It falls to the Comet again!
Welcome to the 2015 Voter Guide essay, which is in 3 parts.
In Part I after this introduction, we list our eight (8) endorsements, so you see them!
In Part II, we begin with President Lincoln and attempt to cruise methodically through the last 150 years of Pittsburgh political history.
In Part III, we reflect on our particular endorsements in this Tuesday’s local races, issue some honorable mentions, and recall how the political “machine” Pittsburgh is still singular, no longer of much practical use and generally malign. Our endorsements will demonstrate additional valid reasons to fulfill its effective dismantling at long last.
YOUR PITTSBURGH COMET 2015 PRIMARY ENDORSEMENTS:
County Controller: Chelsa WAGNER
County Court of Common Pleas: Judge Hugh MCGOUGH
County Council, north: Dan CONNELLY
County Council, east: Barbara DALY DANKO
City Controller: Natalia RUDIAK
City Council, north: Bobby WILSON
City Council, east: La’Tasha MAYES
City Council, northeast: Andre YOUNG
And here we launch into Part II: The History, which begins in the administration what would later be called the Grand Old Party, or GOP, of Abraham Lincoln.
Encountering an increasingly burgeoning metropolis on what was recently a frontier crossroads, the legendary politician who would later be known as the Great Emancipator enjoyed friendly receptions amidst the industrious, immigrant and Northern-elite voting precincts at the twin cities of the Forks: Pittsburgh, and Allegheny City, on what is now Pittsburgh’s North Side. Abe Lincoln’s Secretary of War Simon Cameron would become our first political boss.
He must have done a good job. Three straight eras of GOP bosses would smoothly follow.
That brings us to Christopher Magee, a nephew of one of these Republican leaders, who in 1873 at the age of 25 won a race for Pittsburgh City Controller and became the city’s major “patronage agent”.
Magee went on to spend months in New York, studying the triumphs and mistakes of Boss Tweed at Tammany Hall. He and partner William Flinn set up a Republican machine in Pittsburgh that would endure for 50 years. Magee-Women’s Hospital at UPMC is named for one, and part of State Rt. 8 North named for the other.
In 1901 in a highly unorthodox move, the Pittsburgh Mayor William J. Diehl was “ripped” from office by the state legislature for corruption, and supposedly it was a frame-up job by the machine over a feud with Flinn. A “recorder” was then appointed by the state in place of a Mayor.
Four years later, Allegheny City would get painted with the brush of corruption, and a bill was passed to allow Pittsburgh voters to absorb it against its will. The affluent of Allegheny City’s “Millionaire’s Row” moved to Sewickley.
All this upheaval helped shake things enough in political Pittsburgh to provide more openings for an emerging group of Democrats — so long as they cooperated with the Republican machine. These young bloods gathered by what would become “The Steps” at Liberty Avenue near Market St. Downtown, to talk politics and hold court long into the night.
Beginning with the County Campaign on 1931, however, some independent Republicans and others started to form Citizens’ Groups and advocate reform — and earn significant pushback. In that race, “citizens were slugged and driven from the polls, registration lists loaded with phantom names, ballot boxes seized or destroyed, votes changed by night riders, law enforcement managed by ward chairmen, and racketeers threw bombs.” That earned dozens of indictments.
In 1932, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be elected President, resulting in over 100 more local indictments in Pittsburgh. By 1934, the partisan revolution would be completed as swarms of local Republican registered as Democrats and Davey Lawrence took the reigns as Pa. Democratic Chair. That year, a Democratic mayor would be threatened with impeachment, or maybe an indictment, or maybe a new Ripper bill for having allowed the “payroll” (city employees) to vote their consciences in November.
In 1935, “members of the Legislature were informed by State (Democratic) Chairman David L. Lawrence that patronage would be handled by the ward chairmen exclusively — and any legislator who wanted a job in his territory would have to see the ward chieftain.”
The new Democrats were said to pattern their new machine intentionally after that of a “famous” one built by a prior Republican mayor that had been indicted.
It was feared by Party leaders that “legislators, if they could dole out their own jobs, might cast individual votes in the assembly.”
It’s important at this point to mention two things. Firstly, from 1865 through the 1960’s, newspapers were very straightforward about reporting on who to see to get jobs, contracts, and minor concessions from the government for political favors. It hardly seemed to be considered a bad thing.
