Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Glorious People's Five Year Plan and Great Move Forward ...

I don’t know nuthin’ ‘bout no city finances. Really, I was an econ (and poli sci) major, twenty five years ago, and my interest was in tax policy and subsidies and how to affect human behavior using those tools. Actual government revenues and expenditures tend to make me drowsy (although what doesn’t?).

So I am struggling to understand Pittsburgh’s spending, to write something semi-informed. By the way, I did meet Mark DeSantis last Saturday, and I bring that up because he was complaining about how hard it is to get information out of this government. I just use the inter(tubes)net, but I can sympathize, there is little information available. I mean, there is the whole budget, revenues and expenditures, for the last few years, which is actually quite a lot. But besides that there are confusing city council minutes and not much else. By the way, let me state that, as far as I know and to my satisfaction, the Mayor is quite correct, there is a surplus for the last couple of years running, including this year. If there wasn’t, the city would probably be in receivership.

What am I looking for? Well, you can find the original Act 47 five year plan on the city web site. But in a article about last year’s budget, it mentioned that the Mayor included a (new?) five year plan with his budget proposal. As far as I know, the original five year plan expires some time in 2009. Does that five year plan the Mayor is submitting have anything to do with that 2009 date? Is there a five year plan for this year too? Are we extending the Act 47/ICA rule over us? What is the point, anyway, of this five year dealy? Does anyone believe we know where we will be in five years? I guess the five year plan (as produced every year) could be an Act 47/ICA requirement, to show we have plans to punish our citizens five years out, nothing to do with '09. Does anyone doubt the current five year plans have very optimistic revenue and growth projections (like that the state will start givig us 10 million more dollars besides what we get now)? Of course, the five year plan(s) are not on the web so I haven’t seen it(them). Maybe some of you have.

The surpluses were projected, by the way, back in ’04 when the Mayor was busy voting against Act 47. We are supposed to ride the surpluses down, covering coming shortfalls, as taxes are reduced and pension, health and sewage debt service rises. Since these are long (twenty year?) obligations, no word on how long we are supposed to be able to keep our heads above water. I guess we were certainly supposed to be good through the end of Rendell's second term. Sewage was not an issue on the radar in ’04, and I’m not sure health care for retiree’s is figured in the mix. By the way, according to the acting controller, total Pittsburgh debt is around 1.8 billion. The 800 million figure the mayor mentioned on Sunday is in there, but that doesn’t include obligations incurred by Authorities.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Sunday Folly...

The Mayor was on the KD/PG Sunday morning program today. He is an affable individual, friendly and generally unassuming. On the other hand, it was pointed out to me recently that he is utterly without humility. This is a characteristic we should be paying some attention to.

And no word on when Mark DeSantis is going to get equal time on KDKA.

He said three things I think are worth drawing attention to. First, he talked about the debt facing the city, saying it is around 800 million. He didn’t say what that includes, so we don’t know if he is including sewage issues and healthcare for retirees, for example. He said the city is making 90 million dollars payment this year on that debt right now. I have heard something about balloon payments, and of course there are the additional taxes allowed under ACT 47 that will be reduced or sunset (like the parking tax), so that 90 million may not be sustainable. When asked what he is doing about tackling the debt issue, the Mayor said the city is not issuing any new debt. So, I guess we could retire the city’s debt in maybe 9 years, if absolutely nothing happens to our revenue stream, we don’t need to undertake any capital projects and our lenders don’t charge us any interest. But this was the Mayor’s response when asked about what he was going to do about this.

The Mayor was asked about the Lemieux tournament. He seemed to feel the matter was closed with the Ethics Board. But he was asked about whether he thought he has received any value, considering who he got to play with. His response was to say there is no quid pro quo in his administration He mentioned he would be playing in something called the Caliguiri Invitational next month? I Googled that, but found nothing (could it be something connected to the Great Race?). I think it was David Shribman who noted that the Ethics Board was considering recommendations for City Council to alter the Ethics Code. The Mayor gave what is now a standard response: he welcomes their input but would reject any absolute dollar limits on what he could accept. I can only assume he meant for entry into charitable events. Ken Rice asserted that he thought the Mayor would not accept entry into a charitable event again if it was paid for by a Pittsburgh company. The Mayor would not commit to that position, rejected it twice.

