Monday, February 2, 2009

DISTRICT 2: Blotzer, Schubert, Smith. Sure to Keep Us Entertained Through May 19.

Theresa Smith kept a somewhat lower profile at the Elliott forum than the other major candidates. The same held true for our interview.

Several of my questions were answered only off-the-record. Others were answered by a supporter of hers who was joining us while Smith herself remained silent.

"You want to get me to say something bad about the Mayor," Smith would say. "I want to work with the Mayor."

No, I said, I just want to know your position on [whatever].

"Well, all I can tell you is I'm not beholden to anyone. I'm only beholden to the community. I'm gonna do just what I've been doing and put the needs of the community first."

How can I believe you if you don't want to put yourself on record about [whatever]?

"You don't need to . The people in the community know that about me already."

We danced that dance about a dozen times. A lot of the off-the-record stuff sounded very comforting, but unfortunately you all don't get to hear any of it.

Smith said she largely opposes campaign finance reform, because of inequities that would arise when city and county officials square off against one another. It should really be a state issue. She also opposed limits of any kind on contributions from labor.

The same principle, for Smith, applies to ethics reform. "I'm not trying to police the entire region."

In terms of development strategy, a flash point in District 2 seems to be the efforts of the West Pittsburgh Partnership. Apparently there are major development plans brewing, but Smith is leery of the direction it is being taken.

"I think they need to involve the community in their decision making -- they say their meetings are open, but I don't know how they're getting the word out. I would like to see some accountability, some more transparency in that organization."

She would be supportive of the development as long as she could be assured that "everything is above board as far as the funding they receive."

Also: "I don't want to see anyone priced out of the community."

We wound up spending much of the interview talking about her opponents. Georgia Blotzer is a very nice person, she said, but just not well-enough known outside of Mt. Washington. Every vote for Blotzer is really a vote for Brendan Schubert, she explained, and a vote for Schubert is a vote for forces likes the West End Partnership and its opaque way of doing business.

"First of all, I'd like to thank Theresa for calling me a nice person," said Georgia Blotzer, when asked about that characterization of her campaign.

After discussing the McArdle Roadway Barrier Replacement Task Force -- which she told us culminated in the largest earmark appropriation for Southwestern Pennsylvania in that cycle -- she then went on to tout her organizing efforts with the Western Pennsylvania Women for Obama (during the primary) and her Obama door knocking in West Virginia (during the general).

Prior to that, she travelled to Iowa to work for Joe Biden.

"So you see, I do come down off the Mount," she said with some sarcasm. "And I've been door knocking all through her community."

Blotzer readily acknowledged that her own past neighborhood activism hasn't taken her across the whole District quite like Smith -- but she denied her frequent absence at key meetings.

"I went to all the strip club meetings," she said, for example. "I testified before the zoning committee. I wrote my own testimony. I asked my own questions."

Blotzer's website and letters-to-the editor make it clear that she favors local campaign finance reform, so I asked her about Smith's particular reservations.

"You know what? That's like an excuse to continue same-old same-old." No special exceptions for union PACs or for local politicos running for higher offices for Blotzer. "I was the first candidate -- even before the pay-to-play Rich Lord article -- to be against this."

"It just infuriates me when people say, 'This money doesn't interest me'."

On the topic of the West End Partnership, Blotzer agreed with Smith that the organization should arouse some concern. "The board's meeting isn't open -- it's closed. They should be open to the public. Just like in the city, we need to shed light."

As to some other development plan that is currently being shopped around, "You can't develop a strategic plan in the whole community in six months."

When asked about what to do about Pittsburgh's debt burden, Blotzer said, "We have a $45 million surplus this year, and I think that's wonderful. But I'm concerned, who is going to oversee this? Who is going to be making those decisions?" She said she preferred restoring the 15% additional going into to the pension funds, and using enough of the remaining surplus to address needs like housing demolition.

I asked Blotzer whether the endorsement was going to be determinative in this special election.

"All I can say is, [Smith] worked really hard to get the endorsement of the political machine. As far as I'm concerned, she can have it."

Brendan Schubert
describes the West End Partnership plan as in early stages, and the WEECC plan as in perhaps earlier stages. The former will require a change of zoning from R1D&P to RP, which illustrates the command he has of some of the challenges involved. He's not as on top of the WEECC progression.

"I wasn't in the group that was asked to be involved," Schubert shrugs. "You have to be a 20-year volunteer. Everyone talks about what they did, instead of what they want to do."

Schubert says he will bring a hard work ethic and intelligence, and warned that the role of a council member is "not as frequently to legislate as facilitate."

Asked to identify the most pressing need for District 2 right now, Schubert replied, "I think getting the strategic development plan off the ground and funded."

We asked about his perspective on recent upheaval at the Department of City Planning.

