WINNING THE ALLEGHENY RUMBLE: Reversing Two Centuries Perfidious Neglect in 11 Weeks

Pittsburgh’s bridges crumble owing to decades of deferring maintenance year-by-year in favor of more exciting or profitable projects. Its ancient housing stock molders from our ambivalence towards forgoing tax debts or transferring dilapidated property to anyone with the means of improving them. Scandal and court order have finally kickstarted the upgrade of old water and sewer systems, but now the scope of work will take decades and billions. We sacrifice air quality for jobs, even though further economic growth suffers for it. Our public schools are crippled by poverty and political paralysis, our jail is better at wrecking lives than rehabilitating them along with the rest of our criminal justice system, and even the span separating these has failed.

When we do summon the unity and gumption to confront such common challenges, the “non-profits” which dominate our regional economy ensure local governments have little to bring to bear, and the wealthiest private property holders cling to the rest at the expense of everyone else. Meanwhile state and federal Republicans hardly even recognize these as problems (at least when they’re in cities) so keep an austere lock over our share from the top. And if these political hurdles were ever surmounted, autocratic bullies across the world would keep us focusing on defense.

It takes a lot of naivete or hubris to believe we’re just a few clever ideas, call-outs and moral pep talks away from resolving these contradictions. In what is objectively the best system humankind has ever devised for these tasks, candidates for office summon all five, form into cliques like reality show contestants, and plunge into an orgy of confidence- and endorsement-seeking from voters and organizations at best mildly ignorant of complexities and basing their judgements upon vibes, or at worst content to trade support for jobs, contracts, direct funding and other special interest, or simply for feelings of status, access or vindication over contenders who previously struggled and failed. They are armed with information from a professional news media relentlessly defunded by the Internet (even as now the most robust news source in town is a cancelled pariah) and an Internet discredited as a sea of lies, noise and ego. In 2016 its antisocial algorithms ripped the fig leaves from our very self-perceptions and pitted pragmatism against idealism like gladiators from Mad Max: “Two thoughts enter, one thought leaves” from which both emerge debilitated and unable to stand against cynicism.

That is the dim, world-weary view of course. In reality we’re usually just a collective emotional gear-shift away from recalling life itself is struggle but our differences are not as great as our mercenary Overton-window hauling politics suggest, and that if we apply a little humility, humor and good will, we can at least slow everything from getting worse and allow space for improvement. What follows is just one blogger’s framework for applying that measured optimism to make the most of our upcoming local primary election. Use it or lose it…

John Weinstein is a dire prospect for County Executive for at least two reasons: his extreme disalignment with Pittsburgh’s progressive agenda would result in egregiously combative “divided government,” and his eye-popping, top-heavy fundraising profile combined with his lonesome opposition to campaign finance reform would put his administration out of the reach of all but a well-placed few. And as if those aren’t solid enough grounds to recoil there is an enormous amount of chatter about his predilection for political patronage and arm-twisting verging on corruption. To be sure such practices often aren’t illegal, are hard to prove, and by no means exclusive to Mr. Weinstein (though no one else seems to major in it quite like him.) But it does make him a valid target for investigations and mockery, both of which will have to be liberally employed if anyone is to upset him.

Darwin Leuba‘s election as County Controller becomes absolutely essential if we indeed get zonked with Weinstein. The O’Hara Township elected auditor’s prodigal capacity and accomplished zeal for everything from voting rights to prison reform to holding polluters and big “non-profits” to account would be a boon to Allegheny County no matter who held the Executive position, and electing a young 2nd generation Taiwanese-American Yale graduate (and Teamster) to countywide office would do the region real good in terms of changing perceptions and attracting interest. But in the event we need an especially assertive “watchdog,” his audacious profile stands in stark contrast to Acting Controller Corey O’Connor, whose background, demeanor and record on City Council doesn’t suggest nearly as much skeptical urgency or dissatisfaction with business-as-usual. O’Connor’s climate “recommendations” speak of “accountability” frequently for example, but contain no apparent accountability mechanisms. Who can recall the last time a government official demanded “Gentleman, we have failed to meet the 20-year goals our forebears laid out 20 years ago, so we must now scourge ourselves in shame before the electorate?” Leuba’s plans to audit the Clean Air Fund, hasten Health Dept. fines for pollution violations and account for their damages would go a longer way. This is a race in which it would be easy for progressives to “go along to get along” and diversify their political portfolio and personal brands with a well-heeled White moderate, but doing so here would be a grievous missed opportunity. An early chance to see if you agree is arriving Tuesday Feb. 28 in Oakland at a forum hosted by 1Hood Power and others.

But since it would be best to avoid getting zonked with Weinstein, we turn to Sara Innamorato and Michael Lamb, the other highest-profile candidates for County Executive. A conventional wisdom has developed how the more moderately-progressive Lamb will have to pick off votes from Weinstein’s orbits to enable the more leftist-progressive Innamorato to win with something like a third of the vote. That may be the winning formula, and so neither cohort should much molest one another, saving their powder for Weinstein. But for the record that notion seems a bit wishful, indirect, elaborate and revealing on behalf of today’s left wing.

Lamb, Innamorato, and Weinstein. Image from spy satellites

Firstly, if I’m still scribbling into this particular web space, it must needs be confessed that while I take pride in supporting Lamb in his initial 2007 run for City Controller, I later disparaged his ultimately sound and successful pension-saving plan in 2011, I helped shunt him aside from a crowded field for mayor in 2013 in favor of the lately much-maligned Councilman Peduto, and I supported his ouster in his 2015 reelection bid in which he casually and utterly demolished his farther-left challenger. I’m not sure if I “regret” all those but it’d be neat to discover more about whether I should. Maybe some figures are just convenient to opportunistically knock, and it’s never easy to straddle ideological divides when all politics is polar. But 16 whole years on and it seems not a single progressive can say an unkind or other-than-laudatory word about Michael Lamb, and there’s surely lessons worth absorbing there.

