Author Archives: Bram Reichbaum

Wednesday: One Fortnight to Fortify

screen-shot-2021-05-04-at-12-57-41-amTwo weeks left until the primary election, at least four mayoral debates are on the record, and there are a thousand judges to learn about. Let’s hear some chatter out there!

In epochal news, US Steel is partially shutting down the Clairton Coke Works, rather than investing in environmental upgrades and expansion it had promised two years ago. This is even better news for our lungs, but for the region’s economy, it is a shock that portends worse and worse, with no “just transitions” on the horizon. If you thought the era of industrial abandonment was over in Pittsburgh, wake up.

In hopeful news, Mayor Bill Peduto announced a public-charitable partnership that will receive from our tax-exempt “Eds and Meds” industrialists, collectively four times as much annually as they ever donated to the City itself. The arrangement is a load-bearing and long-awaited part of his OnePgh vision, which has its roots in a series of local foundation-led “P4” workshops as well as Bloomberg philanthropy “resiliency” grants.

The new arrangement sacrifices City authority over the use such money, and accords the funders essential veto power. City Controller Michael Lamb notes it doesn’t do anything for the City’s operating budget, which has to operate a city whose mills have turned to nonprofit laboratories. And it can’t do anything for Clairton, the Mon Valley or anyplace outside Pittsburgh or for their school districts — in contrast to less collusive strategies.

In political news, mayoral challenger and State Rep. Ed Gainey thinks we should just tax those nonprofits which seem not to qualify as “purely public charities” — taking what the City learned in its previous faulty challenge of their nonprofit status and applying it to new ones, no matter the sheer number or luster of attorneys available to a UPMC, AGHN, or something with “Carnegie” or “Mellon” in the title. Plus he says he got tired of Peduto studying things to death, and would rather get on with pursuing equity despite some tradeoffs and risks.

But Gainey just got a lesson in how much homework and yard work has to be managed, to tackle that kind of executive responsibility. An independent political action committee with ties to him filed finance reports with discrepancies in the six-figures, and the County Elections Department sped the matter along for County Police to investigate, rather than customarily request an amended filing.

Usually I worry about the money coming into a PAC: who might be buying off the candidate? It’s mollifying how most of that discrepancy is accounted for on corresponding donors’ reports by the Western PA Laborers union, who seem cool enough for a Democratic primary, and from Ed Gainey’s own campaign fund, and it’s nice to invest in oneself. So maybe it really is a matter of gross negligence, at an operation from which Gainey is legally forbidden to coordinate. It would be better if that PAC declared the remainder of its inflows, though.

As to the money going out, we learned when Mayor Ravenstahl treated himself to Super Bowl tickets with campaign funds and nothing at all happened to him, that just about anything is justifiable. Clothing, food and beverage, I might imagine rental assistance — it’s not taxpayer money, it’s donations to your political efforts. Transparency here would also be ideal, if only for the sake of the donors. But one of the reasons for keeping what’s widely known as “street money” obfuscated is because its recipients fear the “Powers That Be” taking note and seeking retribution. It would be unusual to see a rash of shakedowns to verify amended declarations of a PAC’s spending without suspicion of any particular injury. And if he happened to win the nomination meanwhile, the party would rally around him.

For all we know, Peduto might have tipped the reporter after his own inside sleuthing. It turns out Peduto is tied to the founding of that PAC, as a vehicle for his 2013 election and as spoils for Gainey afterword. I’m not accustomed to thinking of William as much of a puppet-master, but this may be his bread and butter.

Peduto hasn’t yet attacked Gainey over African Americans for Good Government featuring the Western Pa Laborers union. The county police might yet clear the case with amended disclosures. But whisper campaigns bespeaking dire unstoppable consequence to Gainey himself are underway. And one must note with a trigger warning Peduto’s campaign ad, ED GAINEY: He’s All About Gaining For Himself.  Using Ed’s vote in July for a bill that passed 163-38 granting tax credits for petrochemical developers (Peduto might have forgotten he only came out against petrochemical expansion nine months prior) as its pretext, Gainey is framed for all the world like the Notorious B.I.G. in some bootleg material.