"I think there was a lot of confusion with what the Department's role was," he said, identifying the Urban Redevelopment Authority as being part of this confusion. "Time healed those wounds, but we had a sore eye on the department because of ... antics."

Vacancies impacted City Planning along with the Bureau of Building Inspection, though Schubert says many at Planning are now filled. He says there are "two or three" positions still vacant, and identified one very important one: the position of Assistant Director.

As to BBI vacancies and why they persist:

"I think part of it's a quick fix to save money," according to Schubert, but "we need to get people to work."

We asked Schubert about the Hill District, just to get a sense. First he said that he was "empathetic" with resident's desires to form a Community Benefits Agreement.

"It's like they slight you once, and you've lost that trust again."

"I think development in the Hill District is key to connecting -- to getting the other gateway to open." Specifically he said it would be great to develop the Center Avenue corridor in conjunction with a transit gateway between Oakland and Downtown.

On whether the claustrophobic Bigelow Boulevard situation could be abated and a more northerly corridor opened, Schubert replied, "I think there's a possibility of that," but quickly, "I would not be opposed to sitting at the table with people with a lot more expertise."

Schubert unabashedly cites his experience at Central Catholic as a big part of what shapes him. It is "an environment of extreme discipline".

"Our Catholicism teaches us about equal rights, service to others," he says, as well as leadership. "As far as that, that's what makes me."

With her name appearing as the lone Democrat on the ballot, Theresa Smith is the prohibitive favorite to win the special election on Tuesday.

I have sympathy for Smith's inclination that Pittsburgh needs to spend money to make money -- or to run itself efficiently. Maybe Pittsburgh honestly should free itself to invest resources into that which will make us strong. Longevity pay for some positions is a good idea -- perhaps we can trade it in coming negotiations for something less productive.

However, Smith's obstructionist posture towards modest efforts to shoo corruption a little further away from government is discouraging. Her initial aggressive negative campaigning was also a turnoff -- though that has been modulated lately.

Georgia Blotzer worked for the Joe Biden presidential campaign. There is no way I can not recommend voting for this person.

Her forthright indictment of "the political machine" is a breath of fresh air, and her instinct to look to aspects of the East End experience as a model is generally correct.

Blotzer does live in an affluent neighborhood, and her presentation does suggest affluence. I can only remind readers that her background is in special education -- the "teacher voice" can be hard to totally turn off. It is fair to question whether she can relate to and work well with such a hardscrabble district as District 2 -- but I get the hunch she can. Why not?

I think adventuring across the country on behalf of a hopeless Joe and a hopeful Barack speaks very well of her regard for the least among us.

Brendan Schubert's candidacy for me is overshadowed by Pat Ford and a whole host of trespasses against law and open government. Ford was Superdirector of the Department of City Planning when Schubert came aboard. His role at the zoning counter was key from procedural and operational standpoints.

A lot of trust was incinerated during that period. It's tempting to assume that the proper course of action in the face those winds would have been to resign in protest, to get fired, or to stoically abide a handful more years towards the attainment of a pension.

Is a stoic accrual of knowledge and experience also good enough reason for an ardent young person to remain at such a post? Sure, ideally. Perhaps the West Pittsburgh Partnership is really onto something in District 2, and Brendan Schubert is the man to responsibly vet such projects and shepherd them forward to fruition? Could be.

The brilliant news is, this is all practically an audition. These candidates will all come back on May 19th and run for a full term on the Council. They'll all get to run as Democrats. The only difference will be, one of them will have a good four months worth of record to defend.


  1. Bram, good hard-hitting interview. Keep it up.

  2. Nice post.

    But, Bram, those in the know understand what is up with the West Pittsburgh Partnership. You wrote, in part, "Perhaps the West Pittsburgh Partnership is really onto something in District 2, ..."

    No way. That group is a cancer. Has been for years. Full of insider deals, if they swing a deal at all.

    That is the type of organization we need to eliminate in this city.

  3. "I wasn't in the group that was asked to be involved," Schubert shrugs. "You have to be a 20-year volunteer. Everyone talks about what they did, instead of what they want to do."

    ...well, to be on our Board of Directors you have to run for a board position at the general meeting in June and you must be a paying member, $2, of our organization.

    Unfortunately Schubert is not a paying member of the WEECC and thus he is not on our board of directors.

  4. In the interests of shamelessly pimping my paper, I'll note that we did a story on some controversies surrounding West End development a couple years back.

    It was written by a guy named Rich Lord. God only knows whatever happened to HIM.

    -- Chris Potter

  5. While we're at it, here's a much more contemporary Charlie Dietch joint on our three candidates:

    I recall it being notable for Brendan Schubert's bristling at rumors that he's somehow "Ravenstahl's boy".

  6. The thing with that is Brendan was introduced all over the place by Paul McKrell, who is very friendly with Luke. So, I guess by association, why not put him as the Mayor's boy.

