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.