Saturday, October 17, 2009

Debate 1: Standard Fare

I don't think we need to put a lot of energy into dissecting "how the debate went".

Harris and Acklin were both sincere-sounding, nervous, and lacking for any truly point-scoring hits. Ravenstahl on the other hand delivered a studio-ready and dynamic presentation, but that shouldn't disguise the fact that it was all bullshit.

That's what we're going to explore here -- but first I have to critique the ordinarily impressive Ken Rice for one thing: why lead off the program with, "The biggest question in this race -- is this really a race?"

If you count Bill Peduto's partial run, this now marks four straight elections in which our media obsessed, from their very outsets, on the idea that these were all forgone conclusions. And by implication, that any challengers should be described as "losers". Ordinarily this falls under the aegis of punditry, but for some reason this is forever the lead story. It's as though nobody is familiar with the term "self-fulfilling prophecy". Admittedly, this particular contest seems contracted for a variety of reasons, but in general how is this compulsive fixation of odds -- which always rears its tiresome head months and months in advance -- in any way edifying to the viewing and reading public?

Spend energy communicating and investigating the ideas being exchanged, and leave the spin to the professional hacks already.


Ravenstahl asserted during his introduction that he has "laid out a plan for the future of the City". Nothing has been laid out formally except the vaguest of platitudes, but a real plan is on display most visibly HERE and HERE, in two videotaped sessions that are best understood in tandem.

That plan is to identify and secure large pools of taxpayer money and land, funnel these directly into the hands of large-scale private developers with zero accountability, prevent these same types of resources from being frittered away on smaller-scale community initiatives, slander neighborhood or quality-of-life oriented opposition and divide it against itself, subvert the zoning code and any other law that gets in the way of a private developer maximizing profit, and let any neighborhood that does not appear on the agenda for this kind of massive exploitation rot in neglect.

Oh, and when possible, do it all "greenishly" -- because there's free money being handed out these days for that anyway, and you are technically a Democrat.


Ravenstahl believes the police "did an admirable job in keeping the community safe" over the G20 and returned repeatedly to safety -- but declined even to pay lip-service to the notion of balancing safety with civil liberties. It's as though the objections of students, journalists and bystanders do not quite register.

He says he's asked for "exactly what Kevin has suggested" in an investigation -- yet Kevin asked for a "Blue Ribbon Commission", that is, something new and independent; not the present police department investigating itself through its own methods. In addition, Ravenstahl would obscure any inquiry into the city's public safety decision making by losing it within a Regional "How We 'Handled' the G20" evaluation with an infinitely broad scope (though I bet they determine they handled it real good).

How he can state point-blank that "there was no militarization of Oakland" is beyond me. It's like there's so little for him riding on this debate, he can say up is down.


I have to give it to Luke: we do need to come up with $15 million to balance our budget, and it's entirely legitimate to find a way to charge our tax-exempt universities and health care providers (not "students and the sick") in order to get there. I'm not going to let politics get in the way of what we have to do now.

However, it's distressing that we need to scramble to come up with this $15 million, considering that we had "no crisis" and "strong financial management" and were "moving in the right direction" and had a "$100 million rainy-day fund" and "held the line on taxes" all winter and spring -- until the very day after primary Election Day, when all of a sudden it was acknowledged: we need to come up with a fresh pile of cash and there are only bad choices. It makes you wonder what will be in store for us on Nov. 4?


"95% of the investment at the URA in my administration has been in neighborhood business districts..."

Well, I suppose Downtown and its environs is a neighborhood. If the URA invested in something somewhere that did not qualify as being "in a neighborhood" of the City, that would be a major problem. What's up with the other 5% anyway? Is that headed towards the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia?

"...80% of the investment at the URA in my administration has been in small businesses of less than 20 people"

What's the percentage if we discount Lawrenceville? More importantly, when we deal with a developer, do many developers actually require more than 20 full-time paid staff? If the URA invests in a developer that is involved in bringing in a Big Lots, and that developer is just a couple of guys, a couple of their accountants, a few draftsmen and their own personal assistants -- plus consultants taken on as-needed -- does that count as investing in a small business?


"Why should we write a blank check to the Carnegie Library or anybody else when we find out they have questionable spending habits?" Luke asks. Because we need access to books and computers.

There are a lot of organizations that have been too kind to their managers. We could start anywhere Mr. Mayor, but there's no political will to increase library funding with the times, so we're unveiling this new ethic of monastic thrift in their vicinity. We would also have been right to investigate Library spending last year, or the year before that, or the year before that. Are we going to punish little Suzy in Lawrenceville because we've allowed big Barbara in Squirrel Hill a membership to the Duquesne Club, and now that there's a crisis ,we're suddenly outraged about it?

We need accountability. We also need to keep the libraries open. Making a big deal about the former will not help us accomplish the latter, it will only sooth our consciences a little.


Luke boasts that he introduced new campaign finance reform, and "looks forward to its implementation in January." I think we can leave that there.


