Sunday, May 31, 2009

Optimism Approaching Pens-Wings, Game Two

The Penguins are down a game as they prepare for the second game of a television-twisted series that will award the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh or Detroit, but they should not be daunted.

A year ago, Detroit dominated Pittsburgh in the series opener, establishing a tone that resonated throughout the Stanley Cup Finals. Last night, the Penguins played as well as did the Wings, and lost largely because Detroit was the beneficiary of several breaks -- strange bounces off Joe Louis Arena's idiosyncratic boards that led two pucks to carom behind the Penguins' goaltender, a blown call that deprived the Penguins of a penalty shot (under Rule 67.4) when Henrik Zetterberg smothered a puck located precariously on the back of his team's sprawled goaltender in the crease.

Pavel Datsyuk is reported to be unable to return to the Red Wings' lineup for tonight's game, Niklas Lindstrom appeared to be hobbled last night; the Penguins are the healthier and younger team, suited to a cramped series. The home advantage and a 1-0 lead give the Wings a slight edge, but I still like Pittsburgh's chances.

The Smart And The Dumb Protest Differently

When one has an intense opinion with which the majority (or the law) disagrees, the natural response is to protest.

Smart, sensible people protest one way.

Dumb, deranged people protest another way.

Pittsburgh v. Detroit

Null Space is occupied today, in part, by a brief discussion of Pittsburgh and Detroit, combatants on ice and cohorts in some civic respects.

Two points (an average game for Mario Lemieux, but not for any Red Wing):

(1) The relevant regions have shared the misfortune of the collapse of a foundational industry. Southwestern Pennsylvania (whose collapse occurred first, and whose recovery is further along) constitutes a mildly hopeful example to southeastern Michigan in this regard.

(2) The regions also share the misfortune of a failed core city. Detroit's downtown collapsed 20 years ago and has begun to revive; Pittsburgh's is still teetering, still declining. The lessons Pittsburgh (the city) and its region could draw from this are that downtowns can capsize and that the surrounding regions can survive such a collapse.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

"Hey, Obama, My Man! . . . (He Loves Us)"

Over at Bram's place, somebody ridiculed the idea that Dan Rooney might have been responsible for attracting the G20 event to Pittsburgh, and this soft Post-Gazette article was mentioned. The apparent suggestion is that local elected officials -- and their relationship with President Obama -- are responsible for this news and perhaps goodies to come.

The shout-outs to President Obama in that P-G article remind me of the Animal House scene in which the road-tripping fraternity brothers happen upon a club whose marquee indicates Otis Day and the Knights -- the black musicians whom Delta House engages periodically to perform at parties -- are playing inside. "Holy Shit! Otis Day and the Knights! I can't believe it! Wait 'til Otis sees us . . . he loves us!" They rush into the club with their dates, at which point one of the pledges observes: "We are the only white people here," to which the rush chairman responds: "We are going to die." Undaunted, Boone, the original Otis fan, heads to the bar and screams at the stage, "Hey, Otis, my man!!" Otis turns and, frozen for a moment during a song, stares incredulously. After a momentary sneer, Otis returns to "Shama Lama Ding Dong." Boone responds with an oblivious, satisfied smile.

Instead of splitting their support during the Democratic presidential nomination race, ensuring a regional player in the winning campaign, southwestern Pennsylvania's two most prominent elected officials, Dan Onorato and Luke Ravenstahl, both endorsed Hillary Clinton. Onorato preferred Obama -- he had made no secret of that privately -- but succumbed to Ed Rendell when it came to a public endorsement. (I don't know whether Ravenstahl genuinely preferred Clinton, or did Rendell's bidding, or Onorato's.)

Dan Onorato may believe his "secret" support of Obama gave him a leg up when he hopped on the nominee's bandwagon. I believe he is wrong, and that the Obama camp considered him a spineless weasel.

Ravenstahl and Onorato compounded the problem by bolting from a campaign rally before Obama attempted to acknowledge their presence:

I believe Obama also noted the boos when he introduced Ravenstahl and Onorato at other campaign events.

After that performance, who are the Pittsburgh area's connections to the Obama White House? Dan Rooney, no doubt. Cliff Levine, no doubt. After that, I'm thinking Pamela's pancakes and Franco Harris.

So when the local pols talk up their relationship with Obama, I see Luke, Dan, Shawn Fox and Yarone Zober walking into the Dexter Lake Club, heading to the bar to order their Carlings Iron Citys, and Luke and Dan yelling in unison: "Hey, Obama . . . my man!!"

Friday, May 29, 2009

Chrysler In Your Future? Not In Mine

Years ago, I test-drove a Dodge, then spent 15 memorable minutes with a sales representative who, even after I explained that I had several other test-drives to complete and planned to purchase a vehicle in a month or so, continually veered back to the question: "What can I say that will make you say 'yes' today?"

At some point, my eyes wandered to the spine of a binder on his bookshelf: "'No' Is Not An Option: Make the Customer Say 'Yes' Today."

