‘Burgh Politics: A Quick Lament

Lord of the Rings

This week I made an argument that one of the lead candidates in the race for City Council District 7 has a much more reality-based and helpful approach to the City’s financial recovery, thereby seeking to ensure delivery of the services and resources we all need beyond the pension crisis we all see coming.

My colleague chimed in to opine that the other leading candidate, by virtue of his background and experiences, is more likely to be active in mitigating a predictable crisis of gentrification brought upon by a massive and likely disruptive new development.

What I see reflected out there in the comments and on social media, however — among partisans of both sides and more amiable minds alike — is an enormous tendency to reduce all questions of ideas, qualifications and approach to that of binary identity resentment.

One candidate and all the supporters behind her is cast as cosmopolitan, the other as parochial. One as privileged elites, the other as clannish thugs. One as more interested in innovative and alternative projects, the other a champion for heightened focus on fundamentals.

And it’s not new to this race. Wagner vs. Peduto, Ravenstahl vs. Peduto, Bodack vs. Dowd, Kraus vs. Koch, Murphy vs. O’Connor, Murphy vs. Wagner, we’ve heard all the class rhetoric before.

Is it always going to be this way? Is that just the way politics is?

I cannot separate myself from it. Before I go any further, for example, I am obliged to point out that it was Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his cohorts, the longtime anti-elitist champion of “Real Yinzers” such as those who have represented the proud 6th Ward in Lower Lawrenceville, who was so determined for so long to grease the skids for Buncher Company’s “Riverfront Landing” vision by pushing its own zoning proposal characterized by narrow river setbacks and limited public access, selling the historic public Produce Terminal for partial demolition, and providing them with hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-increment financing. A decade before him, it was Wagner attempting more or less the same thing. Pointy-headed academics like Peduto and Dowd fought a lot harder to preserve the character of the Strip for its merchants and those who value its authenticity than anyone else.

But I’m letting it get away.

Pittsburgh is lousy with Democrats, and I used to think of Democrats as the folks who were not so hesitant about highly educated people, young people, the arts, new technology, new modes of transit, outsiders, treaties and alliances, or the infallibility of mathematics.

Not because that’s all there is, but because Pittsburgh is not playing a zero-sum game. We’re trying to retain and attract infinite sorts of different people and businesses to the City, we’re trying to make it structurally more diversified and therefore stronger than it used to be or even is now. We’re trying to grow the pie. And I’m not accustomed to thinking of Democrats as so wary of change.

However, it may be this is the very nature of electoral politics. Maybe these tired old costumes will be stowed away by partisans a week after Halloween. Maybe the few folks passionate about their candidates just don’t have anything else with which to scare people.

But I do worry that Pittsburgh is chasing its own tail; that something ought to break so these two cultural archetypes can work together on what are clearly mutual interests. Maybe that will just take time.

24 thoughts on “‘Burgh Politics: A Quick Lament

  1. Uncle Darren

    Isn't that the problem, though; that there is no longer such a thing as a “Pittsburgh Democrat”? What does that even mean anymore? It's just that the Die-hard Republicans all moved out to the suburbs, so only Democrats get elected. The reason “partisans” are so costumed because voter apathy makes it so you have to put on a tragic morality play to get folks to be interested enough to vote at all anymore. We are reaping what we've sown from our expectations that Democracy is an easy process. Don't let it get to you, big guy, it's just politics.

  2. Shawn Carter

    Hey! Wait a @+#&@+@% minute! I was going to write the same thing, albeit using many more words and paragraphs, imflammatory imagery, and illusory phrases.


    I agree, Bram.

  3. Shawn Carter

    Except the part about greasing the skids.

    I think that anyone who holds that view about the Strip and the Riverfront fail to realize how good a hand Buncher in this game.

    It is far more likely that the turn, flop and the river give Buncher a winning hand in this than the City, not to mention that Buncher has the bankroll to call, should they choose.

    But there really hasn't been a forthright discussion about this tangled issue.

    I trust that we will.

  4. Bram Reichbaum

    Shawn, I wanted to add some verbiage about that “good hand” of Buncher's from way back, which is very true… but at the same time no poker hand is so good it makes your opponent stand up, go to the ATM and click “Savings” by commanding a TIF (which was the admin's original plan) let alone no zoning amendments. Greased skids!

    And you're right, I stole your thunder a wee bit on something I know you'd also been contemplating… but somehow I feel like I left you enough uncovered material. Looking forward to the opus.

  5. Shawn Carter

    It appears as though most people voicing an opinion on this issue failed to actually READ the Allegheny Riverfront Vision Plan.

