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Swartz And All

Just don't say you didn't have a choice this May 15

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There is every chance Rick Swartz is going to get clobbered in the May 15 Democratic primary. There's even a chance he'll enjoy it.

If so, he'll probably be one of the few people having a good time on Election Day.

"The democratic process in Allegheny County is shriveling on the vine," says Swartz, executive director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. "I'm guessing the turnout will reach historic lows. People don't want to vote; they don't want to run for office."

Swartz, though, is running for county executive, against the seemingly invulnerable Dan Onorato. (As one measure of his strength, Onorato had nearly $1 million in his campaign coffers at the end of last year.) The Republicans haven't even bothered fielding a candidate of their own. Still, says Swartz, "I'm meeting very few people who have said, 'You're doing a very stupid thing.' Almost everyone is saying the process needs to be enlivened."

And no wonder. Because there might be another reason the Republicans aren't fielding a candidate of their own: Maybe Onorato, a pro-business social conservative, is the Republican in this race.

What the local Democratic Party needs these days, even more than candidates, is a sense of what it actually believes.

Consider the battle for County Council District 13, which includes much of Pittsburgh. The endorsed Democrat is challenger Matt Arena; if he beats the incumbent, Brenda Frazier, Allegheny County Council will have only a single African-American member. Black voters might not be the only ones losing a voice. In a questionnaire issued by the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, a gay-rights group, Arena identified himself as a "pro-life candidate" who supports abstinence-only education. Asked a question about "sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression," Arena admitted he was "not familiar with this terminology."

Again: This is the endorsed Democrat.

In fairness, Arena opposed homophobic bigotry, and promised to maintain an open mind. And at least he answered the questions. Onorato left much of the survey blank. If it weren't for Swartz's opposition, he wouldn't need to respond to the survey at all.

Initially, Onorato tried to throw Swartz off the ballot by challenging the signatures on his election petitions. Eventually, Onorato dropped the effort, and the result has worked out just fine.

By virtue of saying things that are true but that no one wants to hear, Swartz acts as a perfect foil. Swartz, for example, favors regular reassessments of county property values; he doesn't want income taxes to be cut so low that "The working man ends up subsidizing the retiree." What's more, "I tell homeowners: If you can't afford the tax rate in that community, then find a community with a lower rate. Owning a home in Upper St. Clair isn't an entitlement."

Clearly, Swartz doesn't know many Upper St. Clair homeowners -- some of whom feel very entitled indeed -- whereas Onorato seems to have met a few. He's been only too happy to appear at debates and say, "Rick and I have a philosophical difference on this," and then explain why your tax break is a necessary price for keeping the county competitive.

One of the laws of politics, of course, is that the worse your chance of winning, the freer you are to say what you really think. It's more fun for voters, at least: Nothing livens up a political debate like having some crank show up and tell the truth.

But as Swartz admits, politically speaking, "Even people who wanted me to run are to the left of me." Like many leftists, he pushes for increased government transparency, and the centerpiece of his campaign is preserving public transit. Still, he is tough on crime, "a big believer in plainclothes police and unmarked vehicles."

"In my neighborhood," he says, "we've had to struggle long and hard to get over victimhood."

The Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation itself has long been a contentious organization. It treads a blurry line between rehabilitating neighborhoods and gentrifying them ... between stopping crime and stigmatizing the desperate people prone to commit it. Sometimes the BGC gets it wrong.

But say this for him: Swartz's campaign didn't begin in smoke-filled rooms or the tree-lined streets of the East End, which so many aspiring political reformers call home. It began in a hard-luck community that hasn't been well served by Downtown or Squirrel Hill. And its contradictions and compromises are, at least, recognizable as our own.

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