Something snapped for me last week, when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced that, in honor of the AFC Championship against the Balitmore Ravens, he was temporarily changing his name to "Steelerstahl." It happened when I got the official press release, which even recruited a local German scholar named John Lyon, who noted that, yes, "stahl" in fact means "steel."
One wonders why Lyon hasn't changed his name, given Detroit's 0-16 record this year. Too, it's worth noting that "stahl" is also the third-person past-tense verb for "to steal." So you probably only want to carry the linguistic analysis so far. My real problem, though, is that once again, Ravenstahl didn't go far enough.
Almost lost in the hubbub was the fact that Ravenstahl didn't do the stuff necessary to actually change his name. As the Post-Gazette pointed out, while Ravenstahl filled out some paperwork -- and had plenty of media on hand to record him signing it at the county's court-records office -- he didn't pay the filing fee necessary to process it.
At least when Cincinnati Bengals receiver Chad Johnson changed his last name to "Ocho Cinco," he went through the full legal process. So congratulations, Pittsburgh: We have a political culture whose publicity-seeking would embarrass Chad Johnson.
Of course, in the end it's all harmless fun, and it wasn't even Ravenstahl's idea: It was suggested by radio station Star 100.7. Who says "no" to something like that?
But the interesting question isn't why Ravenstahl did this. It's why anyone paid attention. Why devote ink or airtime to a pseudo-event, one that merely parodies an official act?
Well, for one thing, this is the local news we're talking about. Second, this is the Steelers we're talking about. What's more, in Mayor Ravenstahl's Pittsburgh, political shadow-plays are often all you can cover.
Actually, the name-change gimmick isn't much different from how Ravenstahl occasionally approaches real changes. He's repeatedly made feel-good pledges -- usually involving government reforms -- and stuck to them just long enough to get a few headlines. Then they get dropped, until political need requires.
Just days before the mayor's "name change," in fact, we saw it happen with campaign-finance reform. There are no limits to what contributors can give local politicians because, last June, Ravenstahl vetoed a city council measure to cap donations. Ravenstahl pledged that he and council would "work together on this issue." Yet for six months, he said nary a word about it.
But suddenly, days after a death took place in a gay club whose owners contributed to Ravenstahl and other politicians, reform became a burning issue. On Jan. 12, Ravenstahl appeared with county executive Dan Onorato to present a joint city/county campaign-finance reform. The press conference showed every sign of being a rush job: It was announced only hours in advance, and Onorato and Ravenstahl didn't even have a draft of the proposal on hand.
What's more, even by Ravenstahl's standards, the bill falls short of real reform.
Back in June, Ravenstahl argued that it would be unfair for mayoral candidates and city councilors to have the same limits. Since councilors represent "one ninth ... of the city," Ravenstahl wrote in a veto letter, "[t]rue reform would cap City Council races at one-ninth of what may be contributed in races for citywide offices." The Ravenstahl/Onorato bill, though, sets the same limits -- $4,600 for contributions from individuals, $10,000 from political action committees -- for officials ranging from city council all the way up to county executive.
That's fine by me: Partial reform is better than none, and it's nice Ravenstahl now shares common ground with reformers. Unfortunately, though, reformers will be hamstrung in efforts to strengthen the bill further. Onorato and Ravenstahl made it clear they wanted the city and county bills to be exactly the same. That makes it harder for city and county councilors to toughen either measure. Legislators are essentially being told to take what they're given and like it -- all in the name of fair play and democracy, of course.
Cynics might note that the proposed reform won't take effect until 2010. By then, Onorato may well be running for governor (a race that has no contribution limits) and the mayor's 2009 reelection bid will be over. Cynics might also suspect the mayor is doing as little as possible, while claiming as much credit as he can.
But hey, if this initiative doesn't fly, the mayor can always change his name to Reformerstahl.