Monday, November 2, 2009

Interview: Tom Michalow

"So," I begin. "Do you love raising taxes?"

District 1 Republican incumbent county councilman Matt Drozd has placed campaign signs from Moon to Ross reading, "CUT TAXES!!". I assumed this must mean that the challenger, Democrat Tom Michalow, is against lower taxes.

"That's everybody's dream," he acknowledged, to cut tax rates. "But I'm fiscally responsible. There's a difference between fiscal conservatism and fiscal responsibility."

"Reagan and the first George Bush were great on foreign policy," he asserted, and not for the only time during the interview. "But their domestic policies wrecked the country. Small towns have been left holding the bag."

Michalow is being attacked by Drozd for having supported a tax increase in Avalon, where he has been a councilman for 4 years and a planning commissioner for 10. Michalow counters that not only had Avalon not repaved its roads in a decade, and its top floor of its City Hall condemned, but as finance chair he discovered that the municipality had been missing a $70,000 annual payment in the budget amidst two departments. Due in large part to that unnoticed drain, the sewer budget was being tapped to prop up the general fund.

So he supported a tax increase in that instance -- but asserts that will be offset by enabling Avalon to get rid of its sewage surcharge. And have navigable roads, and a municipal building that won't collapse during a public hearing.

Michalow also points to having spearheaded the writing of a joint comprehensive plan for Avalon, Ben Avon and Bellevue -- along with a joint zoning code. He instituted a purchase order system for the first time to track purchasing. And together with other Avalon officials, he successfully lobbied Washington to fund what had been an unfunded federal sewers mandate with a grant - although he describes that success as a fortunate "fluke".

"My opponent says grants are wasteful; you shouldn't take grants."

He points to all this as evidence of financial responsibility, in lieu of dogmatic financial conservatism. He drew a quick Laffer Curve in my notebook to illustrate how it is widely misconstrued by a few to argue for lower taxes in every circumstance. Pointing to the crest of the curve, Michalow says that it actually shows "there is a right place for taxes to be."

"To say I'm a tax-and-spend Democrat when I've busted my butt ... I've checked gas card usage on employees. Just gone ahead and pulled the file." That didn't make him popular, he recalls, but it cut down on waste.


When did he figure out that he was a Democrat?

"At VMI," he answered. "I entered as a 'union Republican', and I came out as a 'pro-gun Democrat'. I say pro-gun, I'm not gonna say NRA Democrat, they're too extreme."

Michalow is for closing the gun-show loophole, and imposing a ban on imported, foreign-made assault rifles. He suggested the possibility of regulating all assault rifles as we do machine guns, since they're essentially the same thing.

Asked about his stance on civil rights, he describes the recently passed Allegheny County anti-discrimination ordinance as "a good compromise that excludes the Boy Scouts" and other religious organizations. "In terms of housing and employment, it's a no-brainer." He doesn't grant any credence to Drozd's argument that actual corporations will eschew Allegheny County because of a mere anti-discrimination ordinance.

Michalow teaches high school history and German -- that latter includes German culture and history. He screens Schindler's List for his German III students every year.

"Whatever Hitler did, my feeling is you can do the opposite and feel pretty safe about it."

Mr. Michalow is also an environmentalist, and it is on this one score where he will take some exception with the County Executive.

"I disagree with Mr. Onorato on the air quality guidelines; there's no reason we can't have industrial development that's clean and green." He hopes the Air Quality Control Commission takes a second look at its new standards.

Asked about drilling in the Marcellus Shale and whether there can be such a thing as "clean coal", he answered, "There'd better be. That's our energy solution for the next hundred years." Yet he wants to actively encourage those solutions by developing responsible air and water quality controls.

On property taxes, he said, "Here's what Dan Onorato has done right -- he has held the line on property taxes. I'd rather tax somebody's expendable income," meaning the drink tax. "The key issue I think is, senior citizens are being forced out of their homes."

Although he granted my point that frozen property tax rates result in stagnant or declining areas paying an unfair share of that burden, he points out that school districts in outlying areas have been increasing millage rates out of necessity.

He calls property taxes "archaic", but concedes that they're here to stay. "Property taxes date back to when you could judge a man's wealth by how big his farm was." He would prefer to eliminate them in favor of "progressive income taxes" -- but in the meanwhile he believes Onorato is correct in holding the line while lobbying for a statewide solution.

