by Chris Potter
City councilor Bruce Kraus has his first two challengers in the spring primary. One is Gavin Robb, an attorney at Tucker Arensberg who currently presides over the South Side Chamber of Commerce. Another -- more about which anon -- is Jason Phillips, a previous rival of Kraus.
Robb lives around the corner from Kraus -- on a block of Edwards Way just off Kraus' stretch of South 18th Street. And he says that, "Personally, I've always gotten along well with Bruce." (The two have served together on the Chamber of Commerce board.)
So why is he challenging Kraus?
"I'm just not happy with the direction things are going, not just in my district but in the city," he says.
Robb points to the Great Pension Debate --"the pension debacle," as he calls it -- as Exhibit A. "Things should have been handled differently all the way around," Robb says. While he says he was no fan of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's plan to replenish the pension fund -- a plan that involved leasing publicly-owned garages to private operators -- he faults council's handling of the matter as well.
"The fact that we were throwing plans against the wall three or four days before [a state imposed Dec. 31 deadline] -- that should have been done months before, if not years."
In fairness to Kraus and his colleagues, part of the reason council didn't take action sooner was the mayor's request to put a moratorium on alternate plans for much of last year: Ravenstahl feared rival proposals would prevent his lease option from fetching the highest price. Robb, for his part, acknowledges that "It's hard to assign blame, because I wasn't in the room."
But, he says, the ugliness of the debate shows "a need to bring civility back to that office. There's been an inability to have dialogue between council and the mayor's office ... When you read the papers, you get the feeling that they can't be in the same room together.
"One of the overall bullet points I want to get out there [about the campaign] is that I'm a good listener," adds Robb, who cites his professional background as evidence. One of Robb's area of expertise is municipal law: He acts as an assistant solicitor to other Tucker Arensberg attorneys who work in several area school districts and municipalities. (Robb's work frequently takes him to communities like Upper St. Clair, Swissvale, Emsworth, and the Mt. Lebanon school district.)
Robb believes the need to work collaboratively applies not just in the City County Building, but in his district as well. Take Carson Street, whose weekly alcohol-fueld bacchanals have been a subject of rising tension in the community -- and between Ravenstahl and Kraus.
"I don't think anyone would argue that there aren't problems some nights of the week," says Robb. "But this whole sky-is-falling perspective -- I just don't see that, and I think [problems in the South Side] are as much a problem of perception as anything. People's property values are where they are in part because it's an entertainment district."
That perspective may come as little surprise: Robb is, after all, a chamber-of-commerce guy who says that if anything, local businesses need more support. You can expect Robb's rivals to portray him as the candidate of choice for local bar owners -- in fact, as will become clear by the end of this post, it's already begun.
So what would Robb's approach to the South Side's problems be? "I don't have a silver bullet for solving the problem," he admits, "but there's been an antagonistic approach taken so far." Robb says his own approach to problems in the Flats would have been more collaborative, and that there's a misperception that the situation is one of "residents versus business-owners."
(Robb admitted to being less conversant with the issues outside the South Side area, though the district includes "hilltop communities" like Knoxville and Arlington. "I do plan to sit down and be a good listener to those folks,' he says.)
But all this talk about working more collaboratively raises an obvious question, one prompted by incorrigible cynics who see this year's elections as a chance for Ravenstahl to regain control of council. And Kraus is, after all, one of Ravenstahl's staunchest opponents on council -- a rock-solid vote alongside Ravenstahl foes Bill Peduto and Doug Shields. So was Robb put up to this race by Ravenstahl and his allies? Is he part of a broader effort to remake council into a more pliable body?
"I can appreciate that this is what people will think," says Robb. "But I'm going into this with an open mind, and with no preconceptions about being pro-mayor or anti-mayor. Sometimes that might make the mayor happy, and sometimes it might not. But maybe that's not being accomplished right now -- when the mayor says one thing, it seems the councilman jumps to the other side."
But if Robb hasn't talked to the mayor, he does acknowledge that he's had some "informal" conversations with mayoral allies: "I won't say I haven't made it know to those folks of my interest."
Robb says that starting about nine months ago, he was approached repeatedly by contemporaries in the South Side urging him to run. While he scoffed at the notion intially, he says, "The more I thought about it, the more excited I got."
Robb says his campaign is supported by local business and community leaders, as well as some elected officials elsewhere in the city. He declined to name them at this early point in his campaign. He also demurred to answer specific questions about his fundraising efforts -- in part because he has a fundraiser coming up this weekend that he didn't want to jinx.
He'll need all the help he can get: Kraus, the incumbent, raised more than $62,000 in campaign contributions last year, and has nearly $35,000 in the bank.
AND THIS JUST IN! Just as I was wrapping this post up, I got word of another entrant in the race. Jason Phillips, who worked on Kraus' first campaign for the office, and later ended up running against him, has just sent out a release advertising his own run. I'll try to have more from Phillips later this week, but for now, here's his official statement:
Yesterday, Jason Phillips, Allegheny County Democratic Committee Member, announced his candidacy for Pittsburgh City Council District 3.
Phillips stated that, "We need to elect a new council member with five (5) traits that our community has been missing for six (6) years: creative ideas, the ability to connect, a spirit of collaboration, highly involved, and a partner willing to work for everyone."
Mr. Phillips strongly believes that our first priority needs to be a balanced budget. The city of Pittsburgh can longer spend more than we collect-- Mr. Phillips would have been a steady voice in the most recent pension bailout fiasco that occurred. He also believes that we need to start doing the little things well.
The crux of his campaign focuses on our need to fix our roads, improve snow and ice removal from our secondary street, pick up garbage, demolish blighted homes, eradicate graffiti and most of all, provide Police, Fire and EMS services to our residents. Mr. Phillips invasions a City Council tenure where constituent services rank highly.
Many voters may be unaware of the vast war chest some candidates have accumulated, however, Mr. Phillips believes that the obscene money that candidates are raising and spending from federal to municipal elections needs to be addressed. It is immoral that special interest groups and organizations have put their claws into our elected officials. Mr. Phillips will run a grassroots campaign with his campaign volunteers by going door to door throughout the district.
The Friends of Phillips Committee sees their candidate bringing the youth, vitality, and innovative ideas to City Council along with maturity and a stable voice.
Mr. Phillips characterizes himself as a candidate of the people, whereas candidate Kraus hasn’t worked well with the administration or community, to be announced candidate Jeff Koch has collected a city paycheck for 20+ years, including taking a job created especially for him after losing his past election and Gavin Robb, the bar candidate who was recently presented to the community by millionaire land developer Damian Soffer and Adam DeSimone owner of Diesel Night Club.