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O'Connor may surprise us yet

This November's mayoral race is almost certain to be meaningless in two ways. In one sense, we've known who our next mayor is since the Democratic primary...but in another sense, we won't really know who he is until January.


The obvious front-runner, Democrat Bob O'Connor, has always had a Reaganesque quality, starting with the good hair and working down from there. That's not necessarily a compliment, but it's not an insult either. Yet.


Like Reagan, O'Connor's strong suit is his optimism, his belief that it's morning again in Pittsburgh. Also like Reagan, O'Connor sets considerable store by his power to delegate to others. And while I oppose just about everything Ronald Reagan ever did, he was often effective at doing it. In such administrations, staffers bask in the sunny glow emanating from their leader, who in turn basks in the competence his appointees reflect. Or as O'Connor told an Oct. 21 gathering of environmentalists at Phipps Conservatory: "I won't tell them how to do it, but I'll make sure it gets done." 


Much will depend, then, on whom O'Connor chooses to do it. Reagan's problem was that he picked Oliver North and James Watt. Based on O'Connor's actions last week, though, there's reason to hope he may choose more wisely.


By themselves, his statements at Phipps weren't much use. He urged attendees to apply for posts on the city's dozens of commissions and authority boards, but there was little else of substance. As one attendee muttered, one might think O'Connor's environmentalist agenda consisted of "bragging about how nice our grass looks."


Still, his appearance was a statement in itself. If he were a total steakhead, as critics suspect, he'd never have appeared there at all. He certainly doesn't need the environmentalist vote to win, after all. In the same week, moreover, O'Connor pledged to set up commissions to focus on gender and youth issues.


Will he follow through? Appointing commissions to study youth and women's issues is nice...but it would be better to appoint young people and women to commissions. Especially those with real political power.


 The thing is, O'Connor has a couple of good reasons for doing so.


The first is that the runner-up in this year's primary, City Councilor Bill Peduto, will be haunting O'Connor's footsteps for the next four years. Peduto's base is in the politically powerful East End, and he's supported by a core of young progressives and environmentalists -- people like the crowd at Phipps. O'Connor would be smart to keep these activists happy, or to at least find ways to direct their resentment elsewhere -- like the city's financial oversight boards. Appointing them to his commissions would be a good way to make his battles their own.


Doing so will be especially important because those oversight boards are weakening the old guard, who O'Connor might otherwise be tempted to rely on. Recent political history too suggests old allegiances are faltering.  


As O'Connor candidly acknowledges, the city's firefighters did him a favor by endorsing Tom Murphy's re-election in 2001. Had they backed O'Connor, the disasters of the past four years might have fallen on his watch. Similarly, the firefighters did him a favor -- and themselves a potentially huge disservice -- by backing Republican Joe Weinroth this November. Unlike in 2001, that endorsement won't likely swing the election. It will, however, make it that much easier for O'Connor to take on costs in the fire bureau. O'Connor may someday share Reagan's willingness to take on a public-sector union.


In fact, he may have no other choice: The firefighters' contract can be reopened in 2007. And as City Councilor Doug Shields will point out to anyone who will listen, spending on fire increased by more than 75 percent in the decade following 1992. (Spending on all other departments, meanwhile, dropped by nearly half.)


Shields, it's worth noting, is a former O'Connor lieutenant. This may be a case in which those close to the boss are telegraphing the boss' agenda more explicitly than he is.


Of course, O'Connor may well end up being Reaganesque in another, much worse, sense: racking up a legacy of graft, deficits and tax policies that hurt the working people he claimed to help. Four years from now, the only surprise may be how unsurprising he turned out to be.


But we ought to give him a chance. At least until he actually takes office.

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