Friday, April 13, 2007

Review: Candidate Forum in D9

The controller candidates served as the opening act, and maverick Mike Dawida was both the most dramatic (he quoted the Bible and Dr. King), and the most humorous (his suggestion that Shields, being an excellent City Council president, should remain that way). But he didn't seem to make a strong connection.

Michael Lamb, conversely, seemed to go out of his way not to pander -- he referenced Dickens novels, and pushed a more aggressive tax-collection regime. He returned to the theme "We're all proud of our city, but we're not proud of our local government," burnishing his reformist credentials.

On minority hiring, Tony Pokora made the news of the night by promising outright to hire an African-American for deputy controller; he says he already has three good candidates in mind.

We discovered that Doug Shields used to milk cows, and more importantly, that he's against the $52 occupation tax because "regressive taxes hurt poor people." He got some applause, but on the whole failed to mesmerize this time around.

DaMon Macklin was late to arrive, but he did get to stress that qualifications matter (is he the only candidate with a degree in finance?), and also the importance of freeing up city contracts for minority-owned companies.


Patrick Dowd visited briefly (we suppose in the event that Len Bodack got lost in Larimer, and had to stop to ask directions). He advocated reinvesting in aging homes instead of boarding them up and tearing them down. He also advocated a ballot referendum on term limits for city council positions.


Incumbent councilperson Twanda Carlisle stood proudly before the cameras to repeatedly demand more accountability in city government, because "we have to account for every dollar!" Miraculously, no one in the room was seen to crack a smirk. No questions and no candidates would touch even obliquely upon her legal woes.

The key issues were gun violence, drug dealing, economic opportunity, and transportation cuts. The Comet underscores that if the voters of D9 deem Carlisle the most capable leader on these issues, then rumors of corruption and incompetence will not matter one whit.

She was obviously the most seasoned and talented political speaker on the panel. She called out Ed Rendell for breaking promises on public transportation, which seemed to resonate well. However, there was a very conspicuous "Twanda Table" that would chime in with "Mmm-hmm!" and "Tell it, sister!" to say nothing of standing ovations; some in the audience seemed resentful of the disruption.

Endorsed candidate Ricky Burgess came across as soft-spoken and moderate; this obviously served him well among the party committee, but it may not be what the rank and file is looking for. (The benediction at the event's conclusion featured the plea "We don't need a Solomon, we need a David!") Burgess stressed recovery programs for drug abusers, job training, and economic development.

Leah Kirkland spoke with both eloquence and emotion, and at times anger. "The 9th Council District has lost its way," she said, and "We are lacking morals within the homes," and "Parents are burying their children." She said the problem with D9 is "Too many chiefs and not enough Indians," and that "We have churches and nonprofits on every corner; if they were doing their jobs, there wouldn't be eight people in this race!" She came down pretty hard on do-nothing nonprofits.

Eric Smith was notable for casting the problem not as wayward youth, but of "organized crime," which when you think about it is really a revelation.

The most interesting candidate, in our humble opinion, was David Adams -- a Republican with a military background who calls himself a progressive and speaks comfortably about Black Power. He urged his district not to remain "beggars," and spoke of a crime prevention plan for Pennsylvania for which Pittsburgh would be a model. He also took some potshots at the Allegheny Conference.

With the exception of Adams, no candidate spoke of improved policing. Instead, there was much positive talk about the "One Hood" coalition, whose community and religious leaders patrol their own neighborhoods. Similarly, there was little talk of cooperating with government in regards to public transportation, but rather of boycotting the Port Authority and beefing up jitney service in the interim.

All in all, we came away with an impression of a far more radical and activist District 9, although this might have been a reflection of who chose to attend this particular event.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Interview: Tony Pokora

Tony Pokora lost the party endorsement for City Controller to Michael Lamb by one vote. The Burgh Report even ran a Dewey Defeats Truman update in Pokora's favor, but that was before provisional ballots were counted.

Pokora just lost his court challenge against those ballots. "First of all, nothing in the rules says you can even use provisional ballots" he said. "But the judge said, there's nothing in the rules that says you can't." He also challenged them on the grounds of failing to be secret ballots. Yet the judge ruled that they were cast in secret; never mind they did not remain secret for very long at all.

"I wasn't going to get anywhere." Pokora laughed the whole thing off, with a wave of his hand.


