Sunday, April 19, 2009

Interview: Carmen Robinson

"It's a fear tactic used to campaign," is how attorney and retired police sergeant Carmen Robinson describes her rival's demand for an audit of a past Water Authority bond deal.

"It's just what Obama accused George Bush of."

"Obviously, it was a sweetheart deal", Robinson readily agrees. She just thinks Mayor Ravenstahl is hardly the only person to blame for it. "[Councilman Dowd] should have been a little more responsible."

"I just would think myself and Dowd would be a little different; we're both very progressive-minded, and out to fight for the City of Pittsburgh."

I warned her: that sounded dangerously close to an endorsement.

"Looking at his views, coming into the race," she Robinson reflected, "I thought he would have been more people-oriented. And maybe he is -- but fear tactics isn't the way to do it."

Yet at the same time, instead of focusing narrowly on one transaction, Robinson would address the larger concern in a different manner.

"Let's have an investigation into whether the City really is for sale."


Robinson says she decided to run for mayor way back in April of 2008, prompted by what she calls Luke Ravenstahl's "lack of vision".

She was troubled specifically at that time by what she was hearing about negotiations with Hill District and Uptown residents regarding the new Penguins arena.

"I was really extremely angry -- I should say, passionate," she clarified quickly and a little coyly, "about the amount of assistance the Penguins were getting from the city."

"Mayor Ravenstahl was rejecting every attempt to respond" to entreaties from the surrounding neighborhood, is how she remembers it. "He didn't seem to really care."

"He wasn't taking them seriously. He so quickly and easily rejected their gripes and concerns. So I started following him."

"I wasn't stalking him," she added with a smile -- but she did begin attending more and more community gatherings featuring our mayor. That's when "the light came on", as she describes it: Luke Ravenstahl, she asserted plainly, didn't seem to care about poor people.

"Especially when you can tell they're really poor," she adds. "He just sort of nonchalantly dismissed their concerns. It was odd."

We asked then what is her own vision for restoring prosperity and a measure of justice to the Hill District.

"I have to tell you," she answered frankly. "Looking at it as an officer, the most important neighborhood to me is the one most in need. To me, running neck and neck, it's Homewood and Lincoln-Larimer."


"I think it's ridiculous when pundits say, 'Pittsburgh fared well during the recession'," Robinson said, in a haughty imitation of a television academic.

She describes a town that is "bipolar" -- relative affluence and safety in some areas, desperate poverty and high crime in others, and a shrinking middle class throughout. She is not impressed by Ravenstahl's boasting of crime at "40-year historic lows".

"He's right, but it's absurd to capitalize on," says Robinson. "If you have a low crime rate and a high homicide rate -- which one are you concerned about?"

Robinson is anxious to treat crime as "a public-health issue" and get to "root causes".

"Invest in our middle class. Give a little help to our neighborhoods that need it," she outlines. "Are we going to have a variation of rent control, for neighborhoods that are being improved? Are we going to have commercial tax abatement" for smaller business districts in struggling communities, she asks.

The "core cause" of despair in these neighborhoods, she argues, is a "lack of hope".

"Gun control is just a distraction. Of course we'd like to get guns out of the hands of criminals, but guess what -- they're criminals".

As for drug decriminalization, "I've heard that from as early as I've been in the academy. You can legalize everything, it won't do any good. It's about hopelessness."

And don't even get her started on security cameras.

"$4.3 million on surveillance equipment -- which is supposed to deter crime. As a police officer, I'm scratching my head." The technology may help prosecute some crime, she says, but it's not going to deter anything.

Robinson half-seriously suggests it would have be better to spend far less money on huge, antiquated cameras that are clearly visible to all around -- at least that will be noticed by criminals.

"And what's with this out-of-state company getting the money?" she asks. "And who's going to man these cameras?"

Robinson would rather the resources remain in Pittsburgh. "You want to talk about a deterrent. Beat cops are a great deterrent", she says.

And it doesn't help that our officers are both outnumbered and outgunned. "Right now we have M-16s versus AK-47s."


Yet Robinson is just as passionate about her "public health" approach to both crime and poverty, pledging to dedicate further resources to re-open shuttered community centers and improve our "failing" schools. Since tending to these root causes is expensive -- even more expensive than security cameras -- I had to ask where else the money is going to come from.

She had two suggestions close at hand.

One lies in redirecting state and federal grant money, which flows through the Urban Redevelopment Authority and other agencies, to make sure it benefits needy communities and smaller developers. She calls for "dramatic" changes in how the URA apportions resources.