I then responded to his question: "Well, I've considered this carefully, and I honestly think the only way you could get me to say 'yes' today would be to give me a lobotomy as part of the deal."
He pondered my offer for a moment, and I wondered for a moment whether he was debating whether to hit me, but his furrowed brow yielded to a bright smile: "Sir, I'm pretty sure I can get this done for you, but I just need to check with my manager first."

I was out the door before he returned to the cubicle. For years, when we drove past that dealership, my children would sing "Lobotomy Dodge. Lobotomy Dodge. Let's All Go To Lobotomy Dodge."

I often tried to imagine the conversation between that salesman and his manager.

(not-too-smooth segue)

Smaller Chrysler dealers were pressed in recent months to expand inventories (improve manufacturer revenues). A number of those dealers agreed to sacrifice for the benefit of their supplier, and purchased unneeded vehicles in transactions funded by borrowed money.

I could have tolerated the lack of loyalty exhibited when Chrysler repaid the smaller dealers by terminating their franchises. Hard times force difficult choices.

I can not, however, tolerate Chrysler's refusal to repurchase the vehicles that inflated the dealers' inventories (and Chrysler's revenues).

I no longer would purchase a Chrysler vehicle even if they threw in that lobotomy.

Will G20 Event Be Good Or Bad For Pittsburgh? My Take: Ask Gust Avrakotos, Book Justin Sane

September's G-20 economic summit has been scheduled to be conducted in Pittsburgh.

The usual suspects are churning out press releases predicting an economic bonanza and a worldwide awakening to Pittsburgh's charms. Others are forecasting (in part because of the experiences of London and Seattle) a disruptive, expensive mess.

I find it difficult to sort out the competing factors -- revenue from G20ers, security costs, spending curtailed by business disruption, exposure (favorable and unfavorable), hype, substance -- and consequently refer to Aliquippa native Gust Avrakotos' lesson* from Charlie Wilson's War, in which Mr. Avrakatos skillfully invokes the serial observations of a Zen Master that the most apt prediction customarily is "we'll see."

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, as usual, also provides words to live by in this context -- "when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." In this case, the unadulerated pro is Justin Sane, so I'm going to check on promoting an Anti-Flag show in Pittsburgh during late September.

Hail to Pitt: Messrs. Avrakatos and Sane are University of Pittsburgh graduates.

* Gust Avrakotos: There's a little boy and on his 14th birthday he gets a horse . . . and everybody in the village says, "how wonderful. the boy got a horse." And the Zen master says, "we'll see." Two years later the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everyone in the village says, "how terrible." And the Zen master says, "We'll see." Then, a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight . . . except the boy can't, 'cause his leg's all messed up. and everybody in the village says, "How wonderful . . . "
Charlie Wilson: . . . now the Zen master says, "We'll see."

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

Today's Americans stand on the shoulders of those who strove before them, beneficiaries of centuries of ingenuity, sacrifice, intrepidity, investment and effort throughout the world.

For most Americans, Memorial Day is a day of leisure earned by the sweat and blood of millions of other Americans.

More than one million persons have died in the military service of the United States. Some enlisted, some were conscripted. Some pursued danger, some had no choice other than to confront it. Some accomplished great missions, some were sent on fools' errands. Nearly all distinguished themselves, whatever their orders, by simply doing their duty. Some returned as heroes, some (including many heroes) returned to a society that treated them like dirt, some returned in caskets, some never returned.

All deserve a moment of reflection, a kind thought, a measure of gratitude.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Harvey Haddix's Masterpiece

No one too young to hold a college degree could believe this, but the Pittsburgh Pirates once were a proud organization, unsurpassed among National League clubs in tradition and glory.

Strangely, their success was built almost entirely on decade upon decade of hitting -- Hall of Famers two deep at most fielding positions, especially crowded in the outfield -- with barely a peep from the pitchers. The batting tradition in Pittsburgh was so rich that some of the great Pirates -- Max Carey, Arky Vaughan, Ginger Beaumont, Kiki Cuyler, Al Oliver -- are barely remembered, crowded out by all-time giants (Honus Wagner, Paul Waner) or more recent stars (Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell). Not yet mentioned: the likes of Pie Traynor, Lloyd Waner, Fred Clarke and Dave Parker. I doubt any club beats the Pirates in tradition at bat.

And yet the greatest single-game performance in Pirates' history was that of a pitcher, Harvey Haddix. The extraordinary events of May 26, 1959, recounted in today's Post-Gazette, likely featured the most remarkable one-game performance by a pitcher in the history of major league baseball.

Hats off to Harvey Haddix.

The Return Of PittGirl

PittGirl, a trailblazing local blogger who disappeared (before I read a word) after learning that her identity had been discovered (but not, apparently, widely publicized), has reappeared.

The obvious devotion of her followers ensures that I will check her work, but her chosen medium for re-emergence seems curious. She is contributing a column to Pittsburgh Magazine, which is the mouthpiece for WQED, which is the voice of the region's ossified establishment. I suppose it could be worse -- she could have emerged as the Official Blogger of the Allegheny Conference for Community Development.