That is partially because with all the immigrant communities continuing to flood Pittsburgh from post-feudal Europe or the Deep South, ill-prepared for the Depression economy and lacking very high expectations for government, jobs were at premium, and casting votes for politicians was one way to assimilate, belong, and become invested. The ward leader was one of the only Americans at the time instructed to walk the streets of cities, get to know everyone, do them favors and request others in return.
David Lawrence: boss of Pittsburgh for decades, Mayor for 13 years, collaborator with RK Mellon, and Governor of Pennsylvania for another four. Collapsed giving a fiery speech at the Syria Mosque in Oakland in 1966, thereafter rested in peace.
When the cat goes away, the mice will play. Later that year, the Building Trades unions would start criticizing County Commissioner McClelland, and by the next year County Commissioner McGrady was being asked by the Party to drop out, to pressure the former.
By the election on 1967, McClelland was successfully painted by Leonard Staisey and Tom Foerster (who is practically modern-day!) as “do nothing, old, tired and unimaginative.” McClelland could make no headway painting his challengers as “tax grabbing amateurs,” or the “palace guard” of their ally Pittsburgh Mayor Joseph Barr and “metropolitanism.” The Post-Lawrence power grab worked.
But there was a catch. McClelland and McGrady as County Commissioners had inherited the “Booster Fund”, Pittsburgh’s first and most notorious SuperPAC. One problem was, the hundreds of thousands of dollar fund was never really set up well, especially in terms of what happened if politicians actually competed or changed over. Another problem was, all of a sudden Pittsburgh reporters woke up and talked about extorting political support from employees, contractors and vendors was somehow an annoying thing!
The struggle over the Booster Fund money would drag on for 15 years, and the dis-ease marking the period helped Democratic non-slouch Pete Flaherty score an upset victory over Mayor Barr’s chosen successor. The following year, over Party objections but with Flaherty’s welcome acquiescence, Milton Shapp won the Democratic nomination for Governor of PA. And Shapp knew how to talk to Pittsburgh progressives — telling them they had to get out of the “intellectual ghettos” of Squirrel Hill, Shadyide and Oakland to talk to more people.
True to his word, Mayor Flaherty’s dealings with the Democratic Organization were cool, polite, and infrequent. Within the party, State Sen. Thomas Lamb, County Coroner Cyril Wecht, and Richard Calliguiri began appearing as leaders. The Party began discussing ways to incrementally reform — making its committee to determine endorsements somewhat larger, for example, or more representative.
Mayor Flaherty had a tough hand to play, as Pittsburgh was hitting economic rock bottom. His reign is remembered fondly, though he failed to earn higher office each time upon attempting it.
City Councilor Michelle Madoff around then became the first woman occasionally mentioned as a significant political player. Reportedly, her colleagues on Council did not like her because she educated reporters on how patronage worked.
Although an Organizational candidate managed to capture the Democratic nomination for the next mayorship following Flaherty, Democrat Richard Calliguiri switched his registration to Independent in order to win in November, then switched it back. Cyril Wecht for one is reported by WTAE’s Bob Mayo to have been really angered by the turn of affairs. Calliguiri is also remember fondly, although he passed away in office while Pittsburgh was still on a slab. He was replaced by then-Council President Sophie Masloff, who reputedly trucked with David Lawrence.
After Sophie came Mayor Tom Murphy, who was unusual for being a North Side politician with a somewhat East End attitude. He is remembered for squarely facing the City’s increasing financial distress, Act 47, all those layoffs, our fabulous river trails, the fabulous North Shore, spending tons of money on North Shore stadiums in an annoying fashion, trying and failing to successfully redevelop a Downtown corridor, and the Green Convention Center that would land us the G-20 Convention a decade later. A mixed bag. Oh, and a sweetheart deal with the Firefighters Union right before his toughest election.
US Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan would investigate Murphy’s deal for criminality for a long time. She infuriated Pittsburgh by concluding it with a letter that said, “The laws just aren’t sharp enough to get him.” She further infuriated Pittsburgh by using some of the information gleaned during that investigation to indict Cyril Wecht on around 80 counts of relatively small-time theft of services. Wecht argued at trial that all the counts were small-time and petty, eventually exhausting the system. When Buchanan held a press conference to explain that it wasn’t worth it to try the case again after a hung jury and a bureaucratic fowl-up, she came a little too close to suggesting Wecht is truthfully guilty anyway, which infuriated everyone afresh.