"The problem is not, 'The U.R.A'," she says using scare-quotes, "It's their vision. It should be on the middle class. Right now the URA is focused on things like Bakery Square -- gentrification."

"We're knocking down housing 'projects' and putting up single-family homes," she complains, and in turn those people flee to areas like Braddock and Duquesne. "Do we really have low-income housing in Pittsburgh?"

Another source of untapped revenue for Robinson's economic program would be the quote-unquote "non-profit" sector.

"We have more universities and more hospitals that are so-called 'nonprofits' -- it's absolutely ridiculous. Let's take one building -- let's make it the Cathedral of Learning."

Hypothetically, she says, by taxing the value of that one property, we would generate ten or twenty times as much as we currently garner via the entirely voluntary Pittsburgh Public Service Fund.

"When someone brings me a deal like that," she says of the most recent proposal for payments-in-lieu-of-taxes, "I'm like 'Hmm, what are you trying to sell me?'"

"Did the Mayor try to negotiate back?" she asked, incredulously. "My initial reaction is to say, 'They low balled me.' I'd ask for triple."


"Then I see some absurd amount of money spent on something ridiculous", like video cameras or worse, she sighs. It all comes down to realigning the city's priorities with its needs.

"Listen, we don't need money for this, we need money for that."

And that is usually defined as encouraging the growth of a middle class where she sees one shrinking and suffering.

"If I lose, I'd like the person who does win to have vision," she explains. "And if I'm running against two guys with no vision -- that's a problem for the City of Pittsburgh."


  1. I don't get the AK-47 vs M-16 reference (And by the way, it's an AR-15). For the most part they are equal in terms of performance in the field.

    If they are not equal in the eyes of the police, I almost hate to ask but, why don't they just get some AK's?

    I don't get the whole gun control thing anyways. This is clearly a knee jerk reaction on the part of the mayor to pander to a scared public as part of a manufactured fear from the media. The police and fast eddie would like you to believe that there is an AK-47 behind every corner pointed at you by some drug crazed psycho.

    That's just not the case.

    Until the latest shooting can you even point to a firearms incident within Pittsburgh that involved an assault weapon let alone an AK?

    And for the record, were those cops even killed with his evil assault weapon?

    We had information that never reached the responding officers that would have made the difference if jobs were done properly.

    Perhaps the mayor should call 311 and have them look into that.

    Do you want a society without guns? Crime would shoot through the roof. Look at Washington, DC. I just does not work. But what we have now does work, and it will continue to do so.

    And for some background, I myself have a AK's. Guess what, it's a great weapon. And that's just it. It's a weapon. Any gun could kill you. It just so happens a AK does it really well if necessary. After all, 90 million people can't be wrong on that.

    You can talk all day long about how I don't need it and it's too powerful etc. But at the end of the day, if my door gets kicked in and some thugs start coming up the stairs - it's the first gun I am going for and the only one I need. And god help you if you are on the other end beacuse no doctor is going to be able to find all the pieces to help. If I miss, and I have 40 chances, they will not be coming back, that's for sure.

  2. Great blog posting Bram. Great replies from C.R. too.

    I want to hear more from her. I hope the city gets to do that.

  3. Anon 8:40, the phrase "poor taste" comes to mind ...

  4. Great post. I, too, wanna hear more from Carmen Robinson. I disagree w/ her on Dowd's outing of the PWSA deal. She does, however, articulate urban issues of great importance; rent control, gentrification, public education, general parity for the less moneyed/connected/employed among us. Her passion is admirable and inspiring - I hope this race is only the launch of her political career. Pittsburgh needs to listen to her, put her on some Authority boards, give her the clout she clearly can handle and deserves.

  5. I have a vision of the City: A giant doodie swirling down the toilet bowl.

    Can I be mayor now?

  6. Well, Anon 8:22am, first of all the death of the three officers is still fresh on people's minds. Extolling the virtues of the AK is tasteless, in my opinion, under the circumstances. Suggesting it is not a threat is tasteless, in my opinion, under the circumstances.

    Second, why did Carmen Robinson say it is M-16's versus AK-47's? (and by the way, could the police be carrying a military grade weapon labeled the M-16?) She may feel, based on her experience or the experiences of police officers she knows that AK's is a credible threat in certain neighborhoods. Until a police officer who serves in a poor urban neighborhood (or a series of police officers) steps up and says she is wrong then I am inclined to believe her.

    Third, the fact that a group of bloggers or blog-readers don’t know the last time an AK was used in a crime might simply mean that bloggers (and white Pittsburghers in general) don’t pay attention to what goes on in Homewood or Garfield or Wilkinsburg or Lincoln Lemington or the Hill or Rankin, etc. It could be that that is how we filter the world.

