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Were I closer to Andrew Carnegie’s winter home, for example, my permission to have an abortion would have just been revoked.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


County Council, countywide Democratic At-Large Seat: Definitely the marquee race in this election cycle. 20-year incumbent John DeFazio is 78 years old, oversaw the leasing of Deer Lakes Park to the natural gas hydrofracturing industry as a spectacle of profitable possibility, and otherwise tends toward the conservative. He also used to be a studio wrestler, along with his County Council colleague the late Chuck Martoni, who has also served on that council 20 years, which may give one an insight into that part of County culture. Meanwhile, Bethany Hallam is a political millenial who has done an enormous amount of homework, and has overcome challenges which make her relatable and have informed her worldview. Vulnerability looks good on a candidate, in this day and age. If you’re even distantly progressive, Hallam will come as a wonderful breath of fresh air to you for the 15-member group.

County Council District 13:  Challenger Liv Bennett is running on “Affordable Housing • Save the Environment • Criminal Justice Reform,” which is honestly everything I’d personally like to hear concerns a regional politician. Her opponent, incumbent Denise Ranalli Russell, is more staid and conservative.

City Council D1 “The North”: If you hate Mayor Bill Peduto, and/or you are rather conservative for an otherwise pro-labor Democrat, and you can live without strategic planning or much change at all (new fountains aside), Darlene Harris is your woman. Bobby Wilson is again seeking to unseat her, and again has the support of Peduto. If you’re liberal or progressive, an admirer of Peduto, or just not enthused about Harris’s signature leadership for any of myriad reasons, Bobby Wilson is your guy.

City Council D3 “Southside/South Oakland”: The District has two great progressives to choose from in incumbent Bruce Kraus and challenger Ken Wolfe, and a more conservative alternative in Chris Kumanchik. It’s a really tough district to navigate, what with Carson St., and anyone who needs to cross two bridges to get there needs to defer to the locals. Separately from who best represents that area’s interests, I will say that City Council seems to lack a certain hammer to Mayor Peduto’s anvil lately — an optimizer. Council President Kraus’ assignment of Councilman Burgess to the Finance Chairmanship was a recognition of shifting coalitions, but I wonder if Kraus’ term of leadership on that body still has relevance.

City Council D5 “South Squirrel Hill / Hazelwood”: Corey O’Connor is running unopposed for the party nomination to his third term on City Council, which makes things easy for me as I am a constituent. But I can’t let him off the hook that easy. He knows that broad patch of grass across from Big Jim’s has grown long and far to seed this spring, and he knows that it never ordinarily is permitted to grow like that. And so he knows DOMI is digging its talons deeper in the pie, to pseudo-blight and then transform the parcel into servicing the robotrail through Schenley to Oakland. And you know meanwhile the Run rats are inventorying fallen chunks of concrete from the underpasses, and making records of landslide and flooding activity, and spilling ink. O’Connor better be sure that PWSA and the Parks Conservancy does an excellent job with the stormwater remediation. Be sure officials focus on that, and on leaving no conspicuously unnecessary traces in the park.

City Council D7: “Greater Lawrenceville”:  I’ll be darned if anyone can seem to tell a difference between incumbent Deb Gross’ record and what challenger Dierdre Kane says she wants to accomplish. As near as I can figure, this is about how Gross came up with Peduto as part of the “New Pittsburgh”, and Kane came up via Lawrenceville United and the old. I can’t say who would be preferable, but I will say that I’d miss it if Gross left Council and then nobody was left to challenge the Mayor archly from his Left, all Lisa Simpson-like.

Burgess, by Megan Harris, WESA

Burgess, by Megan Harris, WESA

City Council D9: “Greater Homewood”: 12-year incumbent Rev. Ricky Burgess may be the most powerful member of Pittsburgh City Council. The nine-member body will never elect him Council President, because nobody trusts him that much to be a heartbeat away from the mayoralty. But his influence stretches from the powerful Finance Committee chairmanship, to the Pittsburgh Land Bank, to the Housing Authority, and much of the hottest land in Pittsburgh.  And he’s a trained parliamentarian, a teacher of rhetoric, and of course of course a preacher. How he manages to fly under the radar in all these stories about Penn Plaza and other gentrifying increments, I’ll never know. Whether one of his several opponents like Cherylie Fuller will unseat him seems doubtful, but every vote against him is a reprimand.

