[Created September 25, 2006]
Dear Politically Savvy Friends,
It has been quite some time since I last opined on this page about all things political. I have lots of excuses between summer vacation in August, the sad and untimely death of Mayor Bob O'Connor, and the normal travails that afflict families getting their kids back to the school routine. But as we count down the weeks until America votes, let me try to sum up where we are, politically, as Campaign '06 draws to its close.
I should add that I have entered the "new media" world through the help of friends at www.talkshoe.com, an exciting Pittsburgh-based Internet enterprise that allows us all to become Talkcast celebrities of sorts. (A Talkcast is simply a live multi-person conversation, discussion group, talk show or podcast, led by a host with active participants and listeners; and the host decides if they want to record these for later time-shifted podcast listening.) If you would like to host your own Talkcast, please email me for details). I have hosted three Talkcasts to date with a fourth scheduled for this Tuesday evening, September 26, at 9:00 pm. I hope you will sign up at www.talkshoe.com for this oral edition of Politically Savvy Friends, either to talk, chat or just to listen. The topic du jour: "Is Bob Casey Blowing His Lead, or Is Rick Santorum Going Nuts?" Should be lots of fun, so join us. And, if you cannot be with us next Tuesday night, then just download and listen to the recorded hour-long Talkcast whenever you can.
Enough promo. Let's get on with my take on the body politic as we soon enter Week Six, meaning six weeks until the election. Read on, my politically savvy friends, but first some words about a great Pittsburgh politician.
REST IN PEACE, BOBBY O:
He was mayor of Pittsburgh for just 241 days, but what a mayor he was! Nobody will ever quite equal the late Bob O'Connor and his genuine love of people and his passion for inspiring this region to think better things about ourselves. The eternal optimist, Bob hated negativity, as he told me early on in his last campaign for mayor. And on the day he was sworn in, he told me exactly the same thing: "Nothing negative -- we only want positive," he said to me and others standing in his mayor's office, an office he had sprung open to the people of Pittsburgh.
I knew Bob O'Connor for many years. I've got relatives in Greenfield (the neighborhood he grew up in) who, faithfully, displayed O'Connor lawn signs when he first ran for city council. As a political analyst and reporter, I always knew that Bob O'Connor would drop just about everything to share his opinions on anything. He gave out his cell phone number and would be angry if we didn't use it. Hours before he died, his press assistant told those of us who were on vigil outside his office, "You know, he really liked you guys." And he really did. It was a mutual feeling.
Unlike many politicians, Bob was never afraid of the media. He didn't cut short press interviews, or run away from the media, or interpose press aides between himself and the camera, or make himself hard to get. He embraced us, just as he embraced everyone in Pittsburgh. Covering his illness, his last days, and his funeral were very difficult for me and for many of us in the media. But I think, for the most part, the Pittsburgh media did an excellent job in both reporting the story and respecting the privacy and sensitivity of the moment. I personally will always be grateful for the many, many positive comments I heard from you and others about our coverage, but none of that will ever erase the sadness that we all share at the loss of Mayor O'Connor.
Bob O'Connor's living legacy will, in my view, be the renewal of Pittsburgh's spirit. A city that has turned itself around so remarkably in the last decade -- just listen to the comments of outsiders who visit our city -- still struggles with a self-image problem that Bob was determined to reverse. He restored our pride by making all things seem possible. I remember so well how, during one of his redd-up tours, he asked a police officer to get an abandoned car towed away. The officer said, "Mayor, that's going to require some paperwork." O'Connor simply pulled out his mayor's business card and said, "That's all the paperwork you need." The next day I ask O'Connor, "Do you really think you can make things happen by handing out your business card." He just smiled that wonderful Irish smile and said to me, "It worked, didn't it?" And it did.
We will never have a mayor quite like Bob O'Connor, but we can all be thankful that Judy and the O'Connor family shared him with us for a few short months. His passing leaves a very big hole, but we will never think of Bob O'Connor without an even bigger smile erasing the gloom from our faces. Rest in peace, Mr. Mayor.