    Not to say that poor neighborhoods suffer a constant barrage of bullets, and in fact when shooting does occur, it seems like the weapon of choice is more likely a pistol or pistols with high capacity magazines. But AK’s have been used in the past, with lethal results. (, I hate to think of trivializing any death, particularly one cause by criminals, just because the victim doesn’t look just like me.

  7. Ed,

    1. It's not tasteless to defend my rights that are now under attack. Was it tasteless for the Governor to go on TV and call me nuts for having a legal weapon? Was it tasteless for Luke Ravenstahl to use this as a means to duck out on his debate? Was it tasteless for him to not provide good tools for the officers of the Pittsburgh Police Force and under trained dispatchers and then grandstand with Fast Eddie on gun control?

    2. Yes, the Pittsburgh Police could be carrying patrol rifles. They should be, but they are not.

    Perhaps instead of the mayor's knee jerk reaction for a new AWB, he should ask why his police have inadequate weapons. And then done something about it.

    3. You news articles provide a good insight as to why criminals should be locked up and why I should not have to defend myself with a flintlock rifle. Firearm crimes are almost never prosecuted fully. Minimum sentencing is a joke and new laws aimed against law abiding citizens such as myself do nothing but inflame and deflect the situation away from the root cause. And that is: Criminals. Criminals don't care about gun laws.

  8. If this debate tonight (or the 3 alleged upcoming debates) focuses on gun control, I'll be very disappointed.

    City and county governments are almost totally, if not completely and utterly, powerless on the issue.

    Furthermore, Luke coolly allowed a gun control measure to become law without his signature, and is not enforcing it; Patrick was highly skeptical of the same measure at the table but quietly went along with it anyway; and Carmen's lack of enthusiasm for gun control seems to stem from practical considerations rather than rights-based "opposition".

    I'm afraid since gun control is where the buzz is lately, its going to draw a lot of attention -- but we may as well talk about the weather. I hope instead we focus our energies on how the government we do run gets run.

  9. I hope instead we focus our energies on how the government we do run gets run.

    Or - Divert from the real issues with some feel good thoughts on some things you can't control.

  10. Wasn't there a reduction of crime in Philly, out of coordination between the local cops, the feds and the state attorney general a while back?

    I appreciate Ms. Robinson's view on this issue. Criminals will be criminals, whether a spork, a knife, a pistol, a rifle, an AK, a Barrett, an RPG or IED.

    She remarks of the need to address the root causes of crime, and cites examples.

    Beat cops are the best, imho: personal interaction with the neighborhood, the businesses, the kids playing in the streets and the older kids hanging on the corner. It breaks the prejudice and learned aggression the younger crowd has towards the cops.

    I believe Ms. Robinson has the best intentions and the least amount of barriers to overcome to address these issues, if she becomes Mayor.

  11. Well, Anon, since Ms. Robinson said that she thinks gun control is a distraction then I don’t see where she attacked your rights. I was saying simply that talking about the virtues of the AK-47 was in poor taste, given how recently the shoot out occurred, nothing about gun control or gun rights. But if you feel your need to defend your right to own and defend yourself with an AK-47 or some other civilian version of a military weapon, then I guess we have to listen to you.

    As for the best strategy for the war on drugs or crime in poor neighborhoods, I might recommend reading the transcript or watching the video online of this past Friday’s Bill Moyer’s Journal. He had David Simon, the creator of Homicide, Life on the Street and The Wire, on. Simon talked about these things in a very interesting manner.

    I suspect the debate tonight will have at least some talk about crime in general, if not gun control. It is simply inevitable. Now, I sort of agree with Bram, that gun control is not a City or County matter. The County issues concealed carry permits and that’s as far as it can probably go. I do think gun control/rights is a reasonable topic for discussion, but it seems like the people on both sides refuse (at the moment) to budge an inch when the topic is gun control (and this is not my blog, so I have probably gone too far with this already). There seems some room for discussion in the context of enforcement, but little interest in attacking the poverty that is the root cause for crime. FWIW.

  12. Poverty is the root cause of crime?

    I thought it was criminals?

  13. Ya, Dowd won the debate.

    I like how there was no time for a rebuttal after Dowd called him out.

    Luke is a puss bag.

  14. Who is going to open a successful business in a high crime neighborhood? Who is going to bail them out if they fail? Homewood needs services and stores, but first they need to uproot about 5-10% of the neighborhood population that thinks it is normal to shoot somebody because they can't agree on something. these people are like weeds that will ruin a good business faster than the other 90% of the neighborhood population can realize it exists.