If PittGirl breaks the Pittsburgh Magazine mold (breathless and mindless cheerleader for the region's slightly upper crust, a publication whose idea of hard-hitting journalism is something along the line of 'Why Doesn't The Good News About Pittsburgh Get More National Recognition?'), I will admire her. I therefore hope she's kidding about 'this is the year the Pirates' losing ends.'

Good luck, PittGirl. Welcome back.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Region Ignores This At Its Peril

A half-day of violence, from the "breaking news" section of the Post-Gazette's website:

Pregnant 18-year-old killed; was IUP student . . . . . . . . 1:46 p.m.
Man shot to death in Aliquippa's Plan 11 Extension . . . 12:30 p.m.
Man critically wounded in Homewood shooting . . . . . . 12:21 a.m.
Two people shot in Duquesne . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12:00 a.m.

Relative safety along the streets has been a saving grace in southwestern Pennsylvania. If that is lost, there won't be much left to recommend the area to those who possess a choice about their region of residence.

The region is in trouble; the City of Pittsburgh is dying. Decades of stagnant economy, dwindling opportunity for young people and poor government have consequences. These headlines reflect troublesome symptoms. It would be helpful if the region's leaders would recognize, or maybe acknowledge, or perhaps even address this.

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Memorial Day Menu Idea

This analysis (David Brooks, New York Times) provides food for thought that might inform a conversation among family and friends after the pulled pork, vegetables, and grilled pineapple have waned . . . but not, let us hope, before that keg kicks.

Free lunch? Oppression? A Commuter Tax? Dream On, City Officials (And Overlords)

The Mayor of Pittsburgh has surveyed his insolvent, dilapidated, dying city and concluded that the place needs to be spruced up a bit . . . so long as city residents skate on most of the bill. A mixture of increased commuter tax, reprieve from the state-mandated parking tax reduction, and payroll tax on tax-exempt organizations would be just the tonic, the mayor has asserted.

Th "plan" received the standard reception in Harrisburg, whence authority to impose such measures must issue; State Senator Jane Orie labeled the mayor "delusional." State Representative Don Walko declared the commuter tax proposal "dead on arrival." The most sympathetic opinion was issued by State Senator Wayne Fontana, who observed that the maintenance of current parking tax rates "is probably the easier one."

State officials had no comment on the mayor's proposals to increase city property or wage taxes or to place some of the financial burden on city employees -- because there were no such proposals.

The mayor's inspiration was a "recovery plan" issued -- "floated" was the term used by the Post-Gazette, an apt choice because things that float tend to be relatively substanceless, such as feathers, ashes and prospects of a commuter tax-financed city bailout -- by the Act 47 resuscitation team. The Act 47 team's inspiration was . . . well, it's difficult to imagine, but the first guess is one of those Married With Children episodes in which Al (or Peg) pursues a lame-brained get-rich-quick scheme.

Everyone associated with the City of Pittsburgh's finances has been daft for decades, so the chatter on that front is in character, but it is unexpectedly difficult to gauge the Comet's take on these developments. The Comet's reference to outsiders "oppressing" the city and enjoying a "free lunch" at city expense, and cheers for "commuter tax now," must be sarcastic . . . right?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Boy Mayor's Off-The-Hook Jab At Dr. Dowd

I am reliably informed that Luke Ravenstahl refused to accept Patrick Dowd's concession call on Tuesday evening. I plan to address at another time the practical issues associated with the confluence of an uncompliant supermajority on council and the ineptitude of the mayor and his staff, but here are two preliminary points:

(1) no class

(2) Dr. Dowd seems to be better positioned to be a thorn to Mr. Ravenstahl than vice versa.

In other words, this was about as smart as provoking a police officer at Heinz Field on gameday.

A Fine Night In Pittsburgh

The filly beat a couple of mudders in District 4 and an independent voice discarded a marionette in District 6, ensuring that Mayor Ravenstahl and his boy-band administration will have a bit more adult supervision. Democrats nominated just one unqualified candidate for county judge (note to the stunned: magisterial district justices could call themselves Exalted Intergalactical Jurisprudential Omnipotences if they wished, and I still would not consider them "judges," so I am not referring to Jim Motznik here). Perhaps more striking, they nominated the best candidate in the field and refrained from nominating the worst. What were the odds on that? (Actually, they were listed in the righmost column.)

The evening's biggest source of optimism -- and realism, and morality, and insight, and beauty, and joy, and all-round earthquaking, Burgh-shaking, history-making, heart-stopping, pants-dropping rock-and-roll redemption -- was the revival show conducted by Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band at the Promised Land into which the arena was transformed tonight.

Thunder Road, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Good Lovin', Youngstown, Candy's Room, I'm On Fire, Jackson Cage and the first-ever E Street edition of Like A Rolling Stone were the rare treats for Pittsburgh. Two Grusheckys were aboard for two songs (check those tickets), Glory Days and Mony Mony. Bruce damn near played Lost In The Flood, too, lingering over a sign before choosing Darkness On The Edge Of Town.