BEYOND THE BELTWAY:
Is Bush Rebounding:
Most Americans still disapprove of President George Bush's performance as president, but his numbers do seem to be ticking upward. In polls taken around and after the 5th anniversary of 9/11, Bush's job approval ranges between 37% (Pew) and 44%(Gallup/USAToday) and his disapproval between 49% (Fox/Opinion Dynamics) and 60% (AP/Ipsos). That's not great for the president, but a bit better than the low 30's job approval ratings he had earlier this year.
Why the better numbers?
It's certainly not that people think Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress are leading the country in the right direction. Indeed, the poll that gives Bush his best numbers makes that clear: only 33% think we are heading in the "right direction," while 63% say we are on the "wrong track." With so many people unhappy about the state of the union, it's no wonder that Republicans are fretting about their ability to maintain control of both houses of Congress on November 7. And, no surprise, public opinion of the Republican Congress hovers between 20% (NBC/Wall Street Journal) and 29% (Fox/Opinion Dynamics; AP/Ipsos; and Gallup).
So in contrast to members of Congress, President Bush seems positively popular. Is this a trend, or just a momentary bump because the national media has given less attention to the problems in Iraq and more to the threat of terrorism? Hard to know because nobody can really predict what the news lead will be a day or a week or a month from now. But focus on terrorism does seem to help the president who, whether you think he has made America safer or not, has been unequivocal about his concern.
I have never quite understood President Bush's affinity to torture. Most experts say that torture doesn't work in gleaning helpful information because those subjected to torture will tell the perpetrators exactly what they want to hear. That apparently is what happened when a captured al-Qaeda leader was tortured and "confessed" that Iraq had something to do with 9/11 which we now know was a total lie.
U.S. Sen. John McCain knows all about this. After all, he was jailed and brutalized for years by the Vietnamese, while Bush was stateside in the National Guard and Vice President Dick Cheney was on military deferments. So when McCain says upholding the Geneva Conventions and its ban on torture of prisoners protects Americans as well as alleged terrorists, a lot of us listen. Torture doesn't work, and changing the rules of the Geneva Conventions unilaterally endangers Americans because it opens the door for others to change the rules when they capture Americans.
Last week's battle among Republicans in the U.S. Senate is much more important than most understand. As a lawyer, I have a great problem with this administration's disregard for basic concepts of due process, habeas corpus, and the right to an attorney for anyone imprisoned under American jurisdiction. With current reports suggesting that as many as 80 percent of those jailed indefinitely at the Guantanamo prison camp had nothing to do with al-Qaeda, the question of how to release the innocent and bring the guilty to justice is critical.
Torturing captives and holding people indefinitely without trial is so un-American that it's no wonder that some members of Congress in both parties look askance at the White House. Then we have the recent report that the Bush administration has utilized something called "rendition" to escape American laws. This is the arrest and deportation of captives to foreign countries where they can be tortured or abused. Because of bad information from the Canadian police, a Canadian was surreptiously arrested in the USA and shipped off to Syria to be tortured. Turns out the fellow, once again, had nothing to do with 9/11, and the whole mess just embarrassed the United States.
Bush argues that his way is the only way to protect America from terrorists. That's total nonsense. There is no reason why America cannot uphold its traditional values and still capture, prosecute, and punish those who would do us harm. In light of the Supreme Court's decision in the Hamdan case in late June, striking down Bush's assertion that he alone as president had the authority to create military tribunals (i.e., the executive branch would be prosecutor, judge, and jury), the Congress is now wrestling with how to deal with these captives.
While some in the Congress -- check your local representative and senator -- rolled over for Bush (who wants his approach enacted into law, including his redefinition of the Geneva Conventions to allow some forms of torture), McCain and his two GOP colleagues, U.S. Sens. John Warner and Lindsay Graham, tried to stand up for American values. They are under tremendous political pressure to cave, and the deal they struck might strike some as an unsatisfactory compromise. But, nonetheless, it's refreshing to see political people willing to stand up to leaders in their own party. Both parties would benefit by such independence!
