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Not Much of a Party

Why have reformers suffered so many disappointments?

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This was supposed to be a different article. It was supposed to be a story about a hotly contested race for mayor between Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his challenger, City Councilor Bill Peduto. But that race never happened. Peduto dropped out in March instead.

For aspiring political reformers, it was just one more disappointment ... in a primary season that has been full of them.

Of course, there are several key city offices at stake this year, as outlined in the following pages. There are four city council races, three of which -- in districts 3, 7 and 9 -- should be very competitive. But times have been tough for liberal candidates with a more youthful and reform-minded approach. Consider:

-- There is no serious competition for the two most powerful offices in Allegheny County: county executive and mayor of Pittsburgh.

-- The Democratic Party endorsement, a key factor in determining primary winners, went to incumbents in four out of five city council races. Committee members supported Ravenstahl over Peduto by nearly four-to-one.

-- The lone council challenger to win an endorsement was District 9's Rachel Cooper, who impressed pro-choice advocates and seemed likely to defeat indicted incumbent Twanda Carlisle. Cooper, however, was tossed off the ballot three weeks later for not properly filing paperwork.

Do such developments reveal a problem with the political process itself ... or with the people who want to reform it? Or both?

Some caution against reading too much into any one election. The absence of viable competition for the top offices is "a fluke," says Joe Mistick, a Duquesne University professor and former chief of staff to Mayor Sophie Masloff. Much of it stems from the lingering sorrow at former Mayor Bob O'Connor's death last summer.

Still, Mistick says, change must come. "The party has to become younger, because the Baby Boomers like me are like the small animal passing through the python. There won't be much of us left on the other side."

If present trends continue, critics say, there won't be much of a party left either.

"There's a hunger for debate and discussion that is not being met by the available candidates, or by the official channels of political communication," says Andrea Boykowycz, a Democratic committeeperson from Oakland and a founding member of Progress Pittsburgh.

Progress Pittsburgh seeks to do nothing less than "[r]emake the local Democratic party" by replacing the "'old boy' network with a network of progressive, connected, engaged, well-informed citizens." They've got their work cut out for them.

"There are committee members out there who don't understand why Republicans and independents can't vote in the primary," Boykowycz says. "I've spoken to them."

Considering that committee members select the party's endorsed candidates -- and act as a liaison with voters -- that's a problem. And it's just one of many.

Some reformers grouse about the fees candidates must pay to seek the party's endorsement. (Want the party's blessing for your city council campaign? It'll cost you $1,250 -- and you don't get a refund if the party backs someone else.)

Others complain that party committeepeople don't always live in the areas they represent. Shortly before the party's endorsement this past March, Boykowycz found two dozen committee members who lived outside the districts they represent. Some weren't even registered as Democrats.

The biggest gripe, though, is that once endorsements are made, committeepeople are supposed to back the party's choice, even if they supported someone else.

"Committee members -- who you'd assume are the most active Democrats -- are the ones prohibited from supporting candidates who aren't endorsed," says Boykowycz.

If that sounds undemocratic to you, you're not alone.

"There's a movement in the party to have open primaries," admits the party's county chair, Jim Burn. In an "open primary" system, the party would still endorse candidates, but dissenting committee people could continue to back their favorite. "I did a survey my first month, and 35 percent of people favored an open primary," Burn says.

Burn can understand frustration with the party. He campaigned on it last year, arguing that local Democrats were "saddled with a perspective rooted in the past." Today, he says, "As bad as I thought things were, you can multiply that by at least a factor of 10."

Take the endorsement fees. Burn dislikes them, but says they furnish one-third of the party's budget. "I'd love to build a fund-raising apparatus," he says, "[but] it's going to take time."

As for Boykowycz's committee challenges, Burn says he's halfway through a review. "It appears as if some of them -- I know one for sure did not reside [in the district he represented]," he acknowledges. Commiteepeople are usually elected, and they're supposed to live in their district. But when a seat is vacant and he appoints a replacement, Burn says he relies largely on the ward chair from that area. "We don't do background checks. There just haven't been enough problems."