Meanwhile, Bob O’Connor, Mayor Murphy’s frequent challenger, finally won as a front-runner in 2005, comfortably over Bill Peduto and Michael Lamb. He fashioned his administration to be composed half of older-school patronage politicos and half the so-called “professionals” whom reform-types favor. Unfortunately, O’Connor fell ill in the year he ascended, and on his hospital bed that partnership ended with the old-school triumphant.
In 2007, the Democratic Committee rallied around 26-year old former Murphy foe, City Council President, and Interim Mayor Luke Ravenstahl against a challenge by Peduto, and in overwhelming numbers. Yada yada, years of petty or unflattering mayoral stories. Buchanan would look into Ravenstahl for his dealmaking too, but she didn’t make any moves to indict, and for once she didn’t infuriate everyone. Her successor US Attorney David Hickton would prosecute Ravenstahl’s Police Chief Nate Harper in 2013, and held the Mayor under a microscope for a long time until he declined to pursue his reelection.
Yada yada, Mayor Bill Peduto. His election has brought a palpable resurgence of optimism among “reformers”, but it gets tempered sometimes by perceived realities.
So what about these 2015 candidates that the Comet is endorsing, and their opponents? Here comes Part III…
1. County Controller: Chelsa Wagner.
This one is a dead horse. Wagner has maintained the row-office responsibly while inquiring over maters from the Allegheny County jail, to office perks, to the hundreds of millions of dollars being spent at the County Authorities with meager independent oversight. She’s a political opponent of County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, but a fundamentally responsible one who keeps the trains running. We admire her willingness to hold press conferences because it makes us feel like she needs to ally with the common people. We are sure Mark Patrick Flaherty is a highly capable and nice guy, but there’s no reason to shut down the investment that is Chelsa.
Besides, why keep protecting the guy who is already Boss? Is he fragile?
2. County Court of Common Pleas: Hugh McGough.
Not only is McGough already a District Magistrate, not only is he Bar Association-rated “Highly Qualified”, not only has he in the past represented the Citizens Police Review Board, an angry City Council majority, service industry unions, medical claimants and contracting whistle blowers, but Mayor Bill Peduto, Progressive Underboss of Pittsburgh and Protector of the Realm, recognizes that Judge’s same caliber, and has endorsed him most straightforwardly and typically in a way recollecting why we love him to begin with.
With apologies to all the other fine candidates in Allegheny Court of Common Pleas races (honorable mentions to Dan Regan, who hails from a machine background but is “Highly Qualified” and seems a consummate professional; and to Jennifer Stanley McCrady, who similarly seems fine) the Comet is going so far as to plunk for Judge Hugh McGough. He is a person who we want to put on the fast track to eventually making landmark interpretations, and I don’t know much else.
3. County Council (North): Dan Connolly.
Connelly has a law degree, has worked in Washington and transportation policy and economic development, and seems a highly qualified candidate for a part-time County Council position.
When Denise Ranalli Russell inherited her mother-in-law’s position on the Democratic Committee, it gave me a little pause. That she is a barber by trade does not bother me; we don’t all need fancy credentials. But that she had not been interested in politics until recently, gives a little more pause. She might be great, but it’s not shining through to me.
This is the odd race where the political machine and Fitzgerald are most truly at odds. It was reassuring that Connolly as well as spoke against the drilling contact for beneath North Park. Assuming the candidates are both nice people — and we haven’t heard any dirt — I’m inclined to support Connelly.
4. County Council (East): Barbara Daly Danko.
This is a very similar choice to the Chelsa Wagner endorsement. Voters were precluded from voting for a candidate in the BDD mould with her passing, since the only other choice on the ballot was recruited to oppose her. According to PA State election law, the only way to get one is to elect the departed and have the victorious political Party organization appoint a replacement. The seeming contradictions within this are obvious to unravel, as we know from Part II that Pittsburgh’s eastern 14th Ward has been, and continues to be, historically exceptional for organizing and voting against mainstream Party interests. Let the system work. We have no disrespect for Caroline Mitchell. Vote for a candidate whose candidacy inspires you, and who got her name on the ballot. We know Barbara Daly Danko to be good people.