Finally, at the end of the program, after asking about City-County merger (don’t ask), the Mayor was asked if he thought one party rule was good for Pittsburgh. He said he would leave that up to the voters. I fact he said that twice, after being reminded he had agreed that he had inherited many of the city’s problems. Shribman proceed to say to the Mayor, as a student of history and from a purely analytical point of view, was the one party rule the South had had for years, was that a good thing. At that point the Mayor did suggest there are different types of democrats in Pittsburgh, liberal and conservative. He didn’t identify which he is.

Overall, as I said, the Mayor came across as affable and friendly. On the other hand, he gives us no plan to deal with the debt, other than to hope nothing changes for 10 or 15 years, including that Pittsburgh has no new needs. And the Mayor, convinced he can do no wrong, refuses to accept ethical limitations on his behavior.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Ruth Ann Dailey column I liked ...

I’ve done my share of Ruth Ann Dailey bashing over the … well, year, but since she seems to have an anti-liberal bug, I don’t feel too bad about it. But I do claim to be even handed, willing to admit when a conservative says something I agree with. So, I feel I have to say I thought her column today was quite interesting and even impressive. The issue of city-county merger has been a daunting one for city politicians, in part because no one can see a reason for the numerous little county municipalities to participate. Ms Dailey approached the issue from an entirely different angle, noting how communities are connected not only by duplicated services in close proximity, but by the effects of development on neighboring towns. How county services are stretched because development in one town doesn’t have to take account of its effect on other towns. Granted, she rambled a bit about cars and so on, and I didn’t follow the map entirely because I don’t live in the suburbs, but by and large it was a good start at developing an argument for merging the little towns of the county. I hope to see more of it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Just like the Stones, one more final post on this subject ...

So the Mayor has made his appearance before the Ethics Board. He wanted to make sure that things were clear, and that the people of the city could see matters were set to rest. He explained to the board that, even though someone paid $9000 on his behalf, it all went to charity. He received nothing of value. From the PG

“The only thing of value I received was knowing I played a small part in seeing the work of the foundation will continue," he said. "This was not a gift to me. I received nothing from UPMC”

It all went to charity.

Well, maybe not all.

Back at the end of July, KDKA and other news outlets had this story, about how much the Mayor’s golf game with the stars really was worth:

“City attorneys determined the Mayor did not receive a round worth $9,000, but received 18 holes of golf, which is valued at $246.75.

According the City Attorneys Office[sic], they followed IRS policy in terms of reporting the value of the item, in this case a round of golf.”

I had reported on this before. I can’t tell whether the city attorneys meant $246.75 for two days, or $493.50 for two days. Either way, the Mayor knew about this number Tuesday and didn’t mention it, quite the contrary he denied receiving anything of value (apart from a warm feeling). There ought to be a penalty for fibbing to the Ethics Board, but I guess the MSM will let this one go (too).

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

One final post after ...

The Ethics Board chose their direction today, by taking their lead from the Mayor. They let him define the terms and the tone of the conversation, and thus the result. Several people have taken the position that there is some ambiguity in the Ethics Code between whether there is a limit on how much value elected officials can accept in invitations to charitable events or if there is no limit (either in donated or recognized tax value). I happen to disagree, I think it is very clear, if somewhat overly restrictive. I think the Ethics Code says clearly that elected officials should not accept invitations to events over $100 singly or $250 collectively, whether sporting, charitable or otherwise. But the Mayor today suggested no limits on entry to charitable events, and the Ethics Board agreed. Now, I think its dandy to encourage city involvement in charity, but the Ethics Board has taken it on themselves to rewrite the code the City Council originally wrote. Or rather, they let the Mayor define things for them.