I pressed him a bit on if there are other areas in which he takes exception with the County Executive, and he only returned to environmentalism in general.

"To say Pittsburgh is green, and to make Pittsburgh greener are two different things. It takes more than graphs. It'd be nice to connect the bike trail that ends at Clement Park," for example, and again enforce more rigorous air quality standards.

Michalow declined to declare support for any particular gubernatorial candidate, but opined that it's important for a local Democrat win and acknowledged that Onorato is the favorite. "At least based on applause at the Kennedy Lawrence Dinner."


Since there is already a solid Democratic majority on County Council, and since Dan Onorato is firmly in charge, I asked whether it doesn't make more sense in the abstract to keep those few feisty Republicans like Matt Drozd on Council where we can.

"Here is the Machiavellian response on that," answered Michalow. "Drozd has isolated himself on County Council -- even if he had a good idea, they're gonna ignore it."

"I was inspired to run because I don't think my opponent's doing his job." He describes the GOP as persistently being the "Party of No" all the way down to the county council level.

In light of this lack of a positive, coherent vision, Michalow couldn't avoid taking offense at Drozd's personal attacks concerning his military record. Although Michalow was the captain of the rowing team and "could run like Forest Gump", he had a congenital heart murmur that disqualified him from active military service.

"The day the Sergeant-Major told me that, I cried" Michalow now recalls, branding it one of the very worst days of his life. "That had been my dream. I was very hurt to have to revisit that."

His dream derailed, Michalow utilized his education at VMI to study International Affairs -- later to teach history, go on frequent trips to Germany with his students, and apply the lessons of international politics to Avalon borough governance.

"When I think about how different my life would have been if I had gotten in..." wonders this 38 year-old today. Instead, he finds himself running against an incumbent Councilman he calls "uninformed an ineffective."

"And that's when I'm being a nice guy", he clarifies.


  1. If I lived in that district I would vote for him. Drozd is a dolt.

  2. Tom is a good man who will represent us well on the County Council.

  3. posted on Rep. Readshaw's daughters facebook:
    Mindy Readshaw wants to remind everyone who lives in the GREAT City of Pittsburgh to take time from their day tomorrow and VOTE for KEVIN ACKLIN MAYOR. Also, please, take the time to read the note that I posted on my profile page by Matt Pilewski. If you still are not convinced... Watch the debate on PCNC at 10 PM tonight.

  4. If this guy believes that it is a good idea to preserve huge tax windfalls for the underassessed wealthy, at the expense of the overassessed poor-to-middling, he is uninformed and/or morally bankrupt. In any event, he's a sorry excuse for a Democrat.

    And that's what I call him when I'm being a nice guy.

    Throw in his support for the drink tax and his tolerance of bigotry (so long as it is bigotry based on superstition), and Michalow accomplishes the difficult: He makes Matt Drozd look good. Michalow doesn't deserve the seat on council.

  5. Perhaps I was spoiled by the barrage of realtime info during presidential election day, but is ANYONE providing updates from the ground on turnout and GOTV efforts today? A blog, a twitter feed, ANYTHING? Inquiring minds bored sitting at work want to know!

  6. Infinonymous - We know you have enormously high standards for our public officials. Although I agree on the principle of Onorato's active inaction on property taxes, I don't think we will find a politician in the whole nation willing to campaign on the necessity of property reassessments. And here's a dirty little secret of mine: I never really minded the drink tax. On balance, I found Mr. Michalow positions quite agreeable.

    Perhaps most impressive to me was the ease with which he answered every last question. He didn't rush himself, but I do not think he paused once to formulate something carefully or "figure out how to say this". It suggested to me that he means what he says. I also admired how he framed his many differences with Drozd, seeing as how Drozd is such a hard-line goofball. I'm surprised, Infin, that you'd frame your differences to Michalow in terms of actually preferring Drozd.

  7. High standards? The Infindorsement for mayor went to a corpse.

    Although an effective legislator by no means, Drozd serves a worthwhile function: He questions the party line (either party) and, on occasion, points out the emperor's nekkidity. His odd views -- and there are plenty of them -- have no chance to become a practical problem. Michalow, on the other hand, seems destined to become another fungible cog in a spineless, idea-starved, hapless county council. I'll pass until a better challenger opposes Drozd.