District Attorney for Allegheny County: Police reform and oversight together with police-community relations are a tremendous topic in Democratic politics today. 20- year Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. hasn’t demonstrated the initiative and concern requisite to a Democrat of this day and age, just hasn’t treated the issue with the anxious seriousness his constituents sorely require. Maybe he missed a generational, cultural shift, maybe his politics are so good he’s never had to sweat it. Meanwhile Turhan Jenkins has demonstrated the qualifications, the willingness to listen and to evolve, and the fortitude. Jenkins deserves every vote he can get, and Zappala deserves to see them.

Mind you, we’re not demanding Zappala march out into the wilderness, never to darken our door again. His experience and expertise would qualify him for any number of jobs at the federal Department of Justice, if indeed he wouldn’t care to name his price in the private sector for a while. In Pittsburgh, we don’t banish people who lose elections, we immediately ask them for help with other projects. Everyone’s a value, sometimes it just takes more figuring out where to place everybody for optimal performance. Sometimes — more often that we do — we just need to cycle through some new blood, and point the old towards a new challenge.

Pittsburgh Public School Board of Directors, D4 “Squirrel Hill / Shadyside”:  I am a constituent of this district. I must have first met activist Pamela Harbin two superintendents ago, when Mark Roosevelt grievously overreached and (among other Godzilla-esque transformations) shuttered Schenley High School because it was old and in the way. We both fought and deplored the sale of that jewel.

During the following administration however, Harbin and I grew to respectfully disagree about more and more. I thought merit-pay for teachers with excellent performance reviews was a worthy idea; Harbin believed merit pay would open the door to administrative favoritism. I favored last year’s countywide referendum to raise taxes to fund before-school, nutrition and after-school services for all students (which won within the city limits of Pittsburgh, and did best in municipalities like Braddock, Wilkinsburg, Homestead, Duquesne and Swissvale, as well as Penn Hills); Harbin thought the money would be an unaccountable “slush-fund” to enrich consultants and nonprofit executives. I thought city leaders and the foundations could be helpful to the board in organizing a nationwide executive search for new superintendent and a public outreach campaign to establish priorities, much like Pittsburgh undertook to find Police Chief Cameron McLay; Harbin thought that would be meddling with the new board’s prerogative.

Fast-forward to one week ago, when a local left-leaning education policy blog published a sensational expose painting Harbin’s opponent, Anna Batista, as hopelessly indebted to education privatizers, developers, and corporations — mostly because, as a longtime organizer with Great Public Schools Pittsburgh (backed heavily by the teacher’s union) Harbin is restricted to a fairly inflexible set of ideological positions. If you want an open mind to a variety creative partnerships or initiatives, you’re probably looking to support an alternative, just to be given a fresh hearing!

Fast-forward again to yesterday, when a local friend on Facebook asks something like, “Does anybody know what Batista or Harbin make of Superintendent Anthony Hamlet? Because for a long time I’ve been hearing little but disturbing news!”

And this was my honest answer:



A report on plagiarism and inconsistencies on Hamlet’s resume applications adjoins a picture of Harbin here, who was helping to pass out the petty signs.

If Labor believes in Harbin, that’s outstanding. I think she’d be well suited to take a run at City Council, and maybe disrupt what seems like the actual Peduto machine. Or, she could continue to break ground pairing labor advocacy with organizing around racial equity, a worthy project. But unlike the City, the School District has had an overabundance of labor’s political influence for the past couple years. Voter backlash to the Roosevelt era drove it so far left into labor’s arms, it evidently wound up overcorrecting and sliding in the gutter.

screen-shot-2019-05-21-at-6-30-44-amMeanwhile, on Anna Batista’s website, I was thoroughly impressed by the breadth, scope and clarity of positions she’s taken, and particularly smitten by what she had to say at the very bottom about making testing for “Gifted and Talented” students universal. As a Colfax 2nd-grader, had my mother not complained when my friends were getting tested though I was overlooked, my life might have turned out a bit different — though stratification of the “eyeball the kids to see if they might be gifted” system, along with the “whisk them away to the Gifted Center once a week” system, was felt by all us students as profoundly weird.

Did Batista and I agree on everything? I tracked her down and asked her about merit pay based on teacher evaluations.

No, she replied at first. There’s no way to control for which teachers have higher or lower-performing students. It’s inherently unfair.