Far too many tours ignore Western Pennsylvania these days, but Bruce never overlooks us. If you enjoyed the show, why not sent 20 bucks to Just Harvest or Rainbow Kitchen? Bruce has been walking the walk and talking the talk on hunger in our region for 25 years, and he has been maintaining relatively low ticket prices, too.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Even The Union Has Given Up On Iron City

A timely update on the Luke-and-beer story from the Trib, which gets credit for raising the issue but misses the story.

I suppose the headline ("Iron City Brewing Co. may find home in Latrobe") is accurate, in the "monkeys might fly out of my butt" sense (skip to 1:30), but the Trib's "story" is vapor fashioned from the desperate hopes of a union that has been the football in a politicians-as-Charlie-Brown, management-as-Lucy charade for years.

The real news is that even the union has apparently acknowledged "last call" for brewing on Liberty Avenue. The city gave millions in public dollars to questionable Iron City management recently, and the state put at least a half-million into the Latrobe facility, but the cold truth is that neither facility is likely to be producing beer next year.

When is someone going to ask the mayor, his chief of staff and the water authority to explain their conduct with respect to Iron City Brewing? Is the city going to pursue repayment of Iron City subsidies that were conditioned on maintaining or increasing employment? Is the state going to hold the owners in Latrobe accountable?

The questions are rhetorical; don't expect to see any of them on the Propositions Board, because taking bets on sure things is something only elected officials would do.

P.S. The photographs depict suggestions for anyone desiring a beer brewed in Pittsburgh. If you want a photograph of beer from Rochester, call the mayor's office.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Luke Can't Even Be Trusted To Get The Beer

The Penguins' playoff run has handed the boy mayor the one part of his job that I would have wagered he could handle, but it turns out Mayor Ravenstahl can't even be trusted with taking care of the beer:

If the Hurricanes best the Penguins, Ravenstahl will send Meeker Pittsburghers' favorite local food items including: five pounds of Islay's chipped ham, three dozen potato and cheese pierogies, and a case of Iron City Beer.
Yes, folks, that's Iron City Beer . . . the Pride of Rochester.

Perhaps the boy mayor is confused, because it seems like just yesterday he was handing more than a million ratepayer dollars (plus an additional $750,000 in grants and loans) to Pittsburgh Brewing to keep jobs in Pittsburgh, and declaring that he had "saved the brewery" and "kept those jobs" . . . shortly before the ownership group he enabled to get control of the brewery shipped production of canned and kegged beer to Rochester. Thanks to the Ravenstahl-Zober recovery plan, the workers at Pittsburgh Brewing reportedly are working five shifts a month these days. [Has anyone checked the mayor's campaign contribution report for Rochester postmarks?]

Several breweries produce beer in Pittsburgh (and, apparently, pay their taxes and water bills), but when Pittsburgh's mayor selects a beer to hand free publicity to, he walks right past Penn Brewery, Church Brew Works and East End Brewing and keeps on walking . . . all the way to New York State.

As I said, I would have wagered that ordering the beer was one job this guy could handle. I stand corrected, while a once-proud city continues to weep.

Am I the only one who expects Steve Carell to walk in any moment now, introduce Luke as our new Office mate, and pronounce Luke the bestest management trainee candidate he has ever seen?

Connecting The Depressing Dots

The Comet offers a worthy connect-the-dots exercise, addressing topics such as Don Walko's bizarre stewardship of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority; the California-based Forza Group's large, last-minute contributions to the campaign of a mayor of Pittsburgh (which, if I read the Comet's trail correctly, is even worse than I originally thought, because this isn't the first time it occurred); and a valiant effort to see the strings of the Tuesday puppet show (titled "Election Day") featuring Theresa Smith, Luke Ravenstahl, Anthony Coghill, Tonya Payne and Tony Ceoffe.

The water and sewer authority angle is pathetic. Mr. Walko -- apparently miffed that anyone would question the management of an authority that first allowed a politically connected customer to skate on bills for 10 years, creating a $4 million delinquency and then accepted a dime or two on the dollar, enabling other ratepayers to foot the remainder of the bill -- objects to the concept of a press conference that might illuminate the authority's current fiscal hijinks, which make the $4 million soaking seem like a drop rolling off a duck's back. Mr. Walko is a nice enough guy, as pawns go, but his description of the $46 million fund transfer demonstrates either a comprehensive lack of understanding of the situation or an equally thorough disdain for the audience's intelligence. Or, I suppose, it could be both.

The effort to discern among a handful of seemingly disparate campaigns a cohesive program, and to associate it with Dan Onorato's quest to reach Harrisburg, seems like a stretch. Except that it appears to be accurate. One could argue that some of the candidates might not be up to the task of orchestrating such an organized effort . . . but since when do the keys need to understand what the pianist is doing?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Another Developer Loves Luke (Or, At Least, Wants As Much Love As $15K Can Buy)

This article likely will adjust the Propositions Board (far right) with respect to the timing of Luke Ravenstahl's indictment:

The largest last-minute contribution to Ravenstahl is $15,000 from three executives of The Forza Group, a real estate company that arranged to meet with city planning officials to discuss building at least one hotel in Pittsburgh.