Why is Fuzzy Badfeet Mayor Peduto going so hard after this particular challenger? He has another to his Trumpist right, one in outer space, and Pittsburgh mayors are legendarily hard to oust when they reapply. It must be because so many of his frequent past supporters are making him feel under-appreciated. After 16 years running for mayor, taking office before either Black Lives Matter or  Sen. Sanders’ campaigns, and after all the sensationally overhyped expectations (Smart Cities Challenge! Amazon!) and mixed bags of returns (a bookstore will be coming to the historic Strip mall, joining the flower shop) it’s tough to be seen as a vehicle for progress that scales.

We’ve seen incumbent mayors boasting strong narratives before. Yet public, private and political sentiments all showed up with different plans. There’s no stopping evolution, you can only hope to obtain it. All that’s clear two weeks out is most Pittsburghers still have nobody but “Bill Prosciutto” on the brain: because if you’re a threat to the old money or UPMC, Mayor Bill will slice you up like prosciutto.

Old Money, New Streams: August Recess is Over

WSJ

WSJ

Take it from somebody who catches Pokémon in Homewood Cemetery: Pittsburgh is a city of Old Money.

Section 14 was developed in 1890 with millionaires in mind, said Jennie Benford, director of programming for the cemetery’s historical fund. By that time, the scale of wealth had changed “beyond what anyone had ever seen in this country,” she said. (P-G, Diana Nelson Jones)

A million bucks back then would be worth about 27 million now, but remember even a lot of the OG millionaires didn’t stop at a million. And the way they made it — well, you know how it involved a lot of fire and blood, but that’s another story.

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Many of us are liable to work with nature, when we can. There being fewer and fewer choices.

As part of a “Come Help or High Water” campaign launched last week, the group is looking to raise $80,000 to eliminate Eagle Lake by building a drainage piping system.

The Allegheny Trail Alliance provided $10,000, and the nonprofit has requested $50,000 from the Allegheny Regional Asset District, leaving an approximate $15,000-$20,000 gap in funding. Allegheny County is a longtime partner with the nonprofit.

“A drainage system will pull water under the ground and then parallel the trail,” Ms. Beichner said. “Water will then naturally find its way to the river.”  (P-G, Lacretia Wimbley)

This is how we have to do things now, with the Old Money. Make the pitch, schmooze some gatekeepers and pass the hat. There are worse systems.  Continue reading

Comet Voter Guide: Feeling Surreal in the Pittsburgh of 2019

Politics is getting out-of-hand. Right?

Were I closer to Andrew Carnegie’s winter home, for example, my permission to have an abortion would have just been revoked.

True, I am biologically male. But “stuff happens” and sometimes men find themselves needing to help secure and furnish the costs of an abortion (or “go Dutch”) or arrange for a ride, or actually help a pregnant woman past any anti-choice protestors outside of some clinics, or just generally hold their hand and help them make that parenting decision. We men are not undergoing abortions ourselves, but in most senses they happen due to own actions and impact our own lives, so they’re “ours” as well. And sometimes we experience those abortions to our benefit.

If people start losing dearly held rights, things are going to get volatile.

So, in my capacity as Blogger in Chief at the Pittsburgh Comet, I’m sure I speak for all of Pittsburgh when I say we would welcome any of yinz Southron refugees who find your way up the Ohio River, or who come down from the east over the mountains after having made it up the Atlantic, to live as free men and women again. Bring us barbecue.

But then again, we don’t want to have to deal with chaos and dissolution forever, do we?

When it comes to fascism, this is just one convenient tactic. Eliminating reproductive freedom strikes a chord upon traditionalism, patriarchy and religious majoritarianism, not to mention cruelty in domination for its own sake. It’s a useful whip with which to order society under strongmen.

But fascist excitement is only one of our problems. Peoples have dealt with it before, and they eventually outlast that authoritarian perversion one way or another. Unsettlingly, we are also merely one generation or so into the Dawning of the Interwebs, and “coincidentally” only now entering the Era of Climate Change.

And so it’s hard to think about climate change without reflecting on colonialism and industrialization. Surreality has crept into political life since the bombs dropped and the Cold War began, a recognition that the world is only violently and precariously organized, and could turn on us at any moment. Climate change however reminds us that moment is approaching at ferocious speed, or indeed already past.