    The ARV calls for the construction of a brand new marina at 43rd Street in Lawrenceville.

    Except, there's one tiny little problem with that.

    A single private entity owns all of the riverfront land from 43rd Street to 48th Street.


    Anyone who looks at the plan for those five blocks would quickly figure out that the future value for Buncher's land in Lawrenceville, when you consider what will be built on it, will factor in the high nine-figures.

    How much was Buncher willing to part with such valuable land? An 80-year-old building that would be condemned by BBI if anyone BUT the City owned it and a Superfund site under the 62nd Street Bridge.

    If anyone was getting a sweetheart deal out of this, it was the City, not Buncher. The City could NEVER have afforded to actually buy that land from Buncher, especially not after they read the ARV.

    So, if the skids were greased, it was so that the City could scoop up extremely valuable property, exchange it for far less valuable property and implement the ARV which everyone seems to think is a worthy goal of the City.

    And yes, that would prompt me to race for the ATM and click. And we should all hope that these delays, purportedly in the name of achieving perfection, don't result in another generation's worth of delays in this. Or worse, Buncher decides to build a 5-block factory on land zoned industrial and turn 5 vacant blocks on the river into an ATM of their own.

  6. Bram Reichbaum

    FActory?! Man, if Buncher was close to providing five square blocks full of manufacturing jobs in the heart of the urban center, I'd strangle any geese that got in the way myself. The money is in class A office space, upmarket commercial and ridiculously high-end residential.

  7. Shawn Carter

    The residents of Lawrenceville are over-factoried north of Butler Street. Probably why the ARV envisions REMOVING it all and turning it into Washington's Landing, complete with marina.

    Buncher only BUILDS factories. You would need a company that makes stuff to occupy it. And again, that sounds like an awful lot of heavy trucks going up and down an already over-taxed two-lane road.

  8. Bram Reichbaum

    Are they over-factoried by factories which are open?

    I want to be clear I'm not advocating for heavy industry there, I'm expressing incredulity that Buncher will inflict giant factories on us if it doesn't get its own version of “the perfect”.

  9. Shawn Carter

    I doubt that they would, but if the URA, after spending $350,000 putting together a Plan that involved turning my land into Washington's Landing AND wanted me to hand it over for pennies, then my terms would border upon the absolutely NON-NEGOTIABLE.

    That TIF you keep talking about just happens to essentially be Buncher loaning itself $50 million, which Buncher has to pay back, whether the development works or not.

    There seems to be this mindset that we can just roam the urban landscape, and take as we see fit. That always collides with property rights.

    And had the City been more focused on reclamation instead of obstructing the County in the 70's, it, and not Buncher, would own all of this land, right now.

    And considering this, I think the City is getting a far better deal out of this than it should.

  10. Jerry

    > I used to think of Democrats as the folks who were not so hesitant about highly educated people, young people, the arts, …

    If you're a politician in Pittsburgh, you can be a Republican Democrat or you can be a Democrat Democrat. But either way, you have to be a Democrat. Your official party affiliation says nothing about what you really believe.

    As for the point of your article … I never studied political science, but it seems to me that almost everyone everywhere decides who to vote for based on which candidate will be best for “me”. Which most often means the candidate who is MOST LIKE “me”. It's not just a Pittsburgh thing.

    Nor is it, I think, a bad thing. You can't predict what a candidate will do. There's too much that is out of his/her control for that. Economic forces, politics at a higher (e.g. state) level, natural events, acts of terrorism, … there's just too much that the candidate can't control, so any plans the candidate makes are pretty fleeting.

    So what do we have left to make decisions on? Mostly, I think, the candidate's history, character, and personality. And that overlaps heavily with identity politics.

  11. Anonymous

    Jerry – i generally agree with your comment, but think it goes a little deeper. People don't vote for who will be better for them, because there really is no way of knowing that. Rather, most people vote for who they think portrays an image of themselves they want to broadcast to the world. Social media had magnified this phenomena. Let me give you a few examples. African Americans have lost ground in every single economic indicator under Obama. But, the alleged champions of the poor and social/racial justice support Obama more than ever. Why is that? Not necessarily because he actually is better for African Americans, but because publicly stating that you support Obama is perceived to stand for something. And generally speaking people want to be perceived as supporting various things that they believe are socially popular. Bram's example of Buncher is another great example. As Shawn pointed out, the AVP is just not workable in many regards. Plus, the idea that Dowd and Peduto support the local business of the strip and that Ravenstahl doesn't. I don't know who actually does or who doesn't, but the reality is that the Neighbors in the Strip supports the Buncher project as is- the organization that is actually made up of these local business that everyone proclaims they support. So why is it that people continue to espouse the message that Raventahl was anti local and unique Strip district and Peduto and Dowd were pro Strip district? It is because people want to believe that taking a stance against Buncher means taking a stand against big money and standing up for the little guy. But in reality the little guy (the Strip businesses) support Buncher's plans.