The Board wants to look at developing some guidelines for the Mayor. That’s fine, except again its not their job. No one elected them, they were appointed. They should make a recommendation to City Council.

The Mayor also apparently said words to the effect of not wanting to accept specific limits on his attendance at charitable events, regardless of the wishes of the Ethics Board. This is apparently an application of the theory of the Unitary Executive, who doesn’t recognize limitations placed on his behavior by city code, as long as he is engaged in what he defines as city business or charitable work or both.

It is good for a Mayor to have a presence at charitable events. Maybe the no limit thing isn’t so bad. In any event, it appears to be a fait accompli. But where exactly is the work on the city’s future? Have you renegotiated the “voluntary” contribution with the non-profits, Mayor? What’s your plan for two years from now, to follow through on your swing when you drive?

One final post before ...

I was just going to let the Ethics Board meet, and do their thing, whatever it was. But then the Trib ran this story (H/T to Bram) and I had to say something. Kate DeSimone, from the city law office, who is supposed to “guide” the Ethics Board, states for the record the board can only ask for an investigation, which would mean they would need an as yet un-hired investigator (who needs a JD, by the way). DiSimone said "It's very unclear to me that they have any ability to sanction anyone at all, from a rookie cop up to the mayor". Way to advocate for the board, Kate.
DiSimone also complained that three members of the board had expressed opinions previously as to whether the Mayor might have violated the ethics rules, and this would hurt their impartiality. She stated (essentially a hint to Ravenstahl): "If I were the mayor's attorney, I would ask for all three of them to be recused," And she said that George Specter had already determined back on July 13th that the Mayor had done nothing unethical. Clearly the city law office is trying to delay any ruling by the Ethics Board until after the election, if not forever. This is blatant politics, clumsy even by this administration’s low standards. But I will just wait, let the Ethics Board meet and do their thing, whatever it is.

Well, being a blogger, all I can ever do is wait and then whine.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Who follows whom?

Even my mom was a bit confused about this, so I thought I would try and clear this up. How did this thing work, that interim Mayor Ravenstahl became interim Mayor Ravenstahl? Was he selected by Bob O’Connor? Was he anointed?

Consider an analogy. Suppose at the Federal level, Dick Cheney suddenly takes ill and shuffles off this mortal coil. Then suppose the president, distraught over the death of his vice president, slips away from his secret service guards and takes a long walk in the desert around Crawford. Suppose a rattler gets him, and he suffers heat stroke, and also shuffles off this mortal coil (I know, what dreams may come). Well, who is the last person Bush would ever choose to replace him? I’ll give you a hint, it is also the person who, in my little scenario, constitutionally would succeed the president. It’s Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House. Our country and our city are setup so that if the chief executive dies, the elected (by the legislature) head of the legislature is either next in line or close to the top of the line.

We don’t know how Bob O’Connor felt about Council President Ravenstahl (or at least I don’t). But that doesn’t matter in this case, Council President Ravenstahl becoming interim Mayor was set by the rules.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Redefine Pittsburgh

John Murray, Duquesne University’s un-elected city/county official at large, is getting out ahead of the soon to be released Nordenberg committee’s report, trying to spin what he believes will be in the report and what he believes will undoubtedly be counter-spun for weeks after the report’s release (that’s what I am taking away, anyway). Chancellor Murray has an opinion piece in today’s PG, Redefine Pittsburgh, where he uses the history of the evolution of the county executive and row office reform to make his case that we Pittsburghers can change. He tries to make that case because the Nordenberg report is (of course) going to recommend city-county merger, and he expects the usual city-county resistance to new ideas. This is a slow motion train wreck for the Mayor, who has recently tried to wriggle out from Act 47 status by virtue of a small surplus. Surpluses are nice, and even reasonably expected, since the two state boards have given the city additional taxing authority and some Commonwealth money. However, the Commonwealth really only gave us that money to delay the problem, until Rendell is out of office (so a new governor can suffer the embarrassment of the two largest cities in the Commonwealth going bankrupt , or hadn’t you heard about Philadephia?).