Planning Director Noor Ismail declined to discuss details of the project because the company hasn't applied for approval.

Ravenstahl said he wasn't familiar with the firm. The donation pushes Ravenstahl's total cash and in-kind contributions to $357,000 this year, including a $150,000 loan from Onorato.

The article also reports that Dan Onorato banked better than $70,000 last week, putting his year-to-date total past $500,000. Will this be enough to overcome the Supreme Court smackdown on assessments (with more to come from Judge Wettick) and the eventual resumption of the barrage from the drink tax opponents?

The War Crimes Were Committed Not Just In Our Name -- But Also, Apparently, In God's

This persuades me that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and hundreds of their evildoing underlings should be praying fervently that there will be no judgment day.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Curious Case: The Trib And Mrs. Zappala Peck

The level of inanity associated with the Tribune-Review's judicial endorsements has reached a point that perplexes, causing me to wonder what might explain the situation. My current theory: A saboteur.

I refer not to virulent ideological extremism or petty personal vendettas -- both staples at the Trib's news and editorial desks -- but instead to choices and reasoning so bizarre as to be, in at least one circumstance, inexplicable.

For Allegheny County's Court of Common Pleas, the Trib endorsed two strong candidates (Phil Ignelzi, Hugh McGough) and one acceptable candidate (Arnie Klein). But the editorial then veers into a logical black hole, endorsing Michele Zappala Peck and Carolyn Saldari Bengel with unqualified praise while overlooking several qualified candidates (Joe Williams and Alex Bicket, for starters).

What caused the Trib to salute Mrs. Zappala Peck, an unqualified Democrat, as an "eminently qualified" and "accomplished attorney?" Was it her distinguished record as an able trial lawyer, her renowned mastery of a specialized field of transactional law, her sterling academic record? Unlikely, because she passed the bar exam less than five years ago --after graduating from a bottom-of-the-barrel law school without discernible honors -- and her professional record since admission to the bar consists primarily of a
an 18-month stint on the Board of Viewers, a traditional parking lot for the mediocre but politically connected . . . and a position that does not require a law degree
. The bar association reviewed this record -- Mrs. Zappala Peck would struggle to reach the 20th percentile of Allegheny County lawyers, even with her family's thumbs on the scale -- and determined this candidate to be "not recommended;" the Trib found the bar association's reasoning "beyond us" en route to affixing its "accomplished attorney" and "eminently qualified" labels.

Less ridiculous, but still strange, is the Trib's use of the same term -- "eminently qualified" -- in endorsing Carolyn Saldari Bengel. (The bar association also used its same term -- "not recommended" -- with respect to Mrs. Saldari Bengel.) Again, the Trib engages in gymnastic stretching to push for an unqualified Democrat. Why?

Another strange Trib endorsement concerned the Republican nomination for Superior Court. Three Republicans are unopposed in pursuit of three nominations, so no endorsement (or lack of endorsement) is likely to help or hurt a candidate. Yet the Trib, "just for the record," "put in a kind word for one [and only one] Republican," Templeton Smith Jr. Mr. Smith is a credible candidate, but what could explain the Trib's disregard of Judge Judith Olson, class of the Republican field (best lawyer in the Republican race, already an outstanding judge, hometown candidate)?

There is plenty of fault to find with other judicial calls by the Trib. For example, Joan Orie Melvin is a political hack and mediocre judge who was appointed as a magistrate and as a county judge before she was qualified (here is an interesting but shrill summary of her record). In the Trib's eyes, this "stellar record" makes her "one shining, crystal-clear choice."

The factual inversion of the Zappala Peck endorsement, however, executed on behalf of an unqualified Democrat by a right-of-right-wing editorial page, is uniquely puzzling. Can anyone provide a conceivable explanation? Until someone advances a better explanation, the only one that comes to mind is that a saboteur is mocking his newspaper's owner with exaggerations of the Trib's customary goofy editorial lurches.

Infindorsement: Pittsburgh Council District 4

I defy anyone to identify an institution more responsible for putting Pittsburgh in the intensive care ward than the Democratic Committee of the City of Pittsburgh.

Felons, unqualified judicial candidates, ham-handed political hacks, people covering for nephews in public works or daughters in the court records office, those who know a job in some Grant Street cubicle is their highest feasible aspiration, second-rate twenty-somethings with third-rate educations and first-rate connections . . . these are the staples of the city's Democratic structure. Manipulating these petty operatives is a group of more sophisticated mercenaries myopically focused on draining fees from city operations (pension plans, authorities, insurance programs, infrastructure) and securing variances, approvals and grants for development projects.

The porous membrane between these two classes of civic leeches consists of a relatively small population of intermediaries -- elected officials, staffers and political operatives with ill-fitting suits, stilted postures and a taste for free tickets, complimentary meals and reelection -- whose range enables them to convincingly pretend to enjoy a hot dog picnic in the afternoon, then make it through a night in the luxury box without humiliating themselves or their hosts.

