In a race that could be decided by just a few hundred votes, the next representative for City Council District 3 could have been determined Feb. 22, in the basement of Knoxville's St. Sava Church. There were about twice as many voters as candidates at the forum, held by the neighborhood block-watch committee. But then it's an eight-man field running in this special election, which will be decided March 14.
In a city still hamstrung by budget problems and financial-oversight panels, a city facing the onset of slot-machine casinos, the hopes expressed in St. Sava's were modest. Block-watch members wanted to shutter crime-ridden properties for good, to put an end to increasingly visible prostitution and drug activity. And as one resident muttered, "We just want someone who lives on the hill."
District 3's highest-profile neighborhood is the South Side Flats, home of an active bar scene and some of the city's most successful retail and residential developments. It's also home of former Councilor Gene Ricciardi, who became a district judge last year. (His replacement will fill out the last year-and-a-half of Ricciardi's term.)
But the district includes unsung neighborhoods like Arlington, Beltzhoover and Knoxville, as well as portions of Mount Washington, Carrick and -- on the other side of the river -- Oakland. Its residents are a study in contrasts: Beltzhoover, for example, is more than 80 percent black, according to Pitt's University Center for Social and Urban Research, while the South Side Flats are less than 3 percent black. Oakland is home to a huge student population, while three-quarters of Arlington residents own their own homes -- among the highest percentages in the city.
What many of these communities have in common, says Jeff Koch, the endorsed Democrat in the race, is this: "A lot of these little neighborhoods have felt neglected in the past. No disrespect to Gene."
And in Knoxville, at least, residents treated Koch like he's their city councilor already, thanking him for alerting the police to a crime-ridden block of Bausman Street. And while one of his rivals, Bruce Kraus, gave his stump speech ("It's easy to talk, but another thing to do ..."), Koch firmed up his support in another way: by purchasing a ticket for the block watch's 50/50 raffle.
The district is home to 30,000 registered voters, but based on previous special elections, only 10 percent may turn out. That gives candidates reason to hope. "Koch may be the frontrunner," says Matthew Bartus, an independent from Carrick, "but there are eight candidates. I have a chance if I talk to enough people, and my people vote."
Bartus is hedging his bets: His home is for sale. But outside groups see opportunities too. The League of Young Voters, which seeks to involve college-age voters in politics, has registered 875 students to vote in the race. Pitt's massive dorm complex, Litchfield Towers, is located inside the district, and local League head Khari Mosley estimates that students make up one-quarter of District 3's residents. In a special election especially, he says, "Students could be a swing vote, and that could open some doors. We're trying to develop a voting bloc to address environmental issues, racial issues, transit issues -- things young people support."
To some extent, the race is also a battle between Mayor Bob O'Connor, who quietly backs Koch, and his rival in last year's election, City Councilor Bill Peduto of Shadyside. "Right now on city council, I feel very alone," Peduto says. "I want to see things change while I'm still in elected office."
On Feb. 12, Peduto's constituents held an endorsement rally of their own. Based on the recommendations of self-avowed "progressives" and groups like Progress Pittsburgh -- which hopes to wrest the levers of power from the Democratic Party's old guard -- Peduto is endorsing Kraus.
Reformers hoping to challenge Koch "can't allow our base to be split up," Peduto says.
That danger remains, however. Kraus' chief rival for the reform vote is fellow South Sider Bruce Krane, who heads a Pittsburgh temporary-staffing firm. He hosts a political talk show on the city's public-access cable channel, PCTV, and has served on the board of the South Side Community Council. A former chairman of North Strabane Township Board of Supervisors, Krane is the lone candidate with political experience. He is a forceful opponent of "kickbacks" for no-bid legal contracts and other "professional services."