Anyway, the Mayor was last year sort of an advocate of City-County merger, a merger of two sister bureaucracies, until he figured out who the little sister would be. Now he would prefer to wait, certainly until after November, to address the issue. If the Mayor can win re-election by a reasonable margin, he may be in a better position to negotiate the terms of a city-county merger (all county trucks will now have “Mayor Luke Ravenstahl” on them). The funny thing is, I believe Mark DeSantis would be fine making the city-county merger the center of the election, as in who has the best policy for it. John Murray has turned into an early water carrier for DeSantis. I don’t know, but I suspect Chancellor Murray is a republican. Could this opinion piece in fact be a deliberate stealth salvo in the Mayor’s race?

Speaking of DeSantis, I really don’t get his objection to Ravenstahl’s name on these ditch digging kid’s t-shirts. While he was in Washington, Pittsburgher’s suffered through trash cans and brakeless garbage trucks reading variously “For Pete’s Sake” and “Sophie’s Choice” and “Pick up yer crap or Tom Murphy’s gonna come and beat yer face in” (it covered the whole trash can). Now, our arms akimbo boy mayor has come up with his own clever saying: “Mayor Luke Ravenstahl” … “Mayor Luke Ravenstahl” Hunh. No wonder he went to three schools.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Other people's blogs ...

Chris Briem runs a recap of the Bodack-Dowd contest from this past spring (and you can’t comment on it). He says that we are sufficiently past the election to deconstruct what happened. Well, really he says what he has said all along, which is that Lawrenceville on the one hand and Highland Park on the other were largely unmovable, that they voted the same way and in the same numbers as in the 2004 primary. Keep in mind that in 2004 Mr. Bodack was defeated, but because he was defeated by a combination of two candidates, he in fact won a plurality. This year every one cast their votes the same way as in 2004, but there was only one Dr. Patrick Dowd. So I effect the race, according to Chris, was all about Len, Lawrenceville’s affection for him and Highland Park’s dislike of him. Fair enough, put that way it is hard to dispute.

I do want to look at a few other factors, though.

This time around, Mr. Bodack was the incumbent, son of a popular State Senator.

Dr. Dowd, while on the school board, had been part of the group that had fired the African American Superintendent, John Thompson, and in fact Dr. Dowd had felt compelled to make a speech about why he had thought it necessary (maybe he will have a handler on city council to keep him from doing that sort of thing again).

I think I had heard that the elder Mr. Bodack was not doing so well, which could have limited the help he could have given his son and distracted his son as well.

There was the questionable effect of blogs, this one, of course, included.

There is the door knocking done by Dr. Dowd and others, sufficient to attract the attention of Dr. Dean.

All of these factors mixed in to this year’s race, pulling it this way and that, all toward the fateful 80 votes that would determine the winner. The point I want to make is that the only factor under any one’s control was Dr. Dowd’s door knocking, and Mr. Bodack’s lack of it. The other factor’s were either facts of life or happenstance. So again, credit is due to Dr. Dowd for the effort he put into the campaign. Otherwise incumbency and other factors would have likely tipped the balance the other way

I had taken notice of what had appeared to be a high turnout in 2007 for the primary, but Chris was at pains to tell us it was very similar to the 2004 turnout. Maybe both races were fairly heated. Maybe the 7th district is very patriotic, always wanting to do their civic duty by voting. Maybe it’s a big district. Maybe Len Bodack should have offered Highland Park to Bill Peduto, to reduce the size of the district.

So Dr. Howard Dean came to Pittsburgh and apparently congratulated Dr. Dowd on his door knocking skills. Hmm. This was a primary. There were no republicans in sight, only democrats. It’s nice and all that he came, but I think Dr. Dean should be careful about deliberately splitting the party.