Currently, the two most prominent camps populating that expansion joint are the Ravenstahl gang and the Wagners. The Ravenstahl gang has the mayor's office to overcome its lack of maturity, and is supported by County Executive Dan Onorato, who not only recognizes that the boy mayor is a putz but indeed relies on that fact. (Onorato can manipulate Ravenstahl effortlessly, freeing Onorato to focus on his gubernatorial aspirations. Plus, Ravenstahl's staff makes Onorato's associates look good.) The Wagners rely on the proven vote-getting prowess of Jack Wagner to generate statewide muscle, and a powerful machine south of the Mon to sustain local power.

Each stable has fielded a horse in the District 4 council race. Anthony Coghill is the cog in the Ravenstahl machine; Patrick Reilly is the Wagners' entry. The jockeying has been predictably rough: The Wagners won a close endorsement race (even after the laughably dressed imposter they escorted to the endorsement balloting was disqualified); the Ravenstahl forces are openly working against an endorsed candidate. Both camps -- er, candidates -- are throwing a lot of resources at this one, and the rules have been suspended.

A 50-to-1 longshot recently won the Kentucky Derby by following an unorthodox course -- dodging horses at the rail in the late stages -- to victory against the favorites. In District 4, Natalia Rudiak is the candidate seeking to emulate Mine That Bird.

In racing, horses can be assigned an impost -- a weight the animal must carry, using lead weights, if necessary, to supplement the jockey's weight. In a political race in Pittsburgh, some candidates must carry additional weight -- Ms. Rudiak's handicaps are a good education, a strong record of accomplishment and an apparent motivation to improve her community (rather than to safeguard a relative's job at the tow pound). She also has no tie to any of the Pittsburgh political machines that champion puppets and steamroll most qualified and independent candidates.

In most cases, Ms. Rudiak's lack of a political godfather would be enough to doom a worthy candidacy. If the Wagner and Ravenstahl camps devote enough energy to smacking around each other, however, that could create a rare opening for a worthy candidate in Pittsburgh. The optimistic and informed voter should be placing an enthusiastic bet on the deserving candidate, the one whose rejection by the city committee makes her even more worthy, Natalia Rudiak.

UPDATE: The filly won the Preakness. Another good omen for Natalia Rudiak?

Theresa Smith, Patrick Reilly, Luke Ravenstahl: Lying (Literally) In The Gutter Together

Theresa Smith reportedly continues to defend her misleading campaign material, indicating that her faculties do not include the ability to distinguish lie from truth. I consequently withdraw my statement that I could support her for Little League volunteer or PTA leader, and apologize for the misjudgment.

The boy mayor, with whom Theresa Smith appears to be at least loosely affiliated, shares a lack of integrity with respect to claims of Post-Gazette endorsements with Ms. Smith and with another minor politico, Patrick Reilly, whose pathetic approach to campaigning also prompted him to distribute a campaign card that dishonestly signals that he and Mayor Ravenstahl (whose choice of puppets is Anthony Coghill rather than Mr. Reilly) constitute a "team."

The Post-Gazette has endorsed Patrick Dowd, Natalia Rudiak and Georgia Blotzer; it has not endorsed Luke Ravenstahl, Patrick Reilly or Theresa Smith.

The P-G should sue all three for defamation, for creating the impression that the newspaper would be dumb enough to endorse any of these losers.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Council District 2 Infindorsement Vindicated: Anyone Not Named Theresa Smith

A couple of recent developments have vindicated the Infindorsement ("anyone not named Theresa Smith") with respect to City Council District 2.

One of Theresa Smith's supporters has responded to a detailed and damning deconstruction of her advertisements and public statements by complaining about a "witch hunt." This establishes that the speaker does not understand the term "witch hunt" (except to the extent of a vague sense 'it means something bad, with people chasing people and stuff') and suggests that a reasoned defense of Ms. Smith's mendacity is unlikely to emerge.

More important that the semiliterate nature of her support are Theresa Smith's disingenuous campaign literature, dopey public statements, small-minded agenda and scant qualifications.

I believe that Theresa Smith is, or at least was, an altrustic community advocate, but the pressures of campaigning have obviously warped her judgment, her choice of playmates is troublesome and Pittsburgh already has far too many overwhelmed small-timers in positions of leadership. I could get behind Theresa Smith for Little League volunteer or PTA leader, but the idea of her making decisions about the city's pension fund, water authority finances or Act 47 issues is horrifying (unless, I suppose, you work for JPMorgan or have the surname Zappala). If you can't vote for one of her opponents, vote for Oliver Onion.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Infindorsements: Superior Court of Pennsylvania

Nine candidates, three vacancies. Let's rock.

Kevin McCarthy (Democratic). Genuine public service background, apt experience. Recommended (Pennsylvania Bar Association).
Judith Olson (Republican).Exceptionally strong candidate, recommended without reservation. Highly recommended.
Robert J. Colville (Democratic). Got his Common Pleas gig the traditional way: Family name and voter confusion. Since then, an acceptable judge.Recommended.
Anne Lazarus. (Democratic). Good reports from Philadelphia, good impression in person. Highly recommended.
John Milton Younge (Democratic). Good reports from Philadelphia, good impression in person. Recommended.