Burn has taken some positive steps, reformers agree. Recently Democrats have held a series of forums so endorsed candidates can discuss their positions before gay-rights, women's and other groups. Khari Mosley, whose League of Young Voters seeks to politically empower youth, credits Burn with inviting the League to sit on its advisory board. "Some people say [Burn] is too much of a reformer, some say it's not enough," says Mosley.

The problem is "You're not going to get young voters excited about supporting some of these endorsed Democrats," says Lindsay Patross, who has worked on several local campaigns.

Partly that's because the party doesn't require political litmus tests.

Within a few wards, like Squirrel Hill's 14th, candidates can expect to be grilled on the issues if they want support. Burn says the 14th "is a model" for a more rigorous, issues-based endorsement process. But elsewhere, Boykowycz says, the only test is whose campaigns have you worked on? How loyal a soldier have you been? "None of the candidates are encouraged to propound on what they were all about."

Maybe the party itself has forgotten.

"The absence of a viable local Republican Party hurts the Democrats," says Rick Swartz, who is waging a quixotic campaign against county executive Dan Onorato. Candidates like Onorato, Swartz says, would likely be Republicans anywhere else. But here, they co-opt the Democratic Party's apparatus and the Republican Party's agenda -- pre-empting challengers in either party.

It remains to be seen whether the GOP will ever be a factor in local politics. Republicans are seeking to put a mayoral candidate on the ballot -- businessman Mark DeSantis. There are early signs DeSantis may get real support from the state GOP. Still, the part is in such disarray that he's running as a write-in candidate.

"The Democrats get the support from the higher levels of the party, because they know the city is the focus of the county," says Bob Hillen, who chairs the GOP's city apparatus. "We don't get that."

If change is to come soon, it will probably have to come from reformers. And they have problems of their own.

Consider Rachel Cooper, who failed to file financial-disclosure forms with the city clerk (though she did correctly file them with the county). Some may lament that mere paperwork thwarted such a promising candidacy. But as Patross points out, "Financial-disclosure information is really important stuff. And it works both ways." Last year, Patross worked for the campaign of Chelsa Wagner, a Democrat whose rival, Michael Diven, struggled with filing violations of his own.

The biggest setback to reformers this year, though, was Peduto's scuttled campaign.

Peduto dropped out, he has explained, because he didn't want an ugly loss to hurt the reform movement. That may have been the right choice; sources in the Peduto campaign say internal polling showed more than 80 percent of voters with a favorable impression of Ravenstahl. Even so, some damage has been done.

"I have a lot of respect for Bill, but I think he was wrong to drop out," says Swartz, who is likely to get beaten handily himself. Peduto, he says, "got a campaign all ginned up, and got people believing" -- only to pull the rug out from beneath them.

And Swartz sees a larger problem: "Bill was talking about these environmental issues," which resonated mostly with affluent voters. "But that's not where most voters' concerns are. Bill has never really talked about public schools, for example."

Among reformers, "There's a lot of preaching to the choir," Boykowycz says. "It doesn't engage the rest of the city," where people are less concerned with government transparency than with transit and taxes.

"I don't see the 'progressive movement' getting much more traction without a larger constituency," Mosley agrees. "Progressive need to expand the base" to include labor and low-income neighborhoods.

Mistick says reformers simply need to do more. "I have little patience for people who sit on the sidelines and say, 'this is a screwed-up organization.' If you don't like that process, run for committeeperson, and fight for changes."

A slate of 50 Progress Pittsburgh-recruited candidates did just that in 2006. About half won committee slots, to the consternation of many party regulars. But in a committee of more than 800, that isn't enough. And now those committee people are expected to refrain from criticizing the party's selections ... even though that's what first inspired them to run.

"Some say Pittsburgh is a politically disappointing place right now," says Patross. But anything is possible, she says. After all, in the wake of O'Connor's death, "Nobody expected the political landscape to look like it does now."

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