  12. Mysterious Greenfield Guy

    At last night's ACCD Kennedy Lawrence dinner, Peduto recounted some of his recent conversations with Tom Murphy (who showed up briefly by the way to pay tribute to the two Democrats of the Year, long-time county party functionaries Robert Frank and Angie Gialloreto). Peduto said that Murphy told him there are four kinds of cities–regional cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo, int'l cities London and New York, national cities like Philly and Dallas, and hot, trendy cities like Austin and Portland. Bill said that Tom told him that his job is to make Pittsburgh into a hot trendy city, and he, with all of our help, was going to work hard to do that. So there it is: Despite the hype, our next mayor doesn't believe that we are Portland or Austin, but the goal, passed down from the last legitimate city leader, is to become so.

    Other K-L observations: Luke did not attend; Deb Gross is a cool, calm and collected cucumber; some candidates do too much unnecessary literal back-slapping; Bob O'Connor got the biggest headshot in the “Special Recognition of the Mayors of Pittsburgh” section of the dinner program; Allentown mayor and gubernatorial candidate Ed Pawlowski bought the program's back cover; and gubernatorial candidate Katie McGinty worked the room selling raffle tickets (nice touch, actually).

  13. Bram Reichbaum

    I watched the public hearing on Buncher's zoning dealie and remember a number of Strip businesses owners expressing concerns, and none gung-ho. I don't get NITS. They were also outspoken to support the GSTC electronic billboard for some reason, so it could be some form of political horse trading.

  14. Shawn Carter

    Well, almost no one liked the wide-screen at the Greyhound station, Bram.

    Pittsburghers, fundamentally, are anti-billboard, always have been, going back to the 30's. Converting the vinyl billboards to bigger, brighter, shinier TV screens appears anathema to Pittsburgh.

    So that really isn't an apt analogy.

  15. Shawn Carter

    Which is unfortunate, considering that most of the commenters here clearly have a preference one way or the other yet have managed to disagree like mature, reasonable partisans…


  16. Anonymous

    See Bram, this is where you lose credibility, like most partisans. You have some thoughts and analysis but then are very clear facts that are contrary to your partisan story line, you rationalize and dismiss. NITS was very pro-Buncher. The vast majority of businesses in the Strip and other stakeholders are in support. You just totally dismiss that by stating “you don't get them” and that a couple people showed up to object. That is really poor journalism and analysis. If we are supposed to be so big on the community process, then why are you blatantly ignoring the community group? Or is this what we can expect in the future, i.e., ignore the community group when it doesn't fit the narrative and instead focus on the couple of naysayers. But when the community group fits our narrative they will be trumpeted and held in high regard and any objectors will be painted as, well, naysayers.

  17. Bram Reichbaum

    Anon 12:19, we were obviously exposed to different parts of the conversation during that long episode. I actually don't remember any businesses or community groups (NITS or otherwise) being outspoken in support of Buncher's drawings and asks. Perhaps if you provided a link or two…

  18. Bram Reichbaum

    Okay, fair enough 12:19, before you slam me, I google'd and found several citations… but at the risk of incurring more wrath, it seems like NITS by virtue of the makeup of the Strip is more of a chamber-of-commerce type group than what we think of as your typical community group. And Shawn, I do think the example of why they would go out of their way to support a billboard that was as you say “fundamental anathema” to so many Pittsburghers (and people who believe in the rule of law) raises a flag about horse trading.

    But the goodness or badness of Buncher's plans is really a side-tangent. Shawn's point is that like it or not, it will bring gentrifying pressures. My point is that building the reputation of being a community group guy or gal or is a poor predictor of how much one cares about that particular issue or what they have been or might be willing to do about it.

  19. Bram Reichbaum

    I get that, Jerry, but I feel like it just opens to door to phony cowboys like George W. Bush clowning like a regular Joe you'd love to have a beer with, only to govern like the bluest blood patrician plutocrat or self-interested corrupt ninny.

    I used to have the naive idea that whether it be for President, Governor or Mayor, the object for a citizen was obviously to pick out the very smartest, best prepared, most experienced and most capable person in the whole country, state or city — in other words, somebody vastly different from my own underachieving, uncultured, undereducated self or my family or my immediate neighbors. Turns out most of those people stay the heck out of politics or aren't very good at it, but I still have trouble compromising from that ideal.


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