Pokora fared better in court when he sued to restore some employees to the Office of Controller. The state oversight board had wanted the Mayor's office, City Council, and the Controller's office to lead the way in terms of financial sacrifice.

Yet the brunt fell on the Controller's office, he says, because "we're not afraid to stand up for the public's rights." Though he won back about a dozen employees, he still only has about half of what the office had under the last Controller, when Pokora was deputy.

His opponents are demanding all kinds of studies and audits, Pokora says, which is great -- if they had the staff available. He is particularly critical of suggestions to audit school boards; he says this is outside the purview of the Controller's office, and the school boards would just keep their books closed tightly. "It makes you wonder if some of these guys really know what the Controller does" he said.

So far as those audits Pokora's office does perform, he is always surprised what makes news. An "oh-hum" audit involving the police department drew every local reporter, he said, whereas a long-overdue census of the city Urban Redevelopment Authority didn't merit a peep.

"The City did not even know what property it owned," he said. "And did not care for them at all. We should find ways to get rid of these properties before they become even more of a liability -- offer the neighbor a bigger yard."

Pokora would steel the city for tough financial sledding, sooner rather than later. "This will be the high mark" he says of the current budget and its $60 million surplus. He points out that even $9 million of that was garnered from an ill-advised refinancing of our regular debt payments.

By 2009, Pokora estimates, the city will begin feeling the crunch in earnest. We asked him to comment upon a long quote from Mayor Ravenstahl's campaign advertisement "Financially Sound Pittsburgh," and he responded, "Well, saying we're turning the corner, I don't agree with."

If Tony Pokora has a reformist streak, it comes into play with tax-exempt organizations like hospitals and universities. He is in favor of taxing these outfits just on their profits -- but that will have to be legislated at the state level, and over the objections of a seemingly large, well-organized nonprofit community.

"As a Catholic, I really resented the Catholic Diocese getting involved in that" he said of the umbrella group of non-profits that has banded together to oppose any mandates. "No one's talking about the Church, or the Little Sisters of the Poor."

He advocates getting creative with how these institutions can make contributions; colleges and universities, he suggested, are well-positioned to fulfill part of the Pittsburgh Promise of college education for every student.

We asked if levying a commuter tax had to be part of the equation. "It would never pass the state legislature" he said. But ideally, you are for it? "I'm saying, it would never pass the state legislature" he repeated with utter certainty.

Pokora insists new or higher taxes are not the answer -- he would in fact like to strip several "nuisance taxes" -- but he did agree with the Act 47 board's initial prescription for a $165 occupation tax. The state overrode them, and capped it at only $52. He does defend collecting that sum all at once; he argues the savings would otherwise be frittered away on bookkeeping.


With a labor background that ranges from organizer to local AFSCME president, Pokora is proud of his endorsement by the Allegheny County Labor Council, which could easily have failed to come to agreement in a five-way contest. He's also proud of the police, fire, and EMS endorsements. We were far more impressed with his endorsement by the Democratic African-American Ward Chairs, and asked how that came about.

"Some of my opponents don't have as good a record when it comes to women and minority hiring" he said. "Plus, all the candidate forums are out in Homewood or what have you. There are some really impressive young people coming out of the black community these days," and he named a few.

The conventional wisdom is that Tony Pokora is the only candidate that actually wants to be City Controller. We asked him about running for Mayor one day.

"Why on earth would anyone want to be mayor?" He laughed the whole thing off, with a wave of his hand.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Top of the World!!

PittGirl reports on giant UPMC signage that would adorn the U.S. Steel Tower. (LINK)

Dan Fitzpatrick of the P-G on same. (LINK) From the article:

UPMC needs permission from the city to place its sign on all three sides of the U.S. Steel Tower. The request is expected to go before the Planning Commission for approval.

Aw, yeeeeaaaah!

In other news, the Comet is coming at you live for the first time from a MacBook Something Something -- and from a popular neighborhood coffeehouse (that provides its own WiFi free of charge).

As to your regular Comet coverage, we plead technical difficulties, learning curve, and what have you. For example, we just noticed the linkage button is NOT appearing. Nor the colors button. Nor size nor boldface nor italics. Ugh.

Thank goodness 2 Political Junkies is on top of things.

P.S. Woy -- how does tomorrrow work for you? :)