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On His Own Terms

Murphy should leave, but on his own steam

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The city began laying off 731 workers last week, and for many Pittsburghers that is 731 too many -- and one too few.

That's why Lawrenceville resident Jim Genco was at an August 15 protest on the steps of the City-County Building, holding petitions demanding that Mayor Tom Murphy be impeached.

Pittsburghers are "fundamentally dissatisfied" with Murphy, who has "blatantly disregarded" the public's will, the petition complains. The potential layoff of more than 100 police officers means "crime will go up, more citizens will move out" and the city's difficulty retaining residents will "only get worse."

Genco had logged three signatures before the protest had even begun; since it takes only 20 signatures to initiate the impeachment process, Genco was on pace to complete the impeachment of Tom Murphy before his coffee got cold. Still, he said, "We're trying to get hundreds of signatures, to prove a point."

If getting rid of Mayor Murphy was that easy, of course, someone would have done it long ago. But a judge must review the signatures, determine whether the cause for impeachment is reasonable, and then turn the matter over to a panel of civilian investigators who study the complaint and present a report to City Council, which acts as a jury.

And Murphy, Genco told me, was only the beginning.

"After this, we're coming after City Council," Genco said.

Fair enough: It was Murphy who proposed this year's budget with a $60 million hole in it, a hole he expected to be filled with the revenue from new taxes the state still hasn't approved. But most council members voted for it with barely a word of complaint. Among those who backed Murphy's budget is the guy who would replace him if he were impeached: Council President Gene Ricciardi.

Still, once you've impeached the mayor, the guy who would replace him, and the councilors who would replace him, who is left to actually run the city? Who is left to conduct the impeachments, for that matter?

While we're at it, shouldn't we impeach ourselves? We're the rubes who voted Murphy into office three times, after all. His 2001 re-election came years after Murphy rammed new stadiums down our throats; his "blatant disregard" for the public had long been established. (That's what makes it so blatant.) It seems a little late in the going to be surprised by it now & or by the city's crippling debt, which has received widespread media attention for years.

Of course, it's not as if the voters had a viable alternative to Murphy. Perhaps we ought to impeach every committeeperson in both political parties for not giving us somebody more qualified to vote for.

The point is that Pittsburgh has problems much larger than Tom Murphy, which means impeaching him won't solve them. It won't get more money from Harrisburg, and it won't get workers back on the job any sooner. There's little to suggest impeaching Murphy will help; the most backers of impeachment can say is, "What harm can it do?"

Well, it could harm the city by obscuring the fiscal crisis with the political intrigues that would cloud Murphy's impeachment. It could hurt Pittsburgh by shifting attention from the city's survival to that of the mayor.

Unfortunately, we don't need impeachment for that. Murphy himself drew that attention with an Aug. 15 Post-Gazette interview in which he told James O'Toole, "I don't know if I'm running or not" for an unprecedented fourth term in 2005.

City employees were reassured, no doubt, to discover that Murphy is thinking about at least one city employee's long-term job security. But given the mayor's current unpopularity, it might seem hard to believe he'd even consider, let alone win, another term.

Don't count Murphy out. He's already served three terms -- as many as the legendary David Lawrence. And if Lawrence's long tenure was tribute to the Democratic Party's strength back then, Murphy's tenure is testament to its weakness now. There simply hasn't been another candidate possessing the aptitude and attitude necessary to beat him. That's why voters have twice had to choose between Murphy and the amiable-but-aimless Bob O'Connor.

But whether Murphy could win or not in 2005, the city still loses today.

If the thought of a fourth Murphy term doesn't fill you with excitement, just imagine how your state legislator feels. It's no secret that Murphy isn't popular in Harrisburg, where legislators still remember his handling of the 1997 "stealth stadium bill," a backdoor attempt to win state dollars for new stadium construction. And Murphy has had repeated run-ins with state Senators Jim Ferlo (D-Lawrenceville) and Jack Wagner (D-Beechview), who challenged Murphy for mayor in 1993.

It's hard to be certain how much those animosities have hurt attempts to bail out the city, which is seeking new taxing power and pension help from Harrisburg. The sunniest assessment I've heard of Murphy's reputation in Harrisburg is "It doesn't hurt the city & but it certainly doesn't help." The worst assessment is that some legislators are wary of doing anything to help the city for fear of making Murphy look good.

There's an easy way to remove those concerns, however: Murphy should publicly announce that he has no intention of seeking reelection.

If he does so, legislators like Wagner could have a powerful incentive to deal with the city's problems -- the incentive of knowing that they will get the credit for fixing them. It will no longer be enough to blame Pittsburgh's problems on Murphy, because everyone will know that while the mayor is going away, the city's problems won't be.

For the past 10 years, the city's debt has grown while its population has shrunk, despite Murphy's ambitions. Maybe it's time to see what renouncing ambition can accomplish. Murphy shouldn't run again for the same reason he shouldn't be impeached: Doing so risks shifting attention to what helps or hurts the mayor, rather than what helps or hurts the city.

Maybe that's not fair to Murphy. For a year now, he has contended that the city's financial crisis has been 50 years in the making, that it is the result of an outmoded tax structure, laws giving public-safety unions the upper hand in contract negotiations and the federal government's failure to help pay for homeland security.

Maybe the city's problems aren't Murphy's fault. But they're also not the fault of the 731 employees who lost their jobs because of them. Tom Murphy sacrificed their future with the city; he ought to sacrifice his own. He'd still have a legacy to be proud of: new homes and offices, new sports facilities, new bike trails, a place beside David Lawrence in history.

He'd also still have two years' more job security than 731 other city employees have today.

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