Which brings us to Acklin's curve ball concerning John Verbanac and Ed Grattan. That will either be remembered as the biggest missed opportunity, or the biggest score, of the debate -- depending upon whether or not he's setting Luke up for a suplex down the road.

From what I can glean, both of these gentlemen are what are commonly known as "money guys" -- big money guys, statewide money guys -- fund raisers, business investors, lobbyers, relationship-builders. The interesting things would be whether they are invested in any of the companies that have received lucrative no-bid contracts from City and authority governments, whether they have been involved in lobbying for those contracts and for their other interests, and whether they had a role in transporting funds or other exchangeables from those businesses to the Mayor's campaign or other concerns.

It's hard to say because there's so much seeming mythology involved. According to chatter, these are the guys that really own the town -- it would make trying to change the course of Pittsburgh by criticizing Luke Ravenstahl something like trying trying to change McDonalds' business practices by criticizing Ronald McDonald.

Curious however that Luke's answer was so curt and definitive: they're only "friends". Friends that have no "formal" role in his administration. Got to wonder why that little qualifier, "formal".

Friday, October 16, 2009

Friday: Whatever *

The first mayoral debate will be conducted today and will air tomorrow afternoon on KDKA, that being Saturday at 12:00 NOON, so as to maximize viewership (ha ha).

My only advice: both Independents ought to have snappy counterattacks ready for when the Democratic Republican protests that his opponents are only interested in talking about the past (i.e. his public record) whereas he'd rather talk about Pittsburgh's future!

Also, we all get to roll our eyes mercilessly at anybody who makes vague references to "headlines" or "cronies" or even "pay-to-play" without detailing exactly what or who those are, and why they're indicative or important moving forward.

I would advise both challengers to lay off one another and focus on attacking Luke -- but that's essentially what Dowd and Robinson did in the primary, to nil or negative effect. So hey guys, knock yourselves out, or should I say knock each other out. I'm obviously leaning towards Kevin Acklin a little bit at this precise juncture (*-UPDATE: this explained in comment #6 underleaf) -- he just has been seeming more together, somehow, even serious -- but obviously there's no point to making up one's mind until we watch at least one debate. My mind's still very much open and I think that's the consensus.

Some news: the ICA just returned the Mayor's budget with an "Incomplete" and a "What The What?" (P-G, Trib). Zober can say what he wants but I'm pretty sure this is the first time the ICA dissed a budget proposal and asked a Mayor bluntly to fill in some gaping holes.

Extreme sincere congratulations to The City Paper for reporting in print that Mayor Ravenstahl donned police riot gear and told the American Civil Liberties Union and its local lead attorney Vic Walczak "fuck you", just days after troubling events on Pitt campus in Oakland. I know the annual event is entitled "Off the Record" and I know it's for charity, but even the White House Correspondent's Dinner gets criticized for encouraging too-cozy relationships between government and the press -- and that's decidedly not even remotely off the record! So I'm not sure what they think they're doing that's so great. Although in the past, the players have conducted themselves with just enough intelligence to get away with their naughtiness, the City Paper made the right call in reporting the egregious lack of class and sense shown by our City's leader just days after the fact. As I wrote somewhere earlier, he could have joked about the $1,000 garbage cans or anything else -- or he could even have joked about G20 security issues without telling the defenders of our civil liberties point-blank what they can go do. Or he could have been funny in some way, a thing which multiple reports confirm did not transpire.

Now if we could only get a picture of him in his flight suit riot gear -- or get some challengers who care about this issue. Though I remain impressed that individual officers didn't lose their cool in a chaotic situation, or dish out any surreptitious punitive discipline that we know of -- someone did make the call to pretty much storm through campus and arrest / gas / fire upon anything that moved, for questionable reasons.

Monday, October 12, 2009

BestFriendsgate: It Still Rankles Him.

The framing of the article on Mayor Ravenstahl in today's P-G is bound to annoy the challengers in the present contest, but it is one way to take a look at the year ahead.

There's obviously one thing we can't let slide:

"When you look back and consider some of the things that have been said -- I mean literally accusations that this administration should be in jail, or I should be in jail, or I've broken the law, some of the personal attacks that they make -- it's very difficult for me to deal with somebody that believes that or at least says that." (P-G, James O'Toole)

Then it's time to rip apart this agreement -- the one in which Ravenstahl's own infinitely and quite illegally empowered henchman, who had just publicly accused his boss of corruption, left the City with 150% of his ordinary severance after having served just 30% of his term.

Also we can explain how the permit came to be awarded "in violation of city regulations" (thank you Mr. O'Toole), why the issue was never run past city lawyers at any of several points it still could have made a difference, and whether or not it is now the City's intention to finally enforce its regulations and have the blight torn down.

Let's talk openly about it if there's no problem. It's not like we claim to know exactly what happened and why. We're just watching people walk away with bags of money, watching judges disagree with you repeatedly, and watching good public servants get released -- so of course we assume the worst. Please set our minds at ease. Take some damn responsibility.