Ask mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar whether Bob O'Connor has met public expectations, and he'll say, "It's hard to fall when you're already on the floor."
Like the Pirates' starting rotation, O'Connor started out with the bar set low. Unlike the Pirates' starting rotation, he's managed to clear it.
He has, after all, failed to run Pittsburgh into the ground after 14 weeks. Given some of the doubts about him during last year's mayoral race, that's an accomplishment worth noting even though it means I lost the office pool.
O'Connor is even finessing the redevelopment of the Fifth/Forbes retail corridor, an issue that helped sink his predeccessor, Tom Murphy. For one thing, his redevelopment authority picked Don Carter, president of Urban Design Associates, to help navigate the development process. It's a politically astute choice: Carter was considered a benign figure by many who resisted Murphy's efforts.
And unlike Murphy, O'Connor seems comfortable even in the parts of Pittsburgh he hasn't redeveloped. When he shut down a Garfield nuisance bar recently, for example, O'Connor held an impromptu confab in the Quiet Storm coffeehouse across the street. In certain hipsterish circles where the Quiet Storm is popular, O'Connor's appearance was a pleasant surprise. As a city councilor, after all, O'Connor had been a thorn in the side of Backward on Forward, a popular venue in Squirrel Hill. (In certain other hipsterish circles, of course, people smelled the sour-milk stench of cooptation. But if they hadn't, how hipsterish could those circles be?) What O'Connor hasn't done is just as notable.
Penguins fans might be irritated that he hasn't taken a stronger position on who should get the city's lone gambling license: The hometown favorite, casino hopeful Isle of Capri, has promised to build the Pens a new arena in exchange for the license. But the slots license will be awarded by a panel of Harrisburg appointees, and it's hard to say what leverage O'Connor has (especially if the fix is already in, as many locals suspect). About all O'Connor can do for certain is make hectoring, self-righteous speeches which might only tick off Harrisburg politicians.
In case you've forgotten, that's just the sort of behavior that used to drive us crazy with Murphy. Murphy, of course, arguably had a tougher job. He sought to reshape the city, while O'Connor has so far been content to reflect it. But even if O'Connor doesn't have any great overarching vision for Pittsburgh, as some feared last year, I'm not sure anyone else does either.
Consider the recent special election in City Council District 3, which includes the South Side and some South Hills neighborhoods. Some saw the race as a proxy fight between O'Connor and City Councilor Bill Peduto, who ran against O'Connor in last year's mayoral race. A "progressive" candidate, Peduto backers hoped, could put a Peduto ally on council, heading off O'Connor's influence. But the candidate Peduto supported, South Side businessman Bruce Kraus, sounded an awful lot like the candidate O'Connor supported: eventual winner Jeff Koch.
Both Kraus and Koch talked mostly about crime prevention, removing abandoned cars and grafitti. Both candidates, in other words, campaigned the way O'Connor did the year before: by pledging to "redd up" the city while avoiding big policy proposals.
Perhaps they did so because that's what voters want. After 12 years of Murphy, maybe we're no longer in the mood for hearing about, or fighting over, big policy proposals. (Ironically, that means that O'Connor might get away with things Murphy never could have done without opposition such as supporting tax subsidies to build PNC yet another Downtown office tower.)
Of course, it may all end in tears. O'Connor has had some stumbles, most ominously in the area of policing. As City Paper reported last week, his administration transferred a popular police commander, RaShall Brackney, from the East End for reasons that smack of pure politics. And his police chief, Dom Costa, will have to prove himself especially in light of revelations about questionable actions he took during a 2002 standoff in Homewood. But so far, the only law-enforcment fiasco has been the Great Downtown Pigeon Sniper, which proved to be a joke at someone else's expense entirely.
It's easy to smirk that O'Connor lacks bold initiatives and big dreams. And maybe he does. But maybe, for the moment, so do we. And given the city's lingering financial problems, maybe that's for the best.