Out With the Old (?) | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Out With the Old (?) 

Pittsburgh's leadership is in the midst of a generational shift. Does that mean a new approach to politics, or just a fresh crop of old boys?

When Chelsa Wagner started knocking on doors in the South Hills this summer, residents might have first thought she was selling Girl Scout cookies, not running for state representative.

"I can't imagine what people thought," Wagner says, laughing. "I had my hair pulled back into a ponytail and tons of freckles on my face. I'm 29, but I really looked young at that time, and sometimes people did comment about my age."

But Wagner didn't let first impressions about her age derail her. She was offering voters a choice -- youth, exuberance and energy -- over Michael Diven, a three-term incumbent who left the Democratic Party after feuding with party leaders.

Wagner heard a few comments about her age, but she also got serious questions about her political agenda -- reducing the size of government and spurring economic development, to name a few. People were fed up with the same old, and ready for a change: Wagner was elected with more than 55 percent of the vote.

"I didn't receive acceptance from just voters my own age, the support was across the board," Wagner explains. "In fact at one point, I was polling better with older voters.

"I think people were fed up and it gave them reason to be optimistic at a time when there is so little trust in public officials."

Indeed, voters showed their disdain across the region and across the state in 2006. In both the May primary and the general election, elected officials got the bum's rush at all levels of government ... in some cases being replaced by younger, untested officials with little more than a few good ideas and an excitement about the future. At the city level, the political turmoil resulting from the death of Mayor Bob O'Connor added to the ferment, putting the city in the hands of 26-year-old Luke Ravenstahl.

Events in 2006 have capped a change that's been underway for the past few years: a generational shift in political leadership.

In Pittsburgh's city council, for example, the average councilor's age is currently 44, and just three councilors are over 45 years old. In 2000, more than half of council was over the age of 45, and the average councilor was 47.

Similar demographics seem likely to define next year's special election for mayor, the winner of which will fill out the remainder of O'Connor's term. The average age of the two most likely candidates, Ravenstahl and City Councilor Bill Peduto, is just under 35. The last time a special election for the mayor's office was held occurred in 1989: Then, the average age of the top three competitors was 52, and the winner was Sophie Masloff, the oldest person to ever be elected mayor.

There are potential downsides to this generational shift. The city is now being led by Ravenstahl, who has served in elected office for just over three years. The legislative branch doesn't provide much of a counterweight: Council currently doesn't have a single member with more than six years of experience. Such inexperience, some worry, could result in impressionable politicians repeating the bad practices of their elders. Instead of providing new beginnings, younger politicians could end up being nothing more than the new class of good old boys.

And yet there's hope that as a new generation of under-40 politicians comes up through the ranks, they'll bring with them fresh ideas and perspectives.

Recently elected State Reps. Lisa Bennington and Wagner believe that the future is brighter.

Ask Bennington if there's a generational shift underway, and the Morningside Democrat can barely hold her enthusiasm. "Isn't it great?" the attorney beams as she waits for a case to be called in Allegheny County Family Court on the Thursday before Christmas. "Look at candidates like myself and Chelsa Wagner and our young mayor Ravenstahl. There's definitely change on the way, and it's going to be a very good thing."

"I don't think we're seeing a huge seismic shift, but it's there," says activist Gloria Forouzan of Run Baby Run, a non-partisan organization that supports women running for political office. "The need for change is apparent, and voters are starting to look for new faces with no baggage."

Pittsburgh is older than many other metropolitan areas, and its political leadership is older still. According to a 2002 study conducted by the Coro Center, a national political training and research firm with an office in Pittsburgh, the median age of all Allegheny County residents was 39.5. The median age of their elected officials, however, was 51, and just 12 percent of elected officials surveyed were under the age of 40.

Yet even as those demographics are changing, many of the younger politicians themselves downplay the significance of a generational shift. Take Patrick Dowd, a 38-year-old Pittsburgh school-board member who is running for the city council seat currently held by Len Bodack. Voters, says Dowd, are simply looking for new faces -- the number of wrinkles on those faces, he says, is less crucial.

"I really don't think age is as important as having a full complement of experiences and backgrounds," Dowd says. "If we're going to make a difference in the way things are currently being done, we have to look underneath the old-young debate and realize we need people who are new, not necessarily young."

Others contend that in a city obsessed over losing its young people, the generational implications of a change in leadership shouldn't be ignored.

"We're absolutely seeing a generational shift," says Khari Mosley, statewide president for the League of Young Voters, an organization that helps get young people out to the polls and prepare young candidates for future political runs. "We are without a doubt seeing candidates in their late 20s and early 30s running for these offices, because they haven't liked what they've been seeing and want to take these positions in a completely different direction."