Sure there is, I insisted! It’s possible to control for poverty, for other socioeconomic markers, or simply for relative improvement for relatively poor-achievers. They’ve done this with math, I think I whined.

“Sure, if you want a fight with the teachers’ union,” Batista responded with resignation. “If you open up Merit Pay, you’ll get in a fight with the teachers’ unions. If you open up Gifted, you’ll get in a fight with some Squirrel Hill parents.”

Not only does Batista think all children should be tested for gifts and talents meriting special nurturing, she thinks there ought to be ways to provide that enrichment within each school, and to work it into curriculums so students don’t feel so profoundly separated — and so that designated “gifted” students don’t, ironically, miss out on machine-shop and other fantastic Vo-Tech offerings while experiencing computer science and public speaking workshops.

“Some parents [of ‘Gifted’ students] don’t like that,” she explained. “It makes them feel special. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that,” she allowed, seeing as how Colfax Elementary “is like half Gifted” these days, “but I’ve never been afraid of a fight.”

So that’s Anna Batista’s idea of equity: she emphasizes the need to measure progress and demand greater equity in results. The concerns she says she hears in the District most often are “ineffective teachers who have either checked out or don’t care, access to guidance counselors and good guidance counseling, and segregation.” And while she agrees wholeheartedly with Harbin that public schools should be receiving more state funding, as a Board member she’s not going to rely on the “sledgehammer” rhetoric of complaining about funding in response to all concerns, but little else. She wants to wrestle creatively and collaboratively with whatever resources, in the meanwhile, are actually being made available to our children.

Labor’s answer to a lot of this demand for innovation has been “Community Schools”: providing “wraparound” services through other agencies in school buildings where children need them. It’s been slow and steady going getting them off the ground in Pittsburgh, to as-yet uncertain results. However, Harbin and her allies in labor seem singularly resistant to allowing key local leaders a seat at the table, and I don’t see how these Community Schools can scale up with that much aggravated, ideological mistrust between stakeholders.

screen-shot-2019-05-21-at-7-29-17-amI very much like Anne Batista, and I’m worried about the pattern the District has fallen into: a tug-of-war cage match between labor and the marginalized groups it organizes on one side, and the “New Pittsburgh,” on the other — with the former dominantly in charge right now, though quite unsteady on its feet, suggesting drunkenness. Last election cycle, I recommended to readers three soon-to-be school board members, all of whom labor also backed. I asked each of them how they “balance” the ideas of labor with those of the innovators, the foundation-types, A+ Schools — and they each gave me a balanced answer about their need to walk that tightrope. Lynda Wrenn, however, actually walked that tightrope more faithfully than any of them — that’s why they gave her the Chair after the prior board leader (backed by the teachers’ union) stepped away amidst controversies. Wrenn’s endorsement of Batista was extremely encouraging to what were already my leanings. I’d like to keep that independent-minded torch alive.

SCHOOL BOARD D2:  A decade or more ago, I used to play ultimate frisbee with Kirk Rys, and found him to be a bright, positively spirited, compassionate, dare-I-say sweet? teammate and competitor. I’m positive he’d be an excellent school board member. At the same time, representation matters, and it would be a shame for many if that district lacked African-American representation it felt it could relate to and trust, and Devon Taliaferro also comes highly recommended. I don’t think you can make a wrong choice between those two.

OTHER PPS SCHOOL BOARD SEATS: I don’t know. Try to find someone who doesn’t sound like they’re carrying water for the Superintendent. The board has to provide oversight, and it has to provide more of it than it has been.

What does that say about labor, though? Anything bad? I hate being on the opposite side of working people, in any respect. While labor needs to keep a hawkish eye on district administration to restrain any abuses, I don’t think it does itself any favors by getting out all over its skis when it comes to politics. Let the School District engage with and respond to the broader political reality. To put my advice into just 7 words borrowed from 38 Special:


Oh, and as long as I have Big Labor’s attention… when this is over, let’s you and I not forget to support the P-G Newspaper Guild! We literally couldn’t while away the hours like this kibitzing about regional politics, if they weren’t doing such hard work. And for years, without a contract! C’mon gang, let’s get something on the schedule to show them some support.

SEE ALSO: City Paper Guide, The Incline Guide

We’ll catch up with everyone later this week… good luck out there!

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