Saturday, May 16, 2009

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?

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