With this year's race for mayor of Pittsburgh, we finally have something the city hasn't had in a while: a substantive discussion of issues and policy, proposed not by fringe candidates but by competent and articulate public officials. We finally have a political debate worth having.
Too bad the damn election keeps getting in the way.
Unfortunately, the race has so far been muted by the apparent inevitability of former City Council President Bob O'Connor's victory. A lot of people -- including many of us reporters -- often consider political developments to be of interest only to the extent that they may change an election's outcome. In this race, that's tantamount to saying that those developments are of no interest at all.
It's no surprise O'Connor is apparently coasting over his two closest challengers, City Councilor Bill Peduto and Allegheny County Prothonotary Michael Lamb. In March, a Tribune-Review poll put O'Connor's support at over 50 percent -- twice the support enjoyed by Peduto and Lamb combined. (On the bright side, that gap should allay fears that Lamb and Peduto would steal too many votes from each other to prevent either one from winning.)
It's also no surprise that O'Connor is running largely on likeability. It may not even be an entirely bad thing. If Pittsburghers have learned one thing from the Murphy regime, it's that there are real consequences for electing a jerk. Then too, being affable can be a political statement in itself. While the Steel City Stonewall Democrats -- a group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered voters -- endorsed Peduto for mayor, their Web site points out that O'Connor "has had the support of local gay bar owners" and "is certainly not an enemy of our community." Not exactly a glowing recommendation, perhaps, but there are a lot of Pittsburgh-area politicians you can't say even that much for.
O'Connor has wisely preserved his likeability by not proposing many messy ideas for people to oppose. So far, his only real policy proposal involved returning streetcars to high-traffic corridors. It was mocked roundly, perhaps even unfairly. (Yeah, trolleys are as knee-jerk, old-school Pittsburgh as you can get. And so is blasting an unorthodox idea seconds after it's proposed.)
If you want a campaign of ideas, pay heed to the race for second place. Lamb and Peduto have made a series of realistic, if technocratic, policy prescriptions worth discussing. Peduto, for example, has proposed replacing the city's current budgeting process with what he calls "outcome-based budgeting." Instead of the current budget process, where city officials fund various line items for personnel and equipment, "outcome-based budgeting" requires each department to submit specific programs for funding. Each program must be accompanied with identifiable and achievable goals -- the number of potholes filled, the response time of police cars -- to make sure there is accountability for the money spent.
Both candidates have also reached out to communities often ignored in the political process. Most of Peduto's campaign staff probably still gets carded at bars -- a refreshing change from Pittsburgh's old-boy political culture. Lamb, meanwhile, recently promoted his economic development plan by appealing to women voters upset over gender inequality. He's also offered to re-energize the city's police review board, which has withered from public inattention and not-so-benign neglect by Murphy. Confidence in the police, his campaign asserts, is "accomplished through a fair and transparent review of police action."
Granted, it's not always easy to see how these proposals would play out in the real world. Peduto told me he'd plan to have his new budgeting system in place by 2007, for example, though in states where the system has been used, it took at least five years to make the switch. (And if experience in those other states is an indication, Peduto's predictions of newfound government efficiency may be overstated.) Lamb's pitch to women involves little more than creating a "Women's Business Network" to help "develop a strategy" about what should be done.
Still, when was the last time police accountability and gender equality were discussed at all in a mayoral campaign?
There's an outside chance, of course, that if enough Pittsburghers just voted for someone without thinking about whether he was "electable" or not...he might actually get elected. But there's another, even better reason, for paying attention to this year's race: Knowing Pittsburgh's political landscape, it might not be this good again for a while.