By contrast, ask Kraus if he'd use his council seat as a "bully pulpit," and he answers, "I don't want to say 'bully.' I'm about building consensus." The president of the South Side Chamber of Commerce, Kraus propounds a theme of "Safe, Clean and Green": more aggressive policing and graffiti control to encourage more city residents. Among other efforts, Kraus has chaired the city's Graffiti Task Force and organized a "South Side Trash Bash" to remove litter. His support for green space helped earn the endorsement of the Sierra Club.
But Kraus has also been attacked by the Green Party candidate, college student Jason Phillips, who formerly served on Kraus's staff. The two had a falling-out last year over money and ideology. Today, Phillips is the campaign's firebrand. He pledges to take a 16 percent pay cut and to "reinvest the money in constituent service." While other candidates say gambling is inevitable -- or beyond city council's control -- Phillips says he is "absolutely opposed" to it. As for what his position would mean for the Pittsburgh Penguins, who hope a slots license will help them build a new arena, "When's the last time they had a winning season? You should be rewarded for performance."
Libertarian candidate Mark Rauterkus offers a vision of "kids and freedom. I'm the libertarian who really cares about coaching the kids." The swim coach would like city high school athletes to play in the same leagues suburban kids compete in -- so "city kids will have something to shoot for." To encourage more residents, he favors a four-year "tax holiday" on the city's deed-transfer tax, and taxing land only, rather than the buildings atop of it. Otherwise, he says, "You're punished for improving your home." As for gambling, he's wary of the proposals made by would-be developers: Why not put the slots in the convention center? It is a "white elephant operating below capacity," he says.
The Republican, Neil Andrus, says he's "running to provide a perspective on council you won't hear otherwise." Citing a municipal debt of $2,500 per resident, Andrus says, "We've been trying to tax ourselves to prosperity. There are a lot of city properties in the URA, [and in] the Parking Authority, that could be sold." A former employee in the city's parks department, he'd sell ads in parks and favors outsourcing city services to private contractors.
Bartus, a painter with the city, disagrees. City employees are more likely to live in town than contractors, he says. Moreover, contractors "will make a low bid to get the work, but once the city has laid off the workers, they'll be able to charge whatever they want." Bartus would save money by consolidating the city pools into a system of nine Dormont-sized facilities, served by school buses running routes. He also backs the "drive for five" -- reducing city council from nine seats to five.
South Side resident Michael Waligorski, a frequent candidate for public office, did not return phone calls.
For his part, Jeffrey Koch seems unconcerned that he's in reformers' crosshairs. His Democratic committeewoman has Kraus signs on her front yard, he says, but that's "just more incentive."
One reason Koch sounds so gracious might be his endorsement by the Democratic Party and local unions. He also suspects the two Bruces will undermine each other's support.
What does bother Koch is that reformers see him as a toady for O'Connor or the party. He says it's "too early to judge" O'Connor, but adds he's "not real happy with the lack of change in management" -- specifically the carry-over of Public Works Director Guy Costa from the administration of former Mayor Tom Murphy. A public-works employee, he says his background has helped him be "streetwise. They can buffalo the other guys, but not me."
Is he a party insider? "That's the furthest thing from the truth," he says. "I know these guys as friends. I don't support people because I'm a kiss-ass." In fact, he says, "I have made no promises to anyone."
Like many of the other candidates, Koch is suspicious of the city's financial oversight panels. He thinks the city has cut about all it can afford to, and if anything may need to increase spending on police and other core services.
In fact, the most striking thing about this campaign is how similar the candidates sound. Each is skeptical about using tax subsidies to lure development -- especially a proposed $18 million subsidy for a new PNC Bank office tower. Each wants to shift from big-bang Downtown development toward neighborhood investment. Each emphasizes increasing the police presence.
According to Commander RaShall Brackney, between January 2005 and January 2006, crime in Zone 3 -- which overlaps much of the district -- jumped by 15 percent. Much of that increase, she says, results from a spike in automobile-related thefts in the South Side. So despite the emphasis on thinking young and thinking different, the same old issues continue to dominate.
Meanwhile, League of Young Voters head Mosley says that of the candidates only Phillips, the student, has been seen on campus regularly.