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Opening the Floodgates

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"[H]e was too small a man to threaten the republic. His corruptions were too petty; his schemes too penny ante; and his spirit too ... venal to make him truly dangerous. And he was a bridge, thank God, to better times."

  • -- Ross Douthat on Richard Nixon

 

Pennsylvania's primary is being decided as I write this, but no matter which Democratic presidential candidate triumphs, we're probably all sick of the "gates": Snipergate, Bittergate ... the whole tired parade. 

Locally, though, one scandal does warrant comparison to Watergate. Not because it makes you think of Richard Nixon, the master manipulator ... but because it makes you think of Richard Nixon, the hapless dolt. 

Some have called the scandal "Signgate," because it concerns allegations that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration bent the law so an ally, Lamar Advertising, could put an electronic billboard along Grant Street. Others have called it "Bloggergate," because Lamar's friendship with Pat Ford, the head of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, was discovered online. Ford's wife, former Ravenstahl press secretary Alecia Sirk, authored a blog that documented gift-giving between Ford and a Lamar executive ... and those posts were discovered by bloggers at The Burgh Report (burghreport.blogspot.com).

But whatever you call it, this scandal, like the 1972 burglary at the Democratic Party's headquarters in the Watergate complex, may spell the end of an administration. 

The first thing you notice about both scandals is how unnecessary they were. Nixon didn't need the break-in to ensure his 1972 re-election. He won handily -- and then scandal took that victory away. In trying to cheat America, Nixon cheated himself. 

Similarly, Ravenstahl could have gotten his sign without bending the rules, which already confer great power on the mayor. Former Mayor Tom Murphy, for example, built not one but two Downtown department stores no one wanted. Ravenstahl, meanwhile, can't even erect a sign.

Which raises the other thing Nixon and Ravenstahl have in common. What sets these guys apart isn't how sinister their schemes were -- it's how inept they were at carrying the schemes out. Nixon taped himself making damaging disclosures, for starters. Ravenstahl hired a press secretary to blog about hers. 

And both scandals raise the same question: How did these jokers ever get into office?

As Ross Douthat writes in the Atlantic magazine, Nixon won the White House because Democrats were badly splintered, and responsible Republicans were feckless. Americans, Douthat writes, "chose Nixon over an exhausted [political] establishment." He's the politician you get when your politics are played out.

Ravenstahl, for his part, became mayor because he was president of council when Bob O'Connor died. And he was president of council because squabbling among other councilors made the 26-year-old look mature. Call him "Fluke" if you want, but if he's the closest thing we had to an elder statesman, that speaks volumes about the weakness of other city leaders.

At least, their weakness until now. 

Win or lose, Barack Obama has done what no local politician has: assemble a local coalition of African Americans, college kids and affluent reformist Democrats. Those groups have little in common with Ravenstahl, but they've generally had even less to do with each other. Obama's campaign may change that. So could the ongoing campaign over community benefits agreements, which require would-be developers to make ironclad guarantees of jobs and community reinvestment. 

In early March, council President Doug Shields went on record saying council should take an active role in negotiating such a deal between the Penguins and the Hill District. Councilor Bill Peduto, a former mayoral candidate who sits on the Stadium Authority board, has been seeking similar agreements for development near the city's existing sports facilities. 

Shields and Peduto are based in the affluent, progressive East End, but are increasingly reaching beyond it. It's probably no accident Ravenstahl recently ousted Peduto from the authority board. 

Even so, Ravenstahl's screw-ups have made the case for reform better than the reformers have. It was his trips to New York City on a private jet, not Peduto's speeches that publicized the need for a city ethics board. It is Signgate, not recent hearings on campaign financing, which proves the need to curtail influence peddling. 

Thanks to Nixon's misdeeds, the power of the executive branch was curbed for two decades. Ravenstahl may leave the same legacy: Council is already talking seriously about taking away some of his power to appoint board members. If nothing else, he's busily ruining his re-election chances in 2009. 

If Ravenstahl -- like Nixon -- keeps an enemies list, he should put himself on it. 

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