… not that there’s anything wrong with that!
In the Special Election for City Council District 7, Tony Ceoffe Jr., who waged a provocative but unsuccessful legal challenge of opponent Deb Gross’s election as the Democratic Party nominee, has gone on to organize the first candidates forum.
A release in mid-August announcing its date and location stated that his forum “tentatively” would be moderated by Charlie Deitch of the Pittsburgh City Paper. A gruesome-sounding leg injury soon sidelined the reporter, but also got the alternative newsweekly out of a sticky situation.
“We were very clear with them from the beginning that if the candidates couldn’t get together, we wouldn’t be interested,” said Chris Potter, editor of the City Paper. “We didn’t want to be put in a position where we could be used as a cudgel by one candidate against another.”
As it happens Gross was not interested in attending a debate organized by one of her opponents, alleging these should be hosted by community groups and follow certain mutually agreed-upon guidelines. Yet the Ceoffe camp soldiered on, stating the forum would be held “Town Hall style,” by which they meant no moderators but rather microphones set up for the audience to ask questions. The other three candidates agreed to attend, glad for the exposure on Ceoffe’s dime.
Last week a replacement as moderator was secured: Nancy Hart, of the excellent independent online Urban Media Today. So this first debate will proceed, and probably without its front runner to the delight of the rest of the field.
Tony Ceoffe Jr. until this race was the Democratic chairperson of the City’s 6th Ward, and vice-president of the community group Lawrenceville United. His father, District Magistrate Tony Ceoffe, was the prior chairperson of that ward and was L.U.’s Director from ’05 to ’09.
A message from Ceoffe’s campaign chair confronts the resulting impression on head-on:
The day I met Tony, I was volunteering at the polls for Bill Peduto in the mayoral primary. Before meeting him that day, I had only known Tony as the son of a district magistrate of the same name who lived across the street from my good friend in Lawrenceville. To me, at that time, Tony was just your standard local politician, part of the nepotistic democratic machine in Pittsburgh. What I soon realized was that I couldn’t have been more wrong. (Neighbors for TC)
Ceoffe was working the polls that day for Peduto rival Jack Wagner. He explains that Wagner reached out to him after Michel Lamb dropped out of the race and remained more accessible to him throughout, and that most other committee members in his ward supported Wagner in that contest. In prior contests, all indications are that the Ceoffe clan actively backed Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
Yet indeed there is much to suggest Ceoffe is not a garden-variety “old school” Pittsburgh pol, or maybe that he represents the first of a promising “Old School 2.0”.
He calls himself a “progressive” and has made opposition to fracking, support of making UPMC pay its fair share, and an “Open Data Policy” centerpieces of his agenda. He worries about gentrification putting out seniors and low-income residents in his rapidly changing district. He says that Peduto has proposed some “great initiatives” and that “we can’t elect somebody that’s just going to stick it to Bill”. He has made extensive and effective use of social media. He pro-actively engages with bloggers such as yours truly, despite what are our plain political leanings and in one notable past instance a familial dust-up.
And he is impossible not to like.
Truly, we tried. We chased down people after events for follow-ups and even held our own focus groups. People appreciate his enthusiasm, are impressed with his intelligence, think he’s a “good guy” and would like to see him do well. Most importantly, people feel as though if elected it would be easy for them to productively interact with him in office.
On the flip side, when pressed for details they call him “a politician” in that he did not offer many decisive answers, that he either talked circles around topics or replied that he would “have to study that at the Council table,” and that it was hard afterwords to remember what it was he said exactly. Yet they were willing to cut him that slack. They like that he is good at “that game” and seems to relish it.
His is a fascinating personality contrast with Deb Gross (the results of our interview are contained here). Gross is more likely to pause to think before beginning an answer, speak deliberately, and even use silence to convey more than Ceoffe might in a more rambling response. In answer to a question about Lawrenceville United’s contributions to public safety in the neighborhood, for example, she raised an eyebrow and asked in return, “Have they?”
After a few beats she went on, “One thing L.U. has done well is provide a valuable community table. That is certainly one thing they do of enormous value.” Her slight sighs also seemed to suggest an opinion that there was something less-than-praiseworthy in some of the staunchest opposition to a prior Baum-Liberty development proposal, as well as to expansion of the Thunderbird Cafe — that nonetheless were tough to capture in an interview write-up.
It can be challenging to elicit even these sorts of vague hints about hot-button issues from Ceoffe. His responses to the Butler St. club expansion and his posture towards the Buncher Company’s sprawling development plans seem to carefully straddle each fence.
An answer to a question about the City’s staying in or departing Act 47 Financial Distressed Status, for example — a question calculated to assess his willingness to upset the City workers which comprise some of his support — was that he would have to study the matter further at the Council table.
However, in answer to another such question about using GPS units in City snowplows and other public works vehicles, Ceoffe remarked he would support that “wonderful idea”, as it fits into his Open Data Policy.
His boldest stances seem to fall along politically convenient lines.
“I’m completely opposed to fracking in the City,” he says, and is therefore wary of Peduto and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald’s proposal “to have the County taking over our public parks. Is that going to impact the City parks?”
I pointed out that this proposal was merely for shared management of the parks, not an ownership transfer, and that besides which the City parks would still be located decidedly in the City which has a drilling ban that all Council members supported.
Ceoffe replied that the City’s drilling ban is legally problematic — “just like campaign finance,” another Peduto initiative. “It all gets back to the same thing.” Yet Ceoffe offered no remedies to strengthen either the drilling ban or campaign finance reform.
When I referred to this as an “election about nothing,” that is not meant to imply there are not serious issues facing District 7 neighborhoods, nor that the identity and talents of its next Council member will not be important.
But so far the issues in this election have been all about process, or optics, or the relative traction of each major candidate’s negative caricatures of the others’ personality — neither of which bears much resemblance to reality by the way. In an election held in a weird interlude during which a new in-crowd buoyed by optimism has yet to be able notch any successes or commit any mistakes, it is particularly hard to drill down to substance.
When I look at the choices available in this election, I seek out the choices these candidates made in the past. Being on one “side” or the other has not been a matter of joining Team Red or Team Blue to me — it means, did you stand up to a politically skilled but myopic, obtuse, politically hackneyed and incompetent regime when there was little to gain? Were you willing to take stands that involved relinquishing certain job opportunities or other opportunities for political advancement? For example when I learned that Gross was involved with Ground Zero, a now-storied affiliation of individuals plotting the seeds of institutional change in Pittsburgh way before this blogger arrived, that signaled much to me. Despite the fact that the tables have very recently turned, I haven’t seen anything from other candidates which demonstrates an insistence on speaking truth to power when it is inconvenient or unhealthy.
That’s just me. And I am as entitled to my own opinion as you are to reject it.
In truth, Gross’s campaign seems from this vantage to be just as light on substantive specifics as her opponent, and a little flat besides. Not to mention a bit overly-reliant on her vast cornucopia of political endorsements — so it is natural for Ceoffe to try to “judo” that strength into a liability.
He is doing his best. You have to admire the chutzpah. But the choices he has made in the past probably merit a little more time spent in the political wilderness, and he probably will get it. The next election in District 7 is only nineteen months away, wherein both can run as Democrats.
Tony’s Ceoffe’s campaign slogan, “Policy and Passion over Politics” is fundamentally divisive. One can strike Policy out of the equation outright since his enumerated policy statements are general or non-controversial, and one can just as easily cut out the allusion to Politics since failure to wind up on the winning side is not the same thing as having eschewed political games on principle.
Elections are rarely won on the basis of mathematical precision, but if he wants to give it a shot he might reduce the whole formula to one word: PASSION.