Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Peak: The best thing to come out of this election

Let’s face it: Pat Dowd and Carmen Robinson probably aren’t going to win the upcoming Democratic primary in the race for mayor of Pittsburgh. It’s just not likely. There’s a unique brand of apathy that leads a voter to the polls without really paying attention in the months - and years - leading up to the election, and that seems to be the prevailing approach for the greater Pittsburgh public.

The result of that kind of philosophy is that the incumbent wins, despite the best efforts of the challengers and a pretty strong group of reform-minded individuals who would really like to see something change.

Nevertheless, even if Pittsburgh re-elects Luke Ravenstahl, some good will have come from this campaign cycle. With any luck, the average city dweller has gotten exposure to some new ways to approach Pittsburgh’s problems. Ideally, this exposure would lead the general public to put more pressure on the city’s elected officials down the road, demanding accountability and responsibility for Pittsburgh’s future (and the best case scenario would have the demand for accountability and responsibility turn the next mayoral election into a referendum on the administration, which is what this election should have been, but that’s another topic altogether).

But one of the biggest benefits for the city that can come from this election is the emergence of Carmen Robinson as a relevant voice in Pittsburgh. Robinson entered the election as a private practice defense attorney with a checkered history on the Pittsburgh police force (“checkered” by some sexual harassment lawsuits) but at this point, with about three weeks left before the primary, she has established herself as an important public figure in the city.

Check out Tony Norman’s take on Robinson in the Post-Gazette and then read the P-G’s mayoral profile on Robinson. Several recurring themes:

Public servant. Public safety. Blue collar. Outsider. Not a politician. Community. Neighborhoods.

And I’m good with all of those things. The quality Robinson brings that neither Dowd nor Ravenstahl has been able to embody - in Dowd’s case - or seems to want to embody - in the case of Ravenstahl - is a real “from the bottom-up” approach. Robinson believes, and I agree, that you fix the problems of a city by starting at the lowest levels of the city and working your way up. Real, hands-on work that addresses problems one-by-one with real solutions.

Maybe I’ve taken too much influence from The Wire, but it seems like that’s the best way to address the real problems of urban life. Not with institutional overtures and governmental grandstanding, but with a real understanding of the nature of the urban problems.

Robinson seems to have that understanding, and some good ideas on how to begin the process of correcting some of these issues that have been festering for decades. In looking over some notes from the WTAE debate, time and again Robinson came back to the same notions:

- In her opening statement she talked about how there are two faces of Pittsburgh. One is the “most livable city” and the “city of champions,” but the other is, in her words, “a distressed city.”

- On the question of violence in the city, Robinson said that “violence is a preventable illness” and that the city must “approach it from a public health point of view.”

- Robinson also seems to understand that one of the most basic and crucial steps in curbing many of the shortcomings of urban life lies in correcting the school system, advocating that the mayor use his or her “bully pulpit to encourage the school system to change their ways.”

- Further on the school system, Robinson said that the Pittsburgh Promise was flawed because it needed to be extended to middle school students, hoping to get younger children into the program earlier so as to increase the likelihood of those children completing high school. Getting kids into college is good, she said, but they need to finish high school first.

And Robinson’s right about that: high school drop-out rates are a bigger problem than kids who graduate high school but don’t go to college. You need to do everything you can to ensure that kids at least get through high school. Another big campaign issue of Robinson’s - at least on the topic of education - is that there needs to be a focus on post-high school education for students who aren’t going to college. Trade schools and career-centered post-grad education is just as vital to creating a sustainable citizenry as sending kids to college is.

Robinson gets all of this, and I like that about her. I really do. But like I said, I just don’t see Robinson nor Dowd beating Ravenstahl.

Hopefully, though, Robinson’s support has swelled enough and her public presence has grown enough that she doesn’t just slide back into the private sector as a defense attorney. The best thing that could happen would be for whichever candidate wins the election - probably Ravenstahl - to find a position in city government for Robinson. Something relevant, something influential, something where she can be right behind every decision that gets made, ready to call out the Mayor or Council or whoever needs to get called out. Someone to kick a little ass when a little ass needs to be kicked.

Even if she doesn’t get to be mayor this time around, Carmen Robinson can serve this city well. I just hope that the powers recognize her value.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Gutter: Somebody's getting clingy

Remember when Barack Obama said this?

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

He was so off-base about that, wasn’t he? How dare he make such statements? Those comments were an affront to the gun-loving, God-fearing, Constitution-misunderstanding people of our fair Commonwealth, and every proud American with a magnetic yellow ribbon on the back of his truck took offense at the suggestion that he was clinging to guns as some sort of reactionary instinct.

Clinging to guns…what a load of crap. That elitist doesn’t know the first thing about the heart of Pennsylvania.

Oh wait.

From today’s Post-Gazette:

The publisher of The Outdoor Wire, an online publication for the outdoors industry, even credited Mr. Obama with sparing the gun industry the same kind of slump that has decimated the automakers.