So what’s a blogger to do? Here I am, a White, middle-aged man, with an Internet connection. I don’t know to how to stop from getting crushed by our world falling down around us, but I must feign tell you what to do, it’s in the White middle-aged men orientation handbook.

Local politics. Of course! We’ll discover what to do on the global stage by paying heed to politics at its most basic, the nitty-gritty. Elegant, right? And what town could be grittier than Pittsburgh? Our coat of arms bears a fort, which in 1762, White invaders defended by distributing plague-laden blankets against a native siege.

But local politics requires a certain effort. In dealing with these people. Ugh. No, hold on. Let me put on my game face.  Continue reading

Monday: Grief and Resolve from Squirrel Hill

Squirrel Hill is in mourning for its slain and cherishing their memories, grieving for their families and for those who held them dear. We are worried for the injured, grateful for our heroes, and caring as best we can for all those who are left bereft, sorrowful, fearful, shaken and disturbed.

We are heartened by the special outpouring of national and international sympathies, after this Saturday morning’s act of hate and terror.

Some youths who attend Taylor Allderdice High School organized and led a vigil for the as-yet unnamed dead on the evening of the horror — which was good, because too many of the neighborhood elders would have been too intimately impacted and involved to organize an appropriate public service that quickly. (Another vigil and more fulsome community responses were in the works at the Sunday hour of this writing, and more will follow.)

After a prayer, some words, a song or two and a moment of silence, a bold young female voice declared from the speakers, “We are still Squirrel Hill.”

This earned the night’s only applause, which was sustained, and built, until it was replaced by hushed, low chanting: “Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote.

Because after all, ours is a proudly diverse community, and this was a political terror.  Continue reading

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Foundations + Machine = Winning?

By my spirit animal, as told by Rawrist.

 

Comet Presumes: Council District 4 = Coghill

He will still have to face off against a Republican in the fall: Cletus Cibrone-Abate. But welcome to the mix, Tony! Let’s see what you bring.

Comet Projects: Mayor = Peduto. 4 More Years Unlocked.

Comet endorses Bill Peduto again, hopes for the best!

Bill Peduto is actually a pretty good mayor, as mayors go. If you don’t believe what I have to say below, google it, or google the things I’m writing about. Because I’m not providing links. Either you’ll know it already, or you’ll find out.

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Even though B-Piddy’s first term as mayor of Pittsburgh was awful hit-or-miss and herky-jerky (and he might be losing his majority on City Council) he is still worth going out and voting for today because he applies himself diligently to statecraft, is open to reason, has a lot of compassionate instincts, a lot of experience, plenty of know-how, is generally accessible, and has kept his administration free from any rank incompetence or sordid scandal, though not mistake and error.

That profile alone is a lot better than the Universe often likes to serve up, in terms of major executive officers.

Usually at this point, somebody objects: “What a low bar you’ve set, for our public officials!”

But is it really? Let us take a moment. No, really. Think about it.

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Is Peduto a neoliberal? Well, he is being dragged in that direction. There is this thing called capitalism, which is presently in command of the means of production.

Some people ask me, “Bram, are you a Democratic Socialist?” I like to tell them, “Yeah, I’m a democratic socialist, but I’m a democratic socialist who gets things done.”

If I don’t vote for Bill Peduto today, that means I’m either voting for John Welch or I’m staying home. And if too many of people do either of those things (in this very sleepy municipal primary) then we wind up with Mayor Darlene Harris.

Now, Mayor Darlene Harris would be an interesting ride. There are fewer flies on her than many seem to realize. But her entire platform and constituency consist in hostile, specious reaction to progressive reform:  from campaign finance, to affordable housing, to reproductive freedom and many vendettas in between. I say “specious” because if she’s not any longer complaining about the Department of Permits, Licenses and Inspections, then she was probably crying “wolf” the whole time. So now when she says we need a “federal investigation” of the Water Authority, we can see another reckless overreach. What’s been going on over at PWSA over the last 3 1/2 years hasn’t been criminal, it’s just uncivil and unfortunate.

Rev. Welch is calling for a State of Emergency. Now that’s interesting.