On the Burgh Report I made a comment that Bill Peduto did not have a degree. This is what I had read in the PG. In fact, he does, he went back and finished. Why didn’t I know? I really dislike the Trib’s editorial policies, and I forget that the Trib, sort of like the WSJ, has some decent reporting.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


The PG today reports news of an additional ”surplus” for the city. I dunno whether this gets added to the yearly total or what, and I don’t care. The finance director is saying we need to hoard all the surplus we can, Bill Peduto is predicting intense pain in just over two years and I remember the Mayor saying (in the past) he wanted to share some of the surplus with the citizenry. Someone over at the Burgh Report likened the situation to having $50 extra left in your pocket, after you make the minimum payments on mortgage, utilities, student loan, car payment and outsized credit card bills. If you put the fifty into anything, mortgage, student loan or credit card, it would help, but not much. If you hold onto the $50 as emergency money, it might help, but probably not much. You might as well buy $50 of cheap whiskey and anesthetize (not euthanize) yourself. It makes as much sense as any other behavior (well, maybe not, but I don’t care).

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Funny little Mayor ...

Apologies for my delay in posting. Probably I had nothing interesting to write, but since that never stopped me before (rim shot) I will say I was out of town over the weekend (as per my comment) and we got a call 1:00 am Sunday morning, my mother in law had to go to the ER at Shadyside (she’s OK). So I am tired and trying to catch up. (Poor me)

Of course, last Thursday was quite interesting, storms and flooding and all. Matt H has posted a complaint about how Mr. DeSantis viewed Mayor Ravenstahl’s performance on Thursday. Fair enough, the Mayor was in the Emergency Operations Centre from 3:00 to midnight (well, they spell it Centre in civilized countries), according to Matt and I believe him, that is consistent with everything I’ve heard. Here’s another question, though. What was the Mayor doing on the Southside in the first place? This is the second time something like this has happened. First the Mayor somehow got wind that Tiger Woods was coming to practice in Oakmont, apparently that morning. What, did he get a call from the airport? Does he have sources at Oakmont? Then, he hears Steelers practice was moved from Latrobe to the Southside. OK, I think I knew that one at some point myself, because I saw it on the PG website. But, again, how does the Mayor find out? Is he reading the PG website, or has people do it for him? Plus, he acted on the news of the move, left his office and went to the Southside. Even if he had no meetings (because he had covered them at the Mario event when he was meeting with the Pens and UPMC – heh), does he have no work to do? Or does he do that at 2:00 am, when he is giving his night shift police bodyguard so much over time.

Ok, some of that is unfair, but its all stuff that has appeared in the PG. This Mayor seems to be looking for things to do besides his job, and that may eventually raise questions.

I haven't even said anything about the Weed and Seed issue. Mary Beth Buchanan. Don't get her angry ...

Thursday, August 09, 2007

DeSantis ...

So, first, a bit of disclosure. A couple of months ago I got an email from Mark DeSantis asking to meet and chat, based on the fact that I do this (blog). I am sure he sent that email to a lot of bloggers, and a lot of bloggers met with him. At the time at my shop we were really busy with a fiscal year end, and he mentioned a daylight time, so I had to put him off. I still am pretty busy, as it happens, so I haven’t re-contacted him. So I haven’t talked to him in person, FWIW.

A commenter over on Matt H’s blog is taking full advantage of the anonymity of commenting, changing names three, maybe four times, while he comments (in this case it seems clear it is the same commenter, having fun with names). He has said some silly things, like calling DeSantis "Lil Bush", but he has made one good point. Mark DeSantis’ website does not have any real content in terms of policy proposals. I have heard some talk that he is waiting for later in the fall to introduce detailed policy statements. To be fair, the Luke for Mayor site is pretty slim on content too, just videos of the Mayor talking in generalities.