Sales of guns and ammunition are surging nationwide, largely because gun enthusiasts and first-time buyers are afraid the president is going to push for gun control.

The increase has reached record levels in recent months.

And furthermore…

As for Mr. Rendell, he recently joined Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in urging Congress to renew an assault weapons ban and asked the state Legislature to pass a lost-and-stolen-gun reporting law and allow local firearms regulation.

Moves like those fuel a simple mentality: Stockpile while you can.

And furthermore…

"I'm not worried about it, but I know everyone else is," said Mr. Casato, 66. "Any time you have the Democrats take over, [gun advocates] feel they're going to infringe on gun rights.”

And furthermore…

…it's safe to say that many gun owners don't trust the president. The surge in sales actually began during the election, when then-candidate Obama emerged as the front-runner. It intensified after he won.

And furthermore…

Many of Anthony Arms' customers are worried about home invasions, he said. But others are clearly concerned about the political climate.

"I always ask them why they're buying guns," said Mr. McCall. "They say they're afraid they're going to be banned and then they won't be able to get them."

And finally…

Those who oppose gun control of any kind say there already are enough gun laws and look at such measures [such as bans on assault rifles] as the beginning of a ban on all guns -- or even confiscation of their weapons.

A fear of “confiscation of their weapons?” Sounds to me like someone’s clinging to their AK. And the rush to buy guns - "I've been in this business for 33 years," said Mr. Romanoff, "and there's never been this demand." - is further evidence that Obama’s “cling to guns” claim wasn’t that far off-base.

Of course, by associating Obama’s comments with this story about rising gun sales - a surge in gun sales? - I’m playing into the same misunderstanding that made the whole thing a controversy last year:

The point of Obama’s statement wasn’t the “cling to guns or religion” part; the point was the “why” behind that clinging.

The jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.

That was the real crux of what Obama was saying, and can anyone deny it? Drive down to Clairton or Homestead - the real Homestead, not the Waterfront - or Braddock, and tell me what you see. And those places are just in the Pittsburgh area.

It was probably poor syntax judgment to juxtapose “bitter” with “cling to guns or religion” and thus associate the two. But the underlying truth of Obama’s statement was impossible to deny then and looks even more accurate now.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gutter: What's the hang-up?

I’m all for personal liberty and avoiding the over-legislation of personal acts, but I think the state House probably dropped the ball a little bit this week.

From the Post-Gazette:

The House yesterday defeated a measure that would have banned drivers from using hand-held cell phones, but legislators decided to hit drivers in the wallet if they drive carelessly while using a hand-held device.

The initial legislation called for a ban on using a handheld device while driving and made it a primary offense; that is to say, you could get pulled over for using the handheld cell phone while you’re driving.

Instead, the House voted that if you get pulled over for driving carelessly, you could get an extra $50 fine if you were using a handheld cell phone at the time.

The amendment to ban the use of handheld devices was introduced by Josh Shapiro, D-Montgomery County (near Philadelphia).

Mr. Shapiro said state records show there have been nearly 7,000 accidents on Pennsylvania roads since 2002 in which the driver was using a hand-held communications device, but only 425 in which they were using a hands-free device such as Bluetooth. (P-G)

I don’t know about you, but 7,000 accidents in the last 7 years is a pretty convincing number to me. If you could cut down on 1,000 accidents per year with the threat of a $50 fine, I think it’s worth it.

Naturally, the automatic response helped defeat the measure.

But some legislators wondered why the state should focus on banning just this one distraction for drivers. Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, said that on his way to the Capitol yesterday, he saw a driver drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper. (P-G)

Yes, all of those things are distractions, just like tuning the radio is a distraction. And arguing with a passenger. And dialing up the iPod. And having sexual relations. And searching under the seat for a wayward french fry. The list goes on.

So many distractions and just not enough legislation to cover them all. But here’s the thing:

I see many, many more people driving like idiots when they’re on their phone than I see people driving carelessly due to cigarettes, coffee, and newspapers combined.

Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said failure to wear a seat belt is a secondary offense, meaning a police officer can't stop a car just because a driver isn't belted in. He said failure to wear a seat belt is more serious than talking on a cell phone, but the latter would be a primary offense, meaning an officer could stop a driver just for using a cell phone. (P-G)

The most basic tenet of personal liberty is this: do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t affect/hurt/threaten anyone else. If you don’t wear a seatbelt, you’re putting yourself at risk. If you drive like a moron because you’re using a handheld cell, then others are at risk. There’s a difference.

Five states have already banned driving while using a handheld cell, and the Oregon state House introduced similar legislation this week. Last week, Philadelphia city council voted 17-0 to ban the use of handheld devices while driving. Naturally, all of these bans have exceptions for calling 911 or reporting unsafe drivers, etc. But the trend of banning the use of handhelds while driving is growing.

Shapiro, the Pa. representative who introduced the legislation, says he’s “not giving up,” and I’d have to think that it’s only a matter of time before his law gets passed.

