been hearing rumors that it could be so. You've been holding a series of neighborhood meetings that are widely regarded as stump speeches. You've been holding meetings with local party officials, many of whom suspect you are currying favor for a 2005 mayoral bid.


I was willing to dismiss this talk as idle speculation until a few weeks ago. In March, you told the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership you were willing to put your "political neck on the chopping block" to save the city. But in early April, when a City Councilor asked if you'd be willing to resign if it would help, you said you'd do so only if "those few legislators who have chosen to make it a personality issue...would make a sacrifice of their political careers with me."


Not many martyrs say, "You first" at the moment of martyrdom. That kind of detracts from the nobility of the sacrifice.


I take your point: If your personality has been so divisive, it's partly the fault of legislators who put personality conflicts above the needs of residents. If you should grow up, so should they. But you can't have it both ways. Sacrificing yourself only if you can take out a few others with you doesn't make you a martyr; it makes you a kamikaze. And the ship you're bearing down on is the S.S. Pittsburgh.


Predictably, sudden reversals like these prompt conspiracy theories about what you're really up to. I've dug up four of the most plausible, some of which may be familiar to you (for all I know your aides helped start some of them):


1) You're running for re-election, and everything you do is merely an attempt to secure your position for the 2005 primary.


2) You aren't running, but trying to raise enough political capital to support someone who is running, an ally like state Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Squirrel Hill).


3) You aren't running, but you're worried that if people figure that out, you'll be a lame duck with no hope of getting your agenda passed.


4) You've simply lost your grip on reality.


Personally, I find the second and third possibilities most likely. So does my Ouija board. While I've disagreed with just about everything you've done in office, I suspect that most of the time, you did what you genuinely thought best for Pittsburgh. (Perhaps part of the reason you've been such a bust is that you rarely allow the same for anyone else.) I was opposed to last summer's attempts to impeach you, and said so in this space. My primary concern late last summer was that an impeachment proceeding could hurt Pittsburgh by shifting attention from the city's survival to your own.


The impeachment effort failed, but our attention has been shifting from the city's survival to your own anyway. Speculation about your political future appears in most of the news stories written about your efforts to resolve the budget crisis. It crops up frequently in discussion with local officials too.


The longer people think you're running, the more worried they get that you'll take credit for a successful bailout. Those who distrust you most -- in city council and the state legislature, say -- are also in the best position to give the city the help it needs. Such wariness is already slowing progress on a bailout package: On April 12, a state-appointed panel charged with reviewing city finances groused that its "immediate challenge was to determine the truth concerning the [size of the] current City deficit." The panel's "immediate challenge" ought to be solving the city's deficit, not quibbling over its size. But that's the atmosphere of distrust you've helped create. You'd go a long way toward clearing the air by renouncing a re-election bid now.


Sure, being a lame duck is tough: The conventional wisdom is that lame-duck politicians have a hard time fighting for the causes or the candidates they support. But better a lame duck than a dead one. It's hard to imagine how you could be any less effective than you are now, anyway. It's precisely because people think you will run again that things remain so confused.


The irony is that, while you've never been more unpopular, you're finally talking about things just about every city resident can support -- the need to have giant non-profits contribute more to city coffers, to close loopholes that allow big employers to avoid most municipal taxes. The problem isn't with what you're doing; it's that you're the one who's doing it. Rightly or wrongly, you've become such a polarized and polarizing figure that nothing you say will be judged on its merits anymore, no matter how true it is.


So my plea is that you walk out into the clean sunshine and say, "I'm done. When my term is up, my political career is over. I'm now the one person in all this who doesn't have anything to gain. My political career is over. Republicans and state leaders wanted my head, and they've got it. The question is: Now what do they propose doing?" It would be just the kind of speech you're best at -- taking a principled stand and flinging it in the faces of your enemies. And for once, neither you nor we will have to live with the fallout.


If it makes you feel better, you could still win election. If everyone who talks about running decided to run, the opposition might be split a half-dozen ways -- enough to let you win. So yes, you might be able to win re-election next year. But if you don't renounce your political ambitions now, there might not be much of a city left to preside over. You might even win just because no one will want the job a year from now.


That hasn't been your plan all along, has it?


Prove it.



Chris Potter

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