Of course, Mayor Ravenstahl had famously introduced a tax abatement plan similar to but larger in scope than the one Bill Peduto had introduced back in the spring. But if DeSantis is trying to avoid something like that happening, he should ask himself how would it be for a democrat to introduce a plan suggested by a republican? Now, DeSantis does have a paper trail, articles he has written, so some of his views could be ferreted out. And I suppose I could understand waiting to have a platform, such as a televised debate, from which to make a policy announcement. Plus there could be a concern for voter fatigue, if Mr. DeSantis tries to engage voters on issues early.

But, for me, this is the thing: Mr. DeSantis needs to have democratic voters wrap their heads around the notion of voting republican. My family lives in the East End. My mom says she doesn’t know anyone who likes Mayor Ravenstahl. That’s the East End, the University district. DeSantis may carry that area, but there is the whole rest of the city to talk to. He needs to start talking to them, and grab their attention. Its possible even bad policy proposals might be better than none. I hope he is out shaking some hands in the evenings or on the weekends.

Right now, between the interim incumbent and the challenger, the only solid proposal on the city’s debt (that I've seen) came from a third person, Dan Onorato, as a throw away remark on the KG/PG show last Sunday. When asked whether city-county merger might mean the suburbs would have to assume some of the city’s debt, Onorato first protected his suburban base, saying the suburbs would never have to assume city debt. Then he protected his city base, saying the state legislature would bail out the city as a one time thing, perhaps as a reward if we did achieve a city county merger (a bailout in exchange for our effort to achieve good governance, I believe he said). Even Dan Onorato doesn’t think the city can grow its way out of its debt. His suggestion, however, seems like an exercise in fantasy. The rural part of the state legislature is going to want to bleed all of Allegheny County dry before coughing up any support for the city’s debt.

I guess I will have to go fishing (or ferreting, as I put it above), to get a handle on Mr. DeSantis. Googling, I suppose.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Animals again and again .... (not geese)

So it is August 8, 2007, and I can’t see the online edition of the August 8, 2007 City Paper yet. I am saying this because the City Paper had an article in their "Going through the Motions" section about the animal thing, adding to what I know about it. Essentially it said that Jim Motznik was driving the effort to switch animal euthanizing to Triangle Pet of McKees Rocks. He was doing this because Animal Rescue League’s limited agreement to continue euthanizing feral rabies vector animals was set to expire 7/31. Now, Darlene Harris produced a letter from ARL saying they would extend for two weeks, while the city resolved its issues. And what are its issues? Well, the animal control officers have been training on euthanizing animals using sodium pentobarbital, but the state requires a veterinarian to sign off on the officers performance, and the city can’t find a vet. (Hint, try Pitt with all its animal research). The animal control officers have been directed, since August 1st, to take feral animals caught to Triangle Pet, despite Triangle Pet having no contract with the city, and having once written a letter to council saying they didn’t want a contract. One of the animal control officers, Gerald Akrie, a union steward who testified before council in the last go-around of this issue, stated he thinks “management has been dragging its feet” on the certifications for officers and in general on this issue. Mr. Akrie said there are other methods of euthanizing animals besides sodium pentobarbital, but the city has done no research in two months (see brain drain). I did a stint managing a database for Pitt’s animal research oversight people, and I believe Mr. Akrie is correct, and more so, you would want to know as many methods as are legal since we are talking about animals unhappy and possibly rabid. Watching Guy Costa a couple of months ago catching himself before saying he would have to kiss the ass of Triangle Pet to get them to reconsider refusing to business with the city, I can believe Mr. Akrie. Public Works management does not want its officers taking over more duties. Once again, Darlene Harris is surprising me by stepping up and going above and beyond. Pity the city administration is ignoring her efforts.

See also here for the PG's August 1 article on the subject. Rich Lord implicitly chides the council for spending too much time on animals

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Ehhhh ....

I still prefer the term "Burgho-spree"

Animal's Again?