Secondly, while Lamb’s experience, relative progressive moderation, ambitious proposals and uncommonly honorable reputation for a longtime fixture cut into Weinstein’s strengths and his weaknesses, I’m perceiving little about this race which augurs very favorably for Innamorato, despite her considerable attributes: how she’s backed by a political coalition eager to extend a scorching hot streak, close “alignment” between City, County and Congressional representation a compelling argument, representation in terms of socio-economic experience mattering to many Democrats, and a reputation for level-headed pragmatism sometimes enviable on the left.

Yet the whole County is much rougher terrain for ardent leftism than the City of Pittsburgh or PA’s 12th congressional district. The mood has shifted perceptibly from correcting dramatically after 30 years complacent centrism, to correcting back somewhat after irrational exuberance. Innamorato’s hesitancy to pledge to reform the County’s blatantly inequitable property tax assessment system (or lack of a system) underscores both those difficulties. The field of presently-2nd tier candidates appears unfavorable for her, with Liv Bennett suggesting she welched on prior arrangements after getting gangstered out of other opportunities to rise, and Erin McClelland’s fierce performances underscoring by contrast how Innamorato’s not quite a Gainey or Lee when it comes to the oratorical firepower by which ideological campaigns tend to thrive. And then there’s the creeping consternation about Mayor Gainey’s perceived slow start, however it’s categorized or attributed, which raises doubts progressives can ill afford. Left-wingers will one day require experience and strings of accomplishments to get to higher levels rather than sheer exasperation with the status quo. Right now they’re finally in a position to gain that experience, even to jockey among themselves for primacy. It’s not irrationally pessimistic to anticipate a plateau is approaching. But it feels like the institutional logic to bear down and drive forward is blinding some Democrats to some caution flags.

If I were king, I’d charge Innamorato, Gainey and Lee with implementing their full stated agenda on the home front with an iron fist, while I laid siege to the Cranberries and Harrisburgs which stymie it. If I were everybody’s political director I’d lecture how more progressive organizational resources would be more profitably spent burying Stephen Zappala Jr. for good and all in favor of his challenger for District Attorney, Chief Public Defender Matt Dugan, and then spread about fostering a lasting sea-change on County Council capable of reversing any conservative or cad who might develop in the Executive suite. As I’m neither of those things I’ll have to wait and see and possibly eat crow. But I can suggest to the Democratic Committee it might take a straightforward tack towards what it’s meant to do best, which is temper passions by making sure experience, rift-healing and electability are paramount in the face of danger and subversion.

One convincing mark in Lamb’s favor as an administrator (as well as an illustration of the hazards of an excess of “political alignment”) can be seen in the race to replace him as City Controller, where his deputy Rachael Heisler vies against three other contenders to succeed him. It’s not particularly hard to get Heisler to call out inefficiencies in City government, such as with a permitting process that relies on one online portal with too few back-end staff to manage the load or any other accessibility options for differing applicants — but these almost always arrive with the refrain, “This has been a problem under Gainey AND Peduto” and sometimes Ravenstahl; that these are structural challenges inherent to political incentives or lacks thereof. By contrast it was hard to get her opponent Tracy Royston to call out much awry with City government, avowing to me that Gainey’s biggest problem is how “he doesn’t have any good allies on City Council,” and that she can be of great help to him — a posture more laudable for a candidate for Council or a role in the mayor’s Finance Department than for a whole elected “watchdog” office. Similarly both Royston and fellow rival Kevin Carter assert how their good relations with the School District will result in its opening its books for effective scrutiny without real auditing authority. A “friendly” audit however with “friendly” ground rules might be worse than no audit at all! Rather than pander to wishful thinking, Heisler says she’s been meeting with every School Board member to urge the necessity of amending the School Code and allocating resources to again allow the School Controller to perform external audits as well as internal ones — because without that, the only reliable recourse is a reliable state Auditor General, who would have to be a Democrat to take genuine interest. At any rate despite these professional scruples, she seems to be transcending political fault lines with an aplomb far exceeding even her present boss.

By way of wrapping up, though it’s not native to the City Controller’s role, one exceptionally intriguing idea of Heisler’s is using tied-up and completely vacant City-owned property for the benefit of unhoused people, allowing County public health officials and nonprofit providers to monitor people’s well-being, service portable toilets, make sure meals are delivered and medical care is accessible. While it may be a NIMBY nightmare and certainly isn’t a panacea on its own, some pro-active provision of healthful safety in the neighborhoods seems preferable to burying our heads in the sand and reaping what we sow by neglect.

This is actually and ultimately how we are going to defund the police: by substantially reducing problems we once meant police to solve, first. Revolutionary “smashing” theories of change based on ultimate victories, and the mass scapegoating they entail, are necessary psychic vehicles to keep us relentlessly on task. But real dismantlement and abolition will only come from creation and compromise. And frankly, I’m tired of missing creative opportunities. When we keep posturing and blustering our own respective righteousnesses while demonizing rationally informed skepticism, hope gets smashed first, pulverized into cynicism. We’ve been learning a lot however — and unlearning some — so let’s go use it!

We should probably all support Erica Brusselars for County Treasurer too, who seems a little better prepared for that role and responsibility than apparent late-entrant Tony Coghill. And Bethany Hallam who seems a bit more like a Democrat than her challenger for that Democratic-at-large Council seat. Keep your eye on this space for updates on that and more in the coming weeks though. And for that matter, subscribe to my YouTube channel and ring the bell even, it’s possible something weird is going to surface there one day. Look alive!

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