5. City Controller: Natalia Rudiak
This too, is a very similar choice to the Chelsa Wagner endorsement. Partisans are jammed talking about whether controllers should be “watchdogs,” “lapdogs,” or “junk-yard dogs” to their municipal executive, but such a narrow focus is the kind of foolish consistency that can be a hobgoblin.
Natalia Rudiak, like Chelsa Wagner, does make noise. She doesn’t mind holding press conferences or issuing press releases to impress upon people the need sometimes to rise up. She takes an expansive, optimistic view of the role of the City Controller to shine constructive light at new areas. She has demonstrated how she is a hard, dedicated worker, can handle an office and responsibilities, and is a capable learner.
We have a lot of respect for Michael Lamb. Yet frankly, after seven years in the City Controllers office plus longer in County row-offices, he may be even more in need of an upgrade to his own environment, than Pittsburgh to its City Controller. That perch to him may be a political dead end, yet could be a launching pad for others.
6. City Council (North): Bobby Wilson
Wilson is supported by Peduto, which is important support if somebody wants to unseat incumbent Darlene Harris. Suffice to say that when I think about who should serve as Council President for the 2016-17 term, we think first about who will be best able to manage Darlene Harris’s theatrics so that Council can remain productive. Then we think about the results of these bouts of isolation on North Side neighborhoods.
No disrespect to Randy Zotter, but Bobby Wilson is the prepared and qualified candidate to give the North Side the kind of organization and improvements it deserves.
7. City Council (East): La’Tasha Mayes
If madly gentrifying and increasingly precious Lawrenceville, Bloomfield, Friendship et cetera nominate a capable, direct and down-to-earth champion of marginalized voices to Pittsburgh City Council, that would be valuable to the entire city and region in terms of raising the level of conversation on all sorts of equity issues.
Deb Gross has a lot of the right progressive policy goals, and the Comet’s admiration. But the Pittsburgh Land Bank may have been damaged by her poorly prepared initial roll-out, and her interests in worthy topics like dynamic parking pricing or the Produce Terminal are just not being made effective. Is Gross a skilled and valuable politician? We don’t know.
When an honorable and potentially transformative candidate like Mayes is waiting in the wings, why chance it? Just give Mayes the ball.
8. City Council (East-North): Andre Young
The Comet expected to endorse incumbent Ricky Burgess, whose political foibles are sometimes more than made up for by his productive and even collaborative capacity. But what kind of candidate for political office declines to attend any candidate forums? We wish to avoid appearing absurd.
Neither is Twanda Carlisle an acceptable option. But the candidates’ back-taxes issues in the race don’t rise to discomforting the Comet. It is a lot of hard work being poor, with few ways to escape — and that’s a washout anyway, because Burgess had a similar confounding troubles when he was first elected, one involving a liquor license. So we agonized for a time over Young and Judith Ginyard.
In the end we felt more comfortable with Andre Young, owing to his collegial demeanor. We look forward to witnessing an exciting race from afar.
A final honorable mention is owed to Kimberly Kaplan of District 5, a great youth prospect who might have been ready for prime-time already in 2015 had she attended high school in the City. Keep your eye on her!
What do the eight Comet 2015 endorsements have in common? They each happen to run counter the recommendations of the Democratic Organization, the political Committee of record for the last 81 years, the ACDC, the machine. If we were a low-level participant on the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, this blog post would be actionable heresy.
Why is our Democratic machine working to close the door on so many great people fulfilling ambitious potentials? Does not its real, big-tent mission against Republicans come much later? Why brand themselves like this?
If the original reasons for the Party apparatus — the assimilation of immigrants, the accessibility to campaign funding, the accessibility to business, and the formal control of legislative votes — are no longer remotely as necessary, efficient or appreciated in the 21st century, then why continue?
Think about it, Democrats. You’re gathering together the most civic and politically active minds in the metropolis, and training them… to obey privileged and entrenched higher-ups in lockstep. And this will move us forward how?
Pittsburgh deserves open and restructured political institutions. We are not asking the local Democratic committee to shut up and go home! We are just saying it is high time to finish the job begun in the late 1960’s, and suggested regularly ever since.
Retire these petty and often disappointing binding primary endorsements, my fellow Democrats! Let it go. No matter where it wants to head, Pittsburgh will progress far more easily without them.