The August 6th edition of “Early Returns” ( mentions in passing that the problems with the city's stray feral rabies vector animal euthanization program are far from resolved. You may remember that the Animal Rescue League decided to get out of that part of the business some time ago (May or June-ish). The ARL had offered to continue euthanizing animals for a brief time while the city got its act together, perhaps with the city's animal control officers passing certification exams to euthanize animals. The other alternative was a McKees Rocks firm called Triangle Pet, which was willing to euthanize animals for the city, but not 24/7. This created questions about what would happen to animals in pain overnight or on weekends. Darlene Harris had actually done yeomen work in researching the issue and talking to state officials about certifications. Today the city again finds itself courting Triangle Pets. This is where the brain drain of experienced city personnel mentioned in yesterday’s PG (, especially in the Law Department, really makes itself felt. I can’t say for sure, but the Law Department was supposed to look into what testing is needed for city animal control officers to be able to euthanize animals. Guy Costa had seemed lukewarm to this idea in a hearing, but in any event it evidentially has not happened. Of course, the Law Department might find time for these things if it wasn’t having to worry about the behavior of the Public Works department, or render judgments on the Mayor’s actions.

In other news, The PG’s transportation column suggested Chelsa Wagner as a member of PAT’s board ( She had opposed funding for the Port Authority. The column also suggested stopping bus service in her district, but we'll ignore that. By odd coincidence, Dan Onorato suggested on the KD/PG Sunday program that he would be happy to appoint state legislator’s to PAT’s board. How ‘bout it, Mr. County Executive?

The Post-Gazette also noted today in an editorial that Onorato stated on KG/PG that he wanted the new drink and rental car taxes to cover the county's entire contribution to transit, not just the extra bit for additional state funding. Good luck with that. Perhaps the County Executive is simply looking for someone to blame if the tax revenue falls short (the legislature made me do it?).

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Where have all the prairie populists gone?

I am picking up and setting down the popular political books of our day. My wife read “An Assault on Reason” and “The Audacity of Hope”, because she likes Gore and Obama, and I had taken the books out of the library. I might try to start the “An Assault on Reason” later today, and I have the Obama book out again, so we’ll see. The other book I have out is “The Political Brain”, by Drew Westen. I read the first chapter and after describing it to my wife, she suggested I put it down and read something else.

Which is to say I talked about this guy’s thesis, and as a psychologist (which he is), he is a crappy political scientist (that seems like a paraphrase of a Marx Brothers or Woody Allen or someone else’s line). See, Westen believes that the Republican’s have been more successful at appealing to voter’s emotions than Democrats have, in the last twenty seven years or so. He’s right, except he wants to tell us it was part of a strategy. This is what I am not buying. He says (and I can’t copy and paste here, so here goes a bunch of typing):
“Republicans understand what the philosopher David Hume recognized three centuries ago, that reason is a slave to emotion, not the other way around.” On the other hand, he says democrats have an “irrational emotional commitment to rationality - one that renders them, ironically, impervious to both scientific evidence on how the political mind and brain work and to an accurate diagnosis of why their campaigns repeatedly fail”. (his italics)

Bullshit. Westen actually points up the value of strategic versus tactical thinking, and I must say he is spot on in tactical thinking. As I said, I read the first chapter and he gives several examples of political messages, and why they are successful or not. Mostly I agree with his reasoning about the success of a certain message, and it is likely most of the messages were at least partially planned to have the impact he describes. But I remember back to various political campaigns, and I have to say that neither the republicans or democrats are monolithic parties, marching in lock step. In fact, my memory of Reagan is that many republicans did not want him early on. He was defeated for the nomination in 1976 (against what was, admittedly an incumbent) and I don’t think many of the party leadership wanted him to be the candidate in 1980. Carter had come out of essentially nowhere, as had Clinton. The current Bush was considered suspect until he started winning some primaries (though I believe he was always a great fund-raiser). My point being that despite there being recognizable Congressional leaders and also whatever sitting President at the time, the successful pseudo-populist candidates in the last thirty years we have had have either come from below the radar (Carter, Clinton) or been considered lightweights by their own party (Reagan, the current Bush). I certainly think it says something about campaigning in the TV age that so many “Aw, shucks” presidential candidates have done so well. If I had to hazard a guess, Barack Obama might that candidate this time. He may not quite be an Aw, shucks kind of guy, but I have heard it said that his speeches can be mesmerizing. On the republican side, Fred Thompson might be this race's republican populist. That would be an interesting matchup.