Before we drown in our water woes, it’s time to acknowledge John Welch, who hammered away on matters of real urgency: our drinking water, livability for the poor, and corporate accountability. That urgency was as informed as it was disciplined and dignified.

Yet Welch seemed to have a such small campaign operation, for a big city like this. He was no doubt hampered by his inexperience as a political candidate, not to mention the incumbency advantage, and a field split unfavorably against him. If John Welch makes a mark on this election, it will likely be as a spoiler.

And I don’t want things spoiled. There’s a reason Peduto drew only small opposition over what not long ago was a highly sought-after office. Peduto appears politically and competently in charge; many people feel like they can work constructively with him, and it not end in embarrassment or outrage. That’s not always on the menu.

The Pittsburgh Comet endorses a second term for Bill Peduto. Go vote for it. Better that way, than backwards and uncertain. Let’s count our blessings.

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And yet…

Though Mayor Peduto has retained the public’s confidence, and some still cherish high hopes, he has frittered away a lot of the enthusiasm that leads to real political capital, the kind you can exert while governing. The Water Authority after all is only just now entering the “task force” phase. Note also how the Land Bank and affordable housing are taking conspicuously forever, and wonder what that means for PWSA. Nor does any “deal with the nonprofits” show any real signs of being around the corner. Meanwhile, if you’re on the supply side of things, you’re probably noting that progress in the Lower Hill and at the Produce Terminal seems very, very, very tentative at best. Add to this stew how the tenants at Penn Plaza were chased out yet the Whole Foods fell through, and you can see how nobody’s really thrilled. Maybe Nova Place is catching fire, but it sounds quiet. Even Almono is at a snail’s pace; the Oakland Transit Connector sure as heck didn’t happen; if anything that whole Smart Cities Challenge diversion generated more dissonance with Uber than anything. If he spent half as much time in the Run pitching the OTC as he did at the conferences with “innovators,” there would actually be those podraces in Schenley Park. It’s getting a little trite to ask, but is Peduto fundamentally a good “negotiator?” Let’s say the jury is out. He doesn’t always have great negotiating instincts. There had to have been a better way to engage the School Board in their superintendent search, than find himself so thoroughly alienated. He ought to realize that leadership in regards to our water infrastructure is going on MSNBC and talking about how bad these 5,000 cities have it, not going on the City Channel or Twitter to downplay it so defensively. There was no reason to put Chief McLay in such an uncomfortable position at the Democratic Convention and in front of OMI that we had to lose him so soon. There was no reason to sacrifice his defenders’ ability to argue for his integrity, by having his redevelopment chief exploit this one weird trick to hit up developers for bonus stacks of campaign cash.

You may take such impatience and dissatisfaction for so much whinging backseat driving, but it all adds up. While it is voguish to deride political idealism, rebellions are built on hope. I wonder what happens today in District 4 between Tony Coghill and Ashleigh Deemer. Is Peduto’s brand of progressivism still seen as vital and worth fighting for? Or after 3 years of seeing it in practice, are people more in the mood to give the technocratic idealists a break, and instead try something old? Who even becomes Council President if Coghill wins? I’m having trouble counting to five for Bruce Kraus, and that’s trouble for Peduto’s coalition. Without Rudiak to kick around anymore, Peduto allies like Kraus, Gilman and Gross, the so-called “progressives,” might find themselves on the outside looking in. And how would Peduto adapt to that? There’s a very real possibility that the great progressive reform wave in City Hall that began in 2007 might have already reached its high water mark. We’ll have to wait and see.

Either way, I want to see how Peduto finishes this…

… so if you’re still making up your mind, do consider making certain he gets the chance.

Bus Rapid Transit: Four Years Later, Does It Look More Tempting?

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When Bill Peduto was elected mayor, one of the first things he proposed together with County Executive Rich Fitzgerald was a new “Bus Rapid Transit” or BRT corridor through Uptown, to be completed hopefully within 3 to 4 years.

3-4 years later, and they are literally back to the drawing board, trying to earn that project’s first green light.

The Post-Gazette in particular seems to like the idea. We mean, really, really like it, in the coordinated promotional “news” article sort of way.

Little wonder: Continue reading