Monday, June 11, 2007

Interview: Bill Peduto

The councilman was chatting with an acquaintance just prior to our interview -- someone he had not seen apparently in months.

Peduto said things are fine now, but back then?

"Honestly? I was miserable. I was snapping at people, I was ..." He sort of shook it off.

Sitting down, he tells us how much he is looking forward to this summer, which he has mockingly proclaimed the "Summer of Bill."

He signed up for two hockey teams. He plans to do a lot of hiking, and some rock-climbing.

He is a big fan of Al Gore, whom he hopes will make a presidential bid. He may get pretty involved if that happens.

Meanwhile, the phones have been ringing off the hook about cat-licensing legislation, and he's steeping himself in the data. And crafting a few zingers for the council floor.

"Sorry, Mr. Motznik, but I got cat class. And I got cat style."


It is springtime for reform at the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, so we broached the subject of what kinds of reform he would recommend.

"Open primaries: there is no endorsement process."

The other "reforms" they are discussing, he says, are "greater punitive damages. Not reform, just more ... Soviet-era ... big brother control."

Party endorsements are "one of the main cogs" in the machine, he insists -- a machine that dates back to the 1880s, that converts votes into jobs, and then back into votes.

That may have been necessary in a different era, but Peduto contends that fewer and fewer parts of the country operate like that. He says it discourages independent voices -- voices that really belong in the Democratic tent.

What would be the role of a committee person in a post-endorsement world?

"Inform the voters. Work to help the candidates in the general election."

What does he think about simply raising the endorsement threshold, to maybe a 2/3 majority?

"It's accepting half-measures."

What does he think about being so frequently at odds with the party leadership?

"They have to remember that the committee does not equal the Democratic Party." He then gave a brief history of his own efforts to build the local Democratic party, often with a weather eye on presidential politics, considering Pennsylvania's importance as a swing state.

Back in the early 90's, in his first month in office, Peduto was leading something called the Young Bloods -- the first of many successive campaigns to reach out to new constituencies, getting them voting and involved, and getting many dozens elected to the ACDC.

His campaigns have seen a steady stream of volunteers becoming staffers, and then staffers becoming consultants -- or else establishing themselves at places like the League of Young Voters, and beyond.

Nationwide organizations like Democracy for America, MoveOn, and the National Hip-Hop Conference all help to inspire new initiatives on the local political landscape, and Bill Peduto has frequently played a supporting role.

"There used to be just the 14th Ward, and the Gertrude Stein club. And this was only ten years ago!"

He credits a 1999 project with Pat Clark called Ground Zero for establishing the framework behind a lot of the progressive percolation we see today.

He also credits the Internet, which he does not claim to have invented, but does use to political advantage. Instead of a think-tank ("I don't know where my mind was at!"), he now speaks of a "web-based policy action committee."

He recently collaborated with Justine Ezarik, a web/graphic designer and "lifecaster," who broadcasts her life as an Internet channel. They took a Just Ducky Tour of downtown Pittsburgh, streaming the whole thing live, in what might have been the unveiling of a new web-based initiative.

He is keen to emphasize that his party-building approach, at every step, has been non-confrontational -- always inclusive. Yet it has been indisputably effective. "No one has done more for this party," he contends.

Dramatic pause. "And a lot of them know that."


"The core issue comes from economics" he begins, when asked about saving our failing neighborhoods. "Does your solution affect the root, or cut it off at the stem?"

"Or does it score a quick headline?"

The answers can be as simple as providing an opportunity for a G.E.D., he says, but also include having good community development plans. Not just for casinos, he points out, and not just for sports teams, but for universities and hospitals as well.

UPMC is doubling the size of its cancer center, for example -- which he says is "wonderful" -- but we lack initiative at City Planning to require community benefits agreements, and workforce development training. Similarly, we lack such requirements when we award TIFFs.

"We lack a lot of things," he sighs.

Back to the neighborhoods, he acknowledges that violence is also "spread by drugs: crack, cocaine, and heroin."

He was very proud of Parole Patrol, a pilot-program he got to lead with CDC Bloomfield under Mayor Tom Murphy. It emphasized police officers patrolling right alongside probation officers.

He said "it helps the police know who they are looking for," helps them "police smarter" and "eliminate profiling."

He also spoke of tapping into faith-based institutions and neighborhood organizations. He cited the Afro-American Music Institute, and its music-training programs, as one example. He mentioned two different basketball programs.

"What about hockey?" we asked.

He took no pause. "Hockey in the Hood."

Yes, but how does he contend with the yawning cultural chasm? The war in the streets? The icy distrust between the black citizens of these neighborhoods and law enforcement? How can these well-intentioned little programs possibly thrive?

He shot us a look that we cannot describe -- except to swear it was the exact the same look we got from Ricky Burgess, when asked the same kind of questions during the race for District 9.

Peduto simply rehashed his examples: basic education assistance, job training, community benefits tied to new developments, improved policing, and the fostering of new community organizations.

He cites East Liberty as a partial success story. We ourselves mention the continuing success of the Shadow Lounge, for example, as an encouraging sign.

"The Shadow Lounge? Ask Justin who stood up for him back when the police were trying to shut him down."


Getting back to politics briefly, we mention Mark DeSantis. "No, no, no. I'm not getting involved."

Peduto had told us earlier "it would be hypocritical" for him to come out and support Ravenstahl, considering his recent opposition. Yet that was not what we had in mind.

We asked if it wouldn't break his heart, if he had to watch some of his strongest supporters, his web-based policy-action committee and his progressive reform network, come out in favor of a Republican for mayor.

He had to think about that for a few beats.

"Would it break my heart?" he asked. "No. Not in a non-presidential year."


  1. Hey Bram.. good post.

  2. Let me second that - good interview.

  3. Thanks, guys. Especially Dayvoe. When's the last time the Trib paid a complement to the P-G in print, or vice-versa?