In the May 19 primary election, four incumbent Pittsburgh City Councilors won Democratic party nominations by relatively large margins. And since everyone knows the Republicans don't win city elections, that means the makeup of city council won't change until at least the next municipal election in 2017.
It would appear the city's constituents are pleased with their representatives. And for the most part, it would seem, city councilors are pleased with each other. Gone are the controversies of years past when a visit to Council Chambers would find red-faced legislators engaged in shouting matches.
“It's not as hostile as I've seen council in the past,” says Moe Coleman, a University of Pittsburgh professor who previously worked in the mayor’s office under Joseph Barr in the 1960s. “There's more camaraderie and less antagonism.”
“Camraderie,” is a word used often to describe this new council. According to council president Bruce Kraus, what outsiders are seeing is reflective of a group of elected officials willing to compromise to get the best results for their constituents.
“I was just thinking the other day — and I made this comment to my staffers — it’s such a pleasure to come to work,” says Kraus, who represents District 3. “It's like a breath of fresh air. I believe politics is the art of building relationships, understanding compromise and cooperation. Everybody brings these different skill sets, and I think what you're seeing is a blended harmony.”
Councilors point to such legislative victories as the land-banking bill that passed last year as examples of what a more harmonious council can get done. The legislation, which was controversial when first proposed, ended up passing with an 8-1 vote.
“Since the new council took over, there have been controversial votes, but the dialogue overall has been professional and courteous,” says District 8 councilor Dan Gilman. “Debate is healthy, but there's an appropriate level of decorum that has been lacking in the past. Land-banking was a vote that could have been highly contentious with some nasty fights but council worked together on things and amended the legislation to reach a compromise.”
Many believe this new-age council took root with the election of Mayor Bill Peduto, who as a former council veteran spent years forming relationships with today’s councilors. And as a councilor, he also spent years as dogged opposition to sitting mayors including Tom Murphy and, more famously, Luke Ravenstahl. But those days of antagonism seem to be behind us.
“I think the mayor has become a unifying force for council,” says political analyst Joe Mistick. “They all find themselves in the enviable position of having their former colleague as the chief executive. There's a certain camaraderie that comes out of that.”
But camaraderie, councilors say, does not mean that a legitimate system of checks and balances doesn't still exist.
“I'm a big Peduto fan, that's no secret,” says Kraus. “That doesn't mean we're rubber stamping, but we're invested in this shared vision of where Pittsburgh is headed.”
"I think we've built a strong consensus," says District 2 councilor Theresa Kail-Smith. “We're trying to work with one another; we're trying to work with the administration.”
While some might think that because of this new-found harmony in city government, the public can rest easy and not pay as close attention to what's going on in city government, we think the contrary is true. It's never been more important to keep an eye on the happenings on the fifth floor of the City-County Building.
With that in mind City Paper
is launching a new blog, "Keeping Up With the Council." We'll take a closer look at the daily workings of City Council, its relationship with the mayor's office and the new laws and legislation they're passing that will shape the future of this city.