    And having anything to do with city planning and zoning may make people think that he's yet another vote for the mayor for whatever upcoming projects and developments there are.

  7. Elaine - McKrell is Ravenstahl's campaign manager, actually. Though I'm not sure what time frame you're talking about. I know the Mayor and associated heavy hitters attended Smith's big fundraiser after the filing deadline, for example. In the long run, it may be more fruitful to consider these candidates as individuals. Depending on how much progress the Rebel Alliance makes elsewhere, it may be positively beneficial to put someone on council with a more supply-side orientation towards development.

    Though I agree with Mark - the WPP seems to be a worry.

  8. I'm talking about early in the fall last year, before McKrell was the manager. Fred Terling was still managing the campaign.

    And as for seeing each candidate as individuals . . . I think that was the point I was making. That he may be called the "mayor's boy" because of his association with McKrell.

    Although it is something that happens regularly in politics that the company you keep and the donors you have can be used for and against you. Smith's fundraiser was a who's who of politics.

    It sent a message to people that she's the one to vote for and to the other candidates that they picked the right one.

  9. A "L" buddy of mine advocates that grooming candidates who are known in their communities is UNLIKE putting up a candidate that shills for votes.

    Clearly, Theresa Smith, is known to those throughout the district, by association and deed. For her, campaign planks are things that others need to stand on.

    That's the rub, Bram, with your back-and-forth with her.

    Her past weaves right into the future.

    I have good comfort and trust in Theresa Smith. And, I despise the city's 'one-party machine.'

  10. Fred Terling took a job with a state rep.

    ""So you see, I do come down off the Mount," she said with some sarcasm. "And I've been door knocking all through her community.""

    That's not entirely true. As of my meeting last week she still hadn't come to Elliott. No one knows who she is here and in a way I'm glad.

  11. OMG, I swear you guys just want to read what you write.

    Fred's with Deasy. Paul's with Luke. Jessica's with Tony.

    I was stating that Fred was still managing the campaign when paul was taking Brendan around. Are we all straight, or do you want to reread your own comments and jerk off?

    And when you say "no one," what do you mean by that? All 50 of your friends? Be careful in generalizing.

    But to be fair, I've heard the same complaints as well, that she hasn't been there nearly enough. Maybe that's her strategy, Hoagie. She knows it a loser area (i.e., going to Smith) so she's concentrating on getting votes in other areas. Doesn't mean she will neglect it if she is neglected, just means she has a strategy to get elected.

  12. Sorry, I mean if she's elected, not neglected. I have neglected on my mind. Damn you!

  13. Bram good post.

    But why do people still vote for people who are so shady? What with the off the record stuff? If it was me I would have politely told the Bitch to talk.

    And that's that.

  14. "All 50 of your friends?"

    Wow. You think I only know 50 people in Elliott? I have talked to people from all ends of the neighborhood and they haven't seen her.

    "She knows it a loser area (i.e., going to Smith) so she's concentrating on getting votes in other areas."

    If she chalks Elliott up as a loser area then she needs to come here and get every vote she can get. This is an election where every vote is going to count. This is a special election that is going to have a small turnout.

    No smart candidate would just give up on an area because that is going to be another candidate stronghold.

    That quickly will spell a losing campaign.

  15. Anon 7:11 - Thanks. Language, please.

    I'm from D-1, so I didn't really feel justified prying. We did have a decent off-record conversation.

  16. Repeated concepts.

    Perhaps T.S. is 'off record' to Bram because she is not shilling for votes (esp from him who is not in that district).

    T.S. has been on the record, for months and years, with her deeds.

  17. After reading this post a few times today I am not sure if I like it. Especially about the parts of "being off the record"---when I talk to someone and they say "off the record" to me there is no mention of anything even being told in an off the record manner.

  18. Matt - I can respect that. I pointed it out only because after a couple years worth of these interviews, it just struck me as unusual. Leah Kirkland from D-9 was similar, and maybe a couple of others.

    I did think to myself afterwords however that for formal interviews, maybe I just shouldn't go off-the-record. Do they teach you that in journalism school? Maybe I just should have said, "Smith would not answer questions about x, y, and z."

    Oh well. I don't like Jim Burn's postcard. You don't like my blog post. It'll all come out in the wash.

  19. J-School, been there/done that. But that isn't the real question as the news media industry is on the brink now.

    I don't do "off the record." Holding a secret is hard work. It is a burden that I'm not interested in taking from anyone. Give me open or don't give me anything as I am a poor one to try to filter all I know into what can be freely chatted about and what can't. That filtering/process in my mind before I type and speak is way beyond my pay-grade and desires for myself.

    Yet, being honest isn't always what people enjoy and prefer.

  20. Bram, I agree with you it is unusual. Don't let yourself be lectured on ethics by a person who has... never mind.