Maybe I will read some more of Westen. His analysis of individual events is interesting. And there’s no saying the democrats couldn’t learn something, and start acting like a monolith. They’re just not doing it now.

Friday, August 03, 2007

I thought we were done with this, but I should have known better ...

Matt H (, ever diligent, noted that the Mayor's office did report out the amount that the Mayor plans to tell the Ethics Board about the what the value of his Mario Lemieux charity tournament play.

Interestingly, the Trib (
has a funny little double entendre, much like Nate Harper's remark about a Mayor that *often* works from 6:00 to 2:00am the next day. Consider this passage from the Trib:

"Joanna Doven, Ravenstahl's spokeswoman, said each round of 18 holes of golf at the prestigious Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier is worth just under $250."


"Each round"?


Weren't there *two* days of golf? So now we are up to $500?

Maybe not.

Meanwhile, KDKA reported an exact amount: $246.75 ( Just under $250. Which the Mayor's office is treating as a magic number. They mention the City Law Office used IRS reporting rules to figure the value of the golf outing (sound familiar?

I gotta say I never watch local news and never read the Trib, unless I do something with a link. PBS, the PG and the NYTimes for me. Just a diehard liberal, I guess.

But anyway if you look at the back of the city ethics code handbook you will see this passage (

"Q. Can a City employee accept complimentary admission to charitable, civic, political or other public advents?
A. Yes, with limitations. No City official, City employee or agent of the City may accept more than $250.00 per calendar year in the aggregate nor may they accept more than $100.00 per calendar year from any single person, agent or other interested party. (City Code § 197.07)"

Seems clear to me, I wonder what the ethics board will say on August 21st. I mean, Shields and/or Peduto said they thought the amounts for charitable or sporting events, $100 a pop, are low. Probably so, but shouldn't the Ethics Board remind the Mayor of his obligations to actually follow rules, no matter how painful. He should have declined UPMC's offer to attend the Lemieux tourney or at least reported an exception to the rules to the Ethics Board.

I am really curious how August 21st will go. My view of this event seems different than many other people

Thursday, August 02, 2007

A little bit of this, a little bit of that ....

One fun part of city government is the piece-meal approach to things. There was a story yesterday about the zone parking program, and how it loses money ( Apparently the costs of having parking enforcement people cruise the streets looking for no-good-nicks is higher than what the tickets take in (probably because they have to stay in an area for at least an hour before being able to issue their first ticket; maybe this is where we need some bicycle-riding parking enforcement people). The city has put off 26 neighborhood expansion requests for zone parking because it loses money. According to the story the city can break even by raising the fie from $25 to $35, and maybe come out a little ahead by increasing the cost of guest passes (from its current $1). Fair enough, we don’t want to see this city lose money, though I would just as well prefer no new zoned parking (with what, Greek letters?). Today there is this story ( the city wants to leave downtown parking tax rates at their current levels (45%), even though the city is mandated to reduce them to 35% by, I believe, the terms of the Act 47 agreement. Now, I think Act 47 also suggests we have the non-profits contribute much more money, and that we will soon be awash in slots revenue from the slot parlor that should be built any day now. Is there anyone out there who can view all this as a gestalt? Because clearly the city council can’t. I’m reminded of the movie “Dave”, where the faux President and his accountant friend sat down with federal budget and went through it line by line, to find x millions of cost savings. The Mayor still takes credit for calling for a unanimous vote on Act 47, after voting against it several times. I hold little hope he would take the lead here.

No final word from the council on the zone parking process. Council has the preliminary and final votes on things, but this meeting was just talking.