Infindorsement: Pittsburgh Council District 2

A debate report has concluded my pondering with respect to the election of the next member of Pittsburgh City Council from District 2: The Infindorsement goes to anyone other than Theresa Smith. I lean toward Georgia Blotzer, but that is mere preference. The imperative is to vote for someone not named Theresa Smith.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Infindorsement: Mayor of City of Pittsburgh

Pittsburghers are understandably fond of touting the "small town" nature of their region -- familiarity discourages sharp elbows, amenities are accessible rather than overwhelmed, a smaller scale shaves the edges from the opulence-to-degradation continuum in a way a New York or Chicago can not avoid.

The area's residents avoid discussion, however, and perhaps even recognition of the flip side of that point: The region, running on the fumes of its former success for decades, no longer is able to cultivate the breadth or depth of civic leadership and political strength necessary to sustain a community of the stature Greater Pittsburgh once enjoyed and to which it currently aspires.

This "amateur hour" element of small-town life has been especially concentrated, and damaging, in the City of Pittsburgh.

The city has failed and is dying. It has lost half its population, largely by offering substandard and overpriced services and by lacking economic opportunity for the best of its young people, and the departures -- disproportionately involving young people with education, resources, opportunities, motivation -- have diluted the remaining citizenry in ways more important than mere numbers. The city is insolvent and shows no sign of fiscal or operational improvement. The principal reasons its downtown remains -- barely -- the financial, legal and cultural center of the region are not merit or promising prospects but instead history, inertia and subsidies. If the social stigma that currently discourages the large professional firms, banks and corporate headquarters from leaving evaporates --it if becames socially acceptable to move, to choose the suburbs without being accused of "abandoning" Pittsburgh -- downtown Pittsburgh would likely capsize in a few years. (A national example is Detroit; locally, think of Braddock or Monessen.)

If Pittsburgh is to survive, let alone thrive, it requires leadership strong and smart enough to change its current, unsustainable trajectory. A successful mayor of Pittsburgh would need the insight and courage to surround himself with advisors and aides smart, tough and honest enough to rework the city's approach to pension funds, operations, authorities, public safety and several other issues. Not all, or even most, of Pittsburgh's problems are attributable to the current mayor. But Pittsburgh needs better than an accidental, unprepared mayor who is controlled effortlessly by the Ron Burkles, Todd Reidbords, Dan Onoratos and Ed Grattons; who believes that a Yarone Zober is the insight-supplying cure for the holes in an inexperienced mayor's frame of reference; and who can rightly pride himself on recently shaking the habits of shamelessly stalking celebrities (although the spectacle with Ben in the Super Bowl parade was a bit of backsliding) and joyriding on jets and in mobile security command posts.

In a race to identify a person competent to lead the current Pittsburgh, Luke Ravenstahl does not qualify for a spot at the starting line.

Pittsburgh needs better than Patrick Dowd or Carmen Robinson, too. Dr. Dowd is educated, articulate, bright, earnest, accomplished and civic-minded. He has many good ideas and the intellectual curiousity likely to lead him to other good ideas. He also is unpolished and has been surprisingly ineffective as a member of city council, primarily because of nearly inexplicable personal frictions with natural allies. Ms. Robinson is educated, articulate, bright, earnest, accomplished and civic-minded, but is less prepared for prime time than is Dr. Dowd.

I do not know enough about NASCAR's rules to be sure how a winner would be determined in a race in which no car is able to reach the finish line -- I gather the vehicle that covered the most ground would win -- but the current campaign for mayor of Pittsburgh is such a race. No candidate exhibits all of the qualifications the job demands. But one candidate must win, and the best -- by a substantial margin -- is Dr. Dowd. His shortcomings could -- and probably would -- be overcome to some degree by good advisors, good intentions and good judgment.

I do not expect Dr. Dowd to win. In a polling of the city's remaining voters (just as in an endorsement vote of city Democratic Committee members), Dr. Dowd's education, intelligence, disdain for patronage, rejection of machine politics, and use of standard English are strong disadvantages. But I nonetheless endorse Patrick Dowd for mayor of Pittsburgh, and hope that he and Ms. Robinson continue to push for better government in Pittsburgh, because I share their hope that Pittsburgh can change course before it runs aground. At this point, hope is just about all Pittsburgh has going for it, and the hopeful vote is for Patrick Dowd.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Infindorsements: Court of Common Pleas

Voters will select five local lawyers to become judges of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County in November's general election; May's Democratic Party primary occupies an outsized role in the process. Most good lawyers decline to consider campaigning for a number of reasons -- a demeaning nomination and campaign process, compensation, lack of prestige -- and Judge Judith Olson (who became one of the finest judges on that bench in decades the moment she was sworn) decided not to run, so the pickings are alim, as is customary. Infindorsements are based on character, intelligence, experience, accomplishment and education, with ties broken by whim.

