When I first heard Mayor Bob O'Connor had fired three of his top aides chief of staff B.J. Leber, Solicitor Susan Malie, and Finance Director Paul Leger I was looking forward to being outraged. O'Connor had ousted three respected professionals, two of whom were women! Once again, Pittsburgh's "good old boys" had reared their heads! O'Connor, wrestling with cancer in a Shadyside hospital, had caved in to political cronies!
But then Joe King, president of the Pittsburgh firefighters union, had to weigh in.
King that noted champion of government transparency told the Post-Gazette he wanted nothing to do with Leber's replacement, longtime O'Connor ally Dennis Regan. King said he'd been discussing public safety with Malie and Leber in a "very professional and personal way." ("Professional and personal," presumably, means "not likely to lead to the threat of federal indictment, like my previous contract talks have.")
When Joe King starts complaining about cronyism, something is very wrong. Could he be motivated by something other than a hatred for political deals? Could Leber and Co. have had a political agenda just like the people who wanted them fired? Let's review the tape.
The trouble began with O'Connor's decision to name an aide, Yarone Zober, to head the Department of General Services. The appointment was unusual: O'Connor was dissolving General Services by shuffling its operations elsewhere. But under the city charter, making Zober a department head qualified him to become deputy mayor, if O'Connor's health deteriorated.
But as the mayor's office urged City Council to approve Zober's nomination, Leber was drafting legislation to eliminate his job. Malie, meanwhile, circulated a legal memo arguing that council shouldn't review Zober's appointment at all. That legal position implied Zober couldn't even be a deputy mayor at all. The effect, if not the intent, of this activity was to undermine Zober's nomination. Once matters came to light, Malie, Leber and Leger were canned.
Did O'Connor hope to make Zober his deputy, or was he merely trying to speed up reforms, as loyalists contend? Were Leber and Malie staging a coup or trying to avert one, seeking to protect an ailing mayor from a power-grab by cronies?
After talking to sources inside and outside the administration, I'm certain only of this: Distrust between Leber's camp and Regan's existed from the outset of O'Connor's administration. By the time O'Connor fell ill, both sides were assuming the worst about each other. (Some O'Connor supporters justify Leger's firing, for example, by claiming he was a mole for business leaders opposed to O'Connor.) As a result, both sides ended up confirming each other's worst expectations.
If you ask me, Malie and Leber's actions smack of backroom politics about as much as does the decision to fire them. And while the firings have generated outrage on op-ed pages and the airwaves, I have yet to hear anyone defend what Leber and Co. actually did. Instead, supporters laud who they are. Leber and Malie are women in a male-dominated city; Leber and Leger are "professionals" tied to Pittsburgh's corporate elite. Regan's triumph over those groups is kinda scary, especially for those who already suspected O'Connor of cronyism. It's natural to think the "old boys' network" has won again.
Except that Zober, whose appointment triggered this mess, is not a particularly old boy. He's a 31-year-old professional, with a law degree and everything. Even some of my "progressive" friends people who backed City Councilor Bill Peduto for mayor last year say Zober is a smart, decent guy. After years of whining about how Pittsburgh's "young people" are ignored, should we be outraged if one is poised to become deputy mayor?
In another context, we might even celebrate Zober's rise, so it's hard to rally behind those who tried to torpedo it. Especially if they used tactics that would outrage us had Denny Regan employed them.
We shouldn't have to choose between having smart women in government and having smart young people. If O'Connor hired more women in the first place, he wouldn't be facing this fallout now. Instead, his office has become less diverse, more populated with yes-men. And after this fiasco, O'Connor will have an even harder time finding anyone else to work for him. That doesn't bode well for the future.
Still, let's be honest about the past. Maybe this wasn't a case of political reformers fighting politics-as-usual. Maybe it's a case of political appointees playing the game themselves.