In fact, Mosley cites Dowd's own school-board run for office as a template for younger candidates to follow. In 2003, Dowd was part of a 1,200-member grass-roots coalition who wanted to see drastic changes in the city's school board. The board was marred by in-fighting, and its critics targeted District 2 representative Darlene Harris, citing her micromanagement and feuds with other board members and then-superintendent John Thompson.

Dowd and his supporters campaigned on a platform of student achievement instead of school management, marking a contrast from a board often consumed by debates over which schools to close and open. He ended up soundly beating Harris, the endorsed, and entrenched, Democrat.

"What Pat Dowd did for local politics was show how realistic it is that a small group of organized people can make a big difference," Mosley says. Mosley expects Dowd to draw on a similarly motivated base for his council run, which Mosley predicts "will turn out to be the race to watch in May."

There has been speculation, meanwhile, about the political ambitions of the 30-year-old Mosley himself. But for now, at least, Mosley says his "whole purpose is to advance democracy -- and me getting elected will do less to advance democracy than bringing 10 people to the ballot."

Indeed, the appearance of younger candidates owes much to organizations like Mosley's and Forouzan's, says Erin Molchany. Molchany is the executive director of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Program (PUMP) -- which itself tries to get young professionals engaged in politics. She says, "If you're going to run a grass-roots campaign, it's important to know someone who knows the nuts and bolts of running a campaign.

"Injecting these people and their knowledge into campaigns is a great way to try and change the outcome of some elections."

What they'll be able to change after Election Day, however, remains to be seen.

Young candidates often have little in common besides their age. But while their platforms vary, few are campaigning as economic populists. Instead, they tend to emphasize fiscal responsibility in government, property-tax relief and spurring economic development. The other main issue is reforming the size and cost of government, with proposals that include reducing the size of government bodies and consolidating services between the city and the county. Candidates like Peduto often tout the use of technology to provide more efficient government service.

One focus of Dowd's council run, for example, is his desire to combine certain redundant city and county services, like trash collection. He also wants to focus on enhancing what he calls Pittsburgh's "little pockets of progress" scattered throughout the region, "capitaliz[ing] on the technological boom that has been happening here in the past several years."

Bennington, meanwhile, ran primarily on a platform of government reform. She favors the reduction of the legislature and the elimination of "Walking Around Money" -- the pot of cash that allows legislators to provide funding for district projects.

Such issues played well in Bennington's campaign against 28-year incumbent Frank Pistella. Though Pistella was a progressive Democrat in many ways -- a solid vote for sexual freedoms and workers' rights -- he also voted for the state legislature's notorious 2005 pay raise. That proved a huge advantage for Bennington's candidacy.

Young candidates are well positioned to benefit from a "throw the bums out" mentality, if only because such candidates often don't have a record to speak of -- or complain about. But beyond that, Wagner says, Pennsylvanians care about a similar set of issues no matter what their age.

"There is a tendency to think that the issues facing the younger generation are different from those facing anyone else," Wagner says. "However, the older and middle-aged generation wants to see more jobs, [and] so does the younger generation. The older generations want to see property-tax relief, and that's a huge issue for younger voters who are getting ready in some cases to buy their first house. Things are not that different for voters regardless of age."

Indeed, you won't necessarily find these fresh-faced candidates touting a lot of fresh ideas. And for the most part, that's OK, says Joe Mistick, a Duquesne law professor and former chief of staff for Mayor Masloff. Sometimes being young is all it takes to inject life into an otherwise moribund government, he says -- and generational shifts are an inevitable part of the political process.

"It's like that corny Disney song; it's the circle of life," Mistick says. "You have to have fresh blood in politics for the system to keep working. Right now ... we are looking at a pretty youthful group coming into power. The main thing they'll bring to the table is new energy. And that may be the only thing they bring, and that's OK."

However, once those youthful candidates take office, a strange thing can sometimes happen.

"They come in and beat the political machine and everything is great for a long time," Mistick says. "Then one day you turn around and guess what? You're the new political machine.

"People seem to forget that at one time [former Allegheny County Commissioner] Tom Foerster was once a young guy who beat the political machine." But eventually, Foerster became entrenched in office, to the point where voters "had to do away with the county commissioner [system] to finally get rid of him."

Even new faces like Wagner can carry old blood in their veins. Wagner is a member of one of Allegheny County's most entrenched political families. Her father is Pete Wagner, one of the county's top Democratic Party leaders; her uncle is state Auditor General Jack Wagner.

But what she and other young candidate are bringing to the table, she says, is a different set of experiences and perspectives. While older politicians have often lived in the region their entire lives, younger candidates have often returned to Pittsburgh after living in other places. Wagner herself has lived and worked in Ohio, Virginia and New York City, and says the experience has broadened her.

"I spent about 10 years living and working elsewhere and I have seen the way that other communities operate -- both the good and the bad," Wagner says. And now, she adds, "I'm able to put those experiences to work in the city that I truly love."