Phil Ignelzi: Outstanding character, ability, background, demeanor. Voters rarely have a chance to vote for such an accomplished candidate, which explains lack of ACDC endorsement. Best candidate by substantial margin. Highly recommended (ACBA).
Hugh McGough: Civic- and open-minded, well-educated and -rounded. Highly recommended.
Joe Williams: Good qualifications, civic-minded incumbent, highly recommended.
Alex Bicket: Well regarded, interesting background, highly recommended.
Susan Evashavik DiLucente: Acceptable candidate, despite ACDC endorsement; recommended.
Arnie Klein: Earnest, empathetic, recommended.
Michael Marmo: Earnest, empathetic, recommended.
Leah Williams Duncan: Light on experience, recommended.
Carolyn Saldari Bengel: Weak background, not recommended.
Jeffrey Eisenberg: Not recommended.
Joe Luvara: Little-known, unqualified.
Jennifer Satler: Not ready. unqualified.
Michael Sherman: Little-known, recommended.
Don Walko: Scant qualifications, not recommended.
Michele Zappala Peck: Four years after law school, riding maiden name with no record of accomplishment. Her candidacy insults voters and reflects lack of judgment. Not recommended.

Has Judge Wettick Reached His Limit Yet?

County Executive Dan Onorato's bizarre lurches in the wake of the easily foreseeable order affirming local judge Anthony Wettick's decision regarding assessments suggest that Mr. Onorato and his team -- a weak lineup of aides and advisors who frequently resemble moles for their candidate's gubernatorial opponents -- genuinely expected to get away with an immoral freeze of inaccurate assessments.

First, Mr. Onorato claimed that the decision would not require reassessment, declaring that his legal analysis found "wiggle room" in this sentence authored by Chief Justice Castille (page 53): "We agree that reassessment is required."

Mr. Onorato then appeared to threaten secession (or at least insurrection), declaring that he would not "just roll over" and conduct a reassessment. ("Just roll over," of course, is a technical legal term that means "comply with that court order.")

Mr. Onorato, valiantly defending his preferred constituency (those able to stroke four- and five-figure checks for his campaign), has continued to rely on the pathetic claim that "reassessment equals property tax increase" while ignoring the fact that freezing inaccurate assessments imposes on the county's poorer residents an unfairly disproportionate responsibility for funding county operations.

Yesterday, the chief executive floated the prospect of taking the issue to federal court, by far a better delaying tactic than a legal strategy.

This morning's Post-Gazette brings a report of Mr. Onorato's newest strategery: He apparently is taking a fancy headdress and snake charmer's flute to judge Wettick's courtroom for a status conference. Mr. Onorato (through his spokesman) indicates he hopes to 'find some common ground' with the judge: "We may be allies with him in this," said mouthpiece Kevin Evanto.

Mr. Onorato has flouted an earlier admonition to be prepared for a Supreme Court affirmance of Judge Wettick's, and has publicly scorned Judge Wettick's reasoning, recently and unanimously vindicated by the Supreme Court. I doubt Judge Wettick -- whose written decisions have recognized the practical consequences of Mr. Onorato's stubborn adherence to the indefensible -- find this a handy time to smoke the peace pipe and revisit Mr. Onorato's arguments.

Instead, here is what Judge Wettick might do: He might order the county to expedite a Constitutionally required reassessment, and require the county to post a bond if it does not comply with a strict schedule. The county is stealing from its less-affluent property owners (and derivatively, renters) every day it maintains its unconstitutional structure of rigged assessments. If Mr. Onorato insists on perpetuating the charade that he has a legal leg to stand on, our system entitles him to do so by making an appeal available. But an appeal does not entitle the county to keep the money stolen from victims of its cynical property tax system while an appeal is pending. Mr. Driscoll, Mr. Weiss and the others who have vindicated the interests of county taxpayers have done fine work and scarcely seem to need a legal tip, so this is a prediction rather than a suggestion: Judge Wettick, instead of indulging Dan Onorato's delusion (and desire for delay to trump justice), may force county government to finally pay a price for its misconduct. He could require the county, as a cost of an unsuccessful appeal, to repay those from whom the county is stealing.

UPDATE: Judge Wettick reportedly encouraged the litigants to pursue a "meeting of them minds" and, because he has not received the case file from the Supreme Court, scheduled a June 3rd status conference. If there is any reason for the plaintiffs to consider excusing the county from an expedited reassessment, I would welcome an explanation.

Specter's Senate Deal: Snake In The Weeds

After stripping new-to-the-Party Sen. Arlen Specter's seniority (apparently to incline Sen. Specter to remember his "new teammates" when voting in the next 18 months), Senate Democrats have created an opportunity for their newest caucus member to occupy an important (in Senate terms) seat: chair of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on crime.

From that position, Sen. Specter -- a former district attorney -- could accomplish a great deal of good by addressing the immoral sentencing system that is one of the worst features of the damnable "War On Drugs."

Instead, the Post-Gazette suggests, the new assignment is perceived as an opportunity for Sen. Specter to bolster his next campaign by showing "law-and-order" Pennsylvanians how tough he can be. Residence in a free county entitles cheerleaders for imprisonment of doobie-smokers to loudly proclaim themselves "freedom lovers," as they often do, but only because America safeguards the right to be wrong.