Addendum: I couldn’t find a way to work this in, but I just have to mention it because it’s brilliantly ridiculous and speaks to our state legislative branch.

Rep. John Maher, R-Upper St. Clair, said the bill outlawed hand-held cell phone use "while operating" a vehicle.

Mr. Shapiro insisted that "operating" meant "driving" a car. Mr. Maher said there are court cases saying that "operating" can mean just being behind the wheel of a car that is idling, but not moving forward or backward.

"Let's not criminalize innocent behaviors," Mr. Maher said. "Someone sitting in a parked car talking on their cell phone will be dragged from their vehicle by police." (P-G)

Great point there, Mr. Maher. You’re the pride of Upper St. Clair.

Not really anything else I can say about that.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Gutter: The debate in one overwrought sentence

It’s been two days since the debate with Luke Raventsahl, Patrick Dowd, and Carmen Robinson, and I still think the Mayor “won” the night, based largely on the old adage of “it’s not what you say but how you say it.” The Mayor’s points were largely based on half-truths and misleading statements, but for the city’s residents who were looking to the debates for guidance on which candidate presents the best options for Pittsburgh’s future, the young mayor was pretty convincing.

That is to say, if you didn’t know that much of what he was saying was illegitimate, you’d probably think he was a pretty good candidate. And since I suspect that a fair majority of the Pittsburgh voting public might not have seen through the Mayor’s crap, then John Q. Pittsburgh’s lasting impression from the debate will probably be something along the lines of “He’s got us heading in the right direction.”

Which is disappointing. Despite the fact that Dowd and Robinson both made relevant points throughout the debate, the Mayor came out looking the best due to an impressive display of politicking.

Dowd and Robinson each needs to focus more on relating to the viewer in that kind of forum and understanding how to best convey his or her points.

One specific instance stuck out. WTAE reporter Bob Mayo asked the candidates about the perceived atmosphere of so-called “pay to play” politics in Pittsburgh city government and whether each candidate felt that the perception was pervasive.

Dowd went first. Without an official transcript, here is my recollection of his response to the question:

“In this culture that we live in, given the administration we have, it’s easy to see that.”

I apologize if I didn’t get the exact wording - I typed as fast as I could during the debate - but you get the gist of it: verbose and over-spoken. To this point the debate, Dowd had been constantly on the offensive, going after the Mayor at every turn (even when it wasn’t appropriate or timely). And yet, when the question of pay-to-play came up, he dropped into some wordy near-hypothetical.

So I ask: why pull your punches? Or worse, why drape your punches in qualifiers and clauses? Hit him with a strong right and say what you feel:

“Yes, there are pay-to-play politics in this administration. There are too many dots to connect to feel otherwise.”

Now, Dowd did follow up his statement with some good talk about wanting “a government we can be proud of” and needing “strict measures” to be “in place for a long haul,” and he also reiterated his favorite talking point: transparency.

And I can get on board with all of that. But why cloud it up with a slow-to-get-rolling multi-clause statement about “in this culture we live in” and “given the administration we have?” Go for the jugular. Don’t let there be any doubt; I don’t think Dowd has any doubt about the existence of pay-to-play, and I don’t think he wants the public to have any doubt. But when you say what he said the way he said it, the forming of the sentence lends itself stylistically to creating doubt.

I’d be remiss to not mention that Robinson followed up Dowd’s response with one of the better points of the night, essentially talking about how perception is king at this point. But maybe I’ll work on a separate post about that.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Peak: Appealing to the masses

The Steelers might be the kings of the town, but the Penguins are becoming political players (in a different way this time).

Apparently someone at Ravenstahl campaign HQ heard that the Pens-Flyers series is drawing good ratings. The first commercial of the first intermission during Tuesday's Game 4 was a pro-Luke ad. Now, I don't watch much local network television, but I think I watch enough to have an idea about what they show, and I have yet to see a Luke-for-Mayor ad this year.

Tuesday night was the first one I've seen.

According to SportsBusinessDaily (reg. required)...Sunday’s telecast of the Penguins-Flyers Game 3, drew a huge (for hockey) 1.7/4, NBC’s highest hockey ratings since the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, and likely tied for the highest non-Finals/Winter Classic rating on NBC in the network’s history...According to Sports Media Watch, the game did a whopping 18.6/33 in Pittsburgh (Meaning 1 in every 3 households with a TV watched it) and a 7.0/15 in Philadelphia. (Courtesy of Puck The Media)

I guess hitting one out of every three households is a pretty good net to cast. Sports really does have a place in politics, even if it's just as a medium for spreading the word.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Gutter: Who's got a "Word of the Day" calendar?

Pittsburgh democratic debate with Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Councilman Patrick Dowd, and attorney Carmen Robinson just wrapped up. Each candidate appeared to have his or her own Word of the Day calendar.

My approximation of what each of those calendars said this morning:

Dowd: "Leadership"

Robinson: "Disingenuous"

Ravenstahl: Not sure, but it must have been something funny, since he was smirking the whole time.