Even so, Mistick says the core issues facing elected officials haven't changed in years ... which should give pause to those promising big changes.

Mistick himself was elected to the McKeesport City Council at age 24, when he had grand dreams of changing the world. That, he says, was his first big mistake.

"It's easy to say you're in favor of these things and get into office," he says. "But coming up with the solutions is something entirely different.

"There's no shame in admitting that the best you can hope for is to work hard and make a few small changes that will impact the lives of a few individuals," Mistick adds. "If you don't narrow the scope of your service, then you will more than likely spend a lot of time spinning your wheels and going nowhere. Who does that help?"

For the most part, in fact, this generational shift has often merely helped replace old white males with young white males. And for all the talk about bringing fresh blood to politics, that isn't anyone's idea of diversity.

"Until Chelsa and I were elected in November, there weren't any women in the state House from Allegheny County," Bennington says, her tone spiced with incredulity. "Don't you think that's odd by today's standards? Hopefully we're starting a tiny shift of our own."

Wagner says a high point of her campaign was "seeing younger girls in grade school or high school paying attention to politics simply because I was running.

"Those of us in office now have a duty to get younger people involved in the process. If you're a young woman and you see someone who looks like you doing something like this, that can be inspiring, and that's an awesome responsibility to live up to."

But there's still a lot of work to do. According to the Center for Women in Politics Pennsylvania's state legislature ranks 47th in the country when it comes to the percentage of women -- one spot behind Mississippi and just above Kentucky, Alabama and South Carolina.

As a teacher at a private, all-girls school and the father of daughters, Dowd says it's "reprehensible that there are only two women representing Allegheny County in Harrisburg." Yet his own 2003 victory came at the expense of Harris, one of the few women on the local political scene.

Harris herself is back in the public eye: This fall, she won a special election to fill the council seat Ravenstahl vacated to become mayor. But Run Baby Run's Forouzan says that Harris is the exception that proves the rule. "She is a party favorite and is shown tremendous support," Forouzan says. Yet even so, "she has really had to put her time in to get it."

In general, Forouzan adds, "The political establishment does not provide the same resources to different types of candidates. There has always been a preference given to white male candidates. For a female candidate to get an equal share of those resources, they really have to be a known quantity in the party structure, and they have to prove they can win races to get that kind of support."

If gains have been slight for female candidates, they've been nearly non-existent for non-white candidates.

"There seems to have been an extremely small level of investment by anybody to train the next generation of black elected officials," says Mosley of the League of Young Voters. While there is "an established infrastructure of internships and political legacies" for white candidates to draw upon, he says, "that is nearly non-existent in the African-American community."

In city government, it's hard even for Mosley -- who is a Democratic Party ward chair in addition to his work for the League -- to name a single African-American official who could be a viable candidate for mayor in the next decade. The last black candidate whose name was mentioned in the same breath with the word "mayor" was ousted City Councilor Sala Udin, whose ties to former Mayor Tom Murphy seemed to knock him out of contention.

"The next minority who will be mayor has to have a lot of cross-over appeal, a strong professional background, and the ability to understand the problems and communicate with the voter in Spring Garden as well as the voter in the Hill District," Mosley predicts. "I just don't know who that person is at this time."

Another problem Mosely sees is the reluctance of some African-American officials to groom future politicians. That reluctance, he says, comes in part from every politician's desire to save his or her own job. Mosely says the number of posts available to African-American candidates is limited -- generally to six or seven seats on county and city council, and three or four judicial seats. That's somewhere between 10 and 12 seats accessible to an African-American population numbering just under 150,000 countywide.

"It's very hard for an African American or a Latino to get elected to statewide seats, so the number of jobs are fairly limited," Mosley explains. "So unfortunately, there is a tendency for [black officials] to protect their seats.

"The last thing they want to do is teach someone how to beat them, and that means there are fewer young African-American candidates in the pipeline."

So far, next year's mayoral race is shaping up to be a race between two relatively young white males: Ravenstahl and Peduto. Yet the two candidates differ greatly, and their contest may force young politicians -- and young voters -- to decide what they believe in aside from youth.

"It's really a strange situation when you can look at a 26-year-old kid and say he's the old-time politician in the race," says Mistick. "Ravenstahl will be running with [late mayor Bob] O'Connor's team and O'Connor's platform to a certain extent. Peduto is the guy who's going to be out in the streets running against politics as usual, and his opponent is only 26 years old."

Something a lot more important than age -- like ideas and vision -- will have to play out in the contest between them, Mistick says. "These two are quite the dichotomy. You've got Ravenstahl, who probably listens too much to the people around him, [while] Peduto probably doesn't listen enough. My opinion is the guy who can find a nice comfy spot in the middle will be the next mayor."

However, regardless of who wins the seat, Mistick says, "What we need in this region more than anything are fresh faces and new blood injected into the system."


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