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.


Mark Rauterkus said...

The best job for her, perhaps, if you are bucking as her head hunter role, is within the city controller's office, IMNSHO.

We could use some tension and extra hustle there.

Peaks and Gutters said...

Anything where she can be a pain in someone's rear end, and I say that in the most affectionate manner possible. Anything where she can be forcing people to take the more responsible, more accountable, more community-oriented approach, even if that approach is less convenient and less individually-beneficial.

If that's the city controller, then so be it. I'm just glad that there is a growing sentiment that hopes she ends up in city government at the end of this thing.