There are a few rules governing political scandal. Rule No. 1 is that the original transgression isn't what hurts you: What gets you in trouble is the attempt to hide it.
That advice comes a bit late for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who was handcuffed during an October 2005 altercation with a police officer at a Steelers game. Ravenstahl was never charged in that incident, and it took months of questioning from reporters and a blog post by John McIntire, who also writes a freelance column for City Paper to bring it to light last week.
Ravenstahl probably could have fessed up the day after the incident. He probably could have silenced 90 percent of his critics by saying, "Let he who has never violated open-container laws before a Steelers game cast the first stone." In my circle, the story might even have given Ravenstahl a bit of street cred. (Though my circle isn't representative of the broader electorate: Otherwise there'd be a lot more authority-resenting neurotics in public office.)
Instead, Ravenstahl dodged questions about the issue for months. By then, he'd been sued by a police commander for political shenanigans in the department, and people were bound to wonder what he was trying to hide.
That brings us to Rule No. 2 of political scandal: What people hate most is when you get away with stuff they can imagine themselves being caught for. Consider the response to Bill Clinton's adultery, as opposed to George W. Bush's wiretapping.
Or consider how the Ravenstahl incident was regarded at a Jan. 21 anti-racism summit at East Liberty Presbyterian Church.
Ravenstahl was politely received at the summit, briefly appearing with County Executive Dan Onorato. (The two are the Dynamic Duo of local government these days.) But hours after he left, during a workshop on police/community relations, activist Paradise Gray cited the Heinz Field incident as proof that "It must really be great to be a white man in America.
"[I]f you're a white man in America," Gray argued to mounting laughter, "you can approach a police officer and you can curse him out, and he can handcuff you [and] 10 minutes later you can say to him, 'You know what? I'm sorry. I really could have handled that situation better.' And then that officer will look at you, the one that you just cursed out, and he'll say, 'You know what? You're right. I could have handled that better myself. Let me take these keys and unlock those handcuffs.'"
Such talk would sting less if there weren't already resentment toward police in some black neighborhoods. In recent weeks, concerns have been mounting about "saturation sweeps" block-by-block police actions that can involve helicopters and armored vehicles.
"The police drive down the street in an armored tank," exclaimed Jasiri X, a local minister in the Nation of Islam, during the Jan. 21 workshop. "Is that a community/police relationship?"
The police themselves, meanwhile, aren't necessarily much happier.
Thanks to a recent change in the Ravenstahl administration's civil-service requirements, police detectives are now eligible for promotion to the rank of commander allowing them to leapfrog over lieutenants with more supervisory experience. One of the first beneficiaries of the new policy, according to a Jan. 13 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story, could be detective George Trosky, who is currently in line for such a promotion despite his well-publicized history of alleged misconduct.
In fairness, the most recent chapter in that history is a decade old. Still, why change the rules to promote Trosky, or any other detective, over lieutenants who don't have such a background, but do have years of supervisory experience? Grumblings from inside the department are becoming audible already; ACLU attorney Vic Walczak has told me that such promotions may suggest a need for federal oversight of police operations. The ACLU successfully demanded similar oversight back in the 1990s.
But in the meantime, I guess, there's little reason for Ravenstahl to worry. Few voters get worked up over changes to civil-service rules. Few voters object to police-state tactics, as long as they're deployed somewhere else. And they probably always will be.
Had Ravenstahl handled the Steelers flare-up better, he could almost campaign on it: "Ravenstahl for Mayor: At least he knows how to tailgate." Because when it comes to policing, it beats a lot of other questions he might have to address.