The Iraq Distraction:
I make it a point each week to read the names of those brave servicemen and women who have died in Iraq. Most of them are so young – in their 20s – that you know that a piece of America’s future dies each time one of those young people are killed in this war. No one doubts their sacrifice, but obviously more Americans than ever question whether America’s leaders should ever have put them in harm’s way.
This weekend, we learned that the National Intelligence Estimate, reflecting the views of 16 intelligence agencies, has concluded that the invasion of Iraq has, contrary to the administration’s claims, strengthened terrorism around the world. In short, these experts conclude, in essence, that the Bush-Cheney preoccupation with Saddam Hussein and Iraq has made America less safe, not more, from terrorist attack. It’s a stunning conclusion, and will no doubt engender debate in the weeks ahead.
Whatever the truth, many of us have felt that the White House long ago took its eyes off the real prize, Osama bin Laden, the terrorist whose al-Qaeda organization attacked America five years ago. With things deteroriating in Afghanistan, one cannot help but wonder whether the Iraq distraction has cost not only thousands of American lives and billions of tax dollars, but has also allowed the infamous Taliban, the protectors of al-Qaeda, to regain their foothold in Afghanistan.
Is the Governor's Race Over?
If you listen to Gov. Ed Rendell's campaign insiders, you would think the race for governor is all over. Far from it, in my view. Republican Lynn Swann is in the last quarter of his game, and he is certainly behind. The latest Keystone Poll has Swann down among likely voters by 16 points, 53% to 37%. The good news for the governor is that he is above 50 percent; the bad news is that it's not by much.
But Swann's problems do appear serious. He has been unable to match Rendell in the TV marathon which is the only place where Swann can lay out a message that might resonate with voters. And, perhaps even more problematic, he has failed to gel a campaign theme, an over-arching rationale for replacing the incumbent. Ironically, through his carefully crafted campaign ads that run non-stop, Rendell has co-opted the notion that he, not Swann, is the candidate of change, "moving Pennsylvania forward."
Of late, Swann has embraced the pay raise issue, a topic that was given new life by the state Supreme Court's recent ruling that gives themselves and the state's 1000+ judges a very hefty pay raise. But Swann was never a strong anti-pay raiser, as he enjoyed the early support of the GOP legislative leaders who engineered the pay raise last summer. Now he is using the issue against Rendell who has been adept at deflecting responsibility. I just don't know whether Swann can make this stick.
In part, history has been against Swann from the beginning because PA has always reelected its governors, at least since voters were given the right to do so in 1968. I looked at those reelection figures the other day. Tom Ridge won reelection over Ivan Itkin by 798,000 votes.
Bob Casey won reelection over Barbara Hafer by 1,078,000 votes. Milton Shapp won reelection over Drew Lewis by 299,000 votes. The closest election was Dick Thorburgh's reelection over Allen Ertel, a win of 100,000 votes. If history holds, Rendell should defeat Swann, somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 votes -- how's that for a range! But 2006 is a peculiar year, and I don't think we really know the strength of the anti-incumbent feeling in this state, or the country. For the former Steeler great who never gave up until the last play was called and clock sounded, Swann is still betting that he can catch that 'hail Mary' pass as he crosses the finish line. I'm betting this race gets a whole lot closer in the remaining weeks.
The Gloves Come Off in Senate Race:
When will Bob Casey start attacking Rick Santorum?
I must have heard that question hundreds of times over the summer. The visceral dislike of Santorum is so palpable among Democrats that some really want Casey to "act" like Santorum -- to "get tough" and "go after" Santorum in a mean-spirited, hard-hitting, body-crunching way that, they say, are the tactics of the junior senator. The problem, of course, is that Casey will never, ever be that kind of candidate.
So is Casey blowing the lead that the polls suggested he once had over Santorum? The latest Keystone Poll gives Casey just a 5-point lead among likely voters, 46% to 41%, considerably down from those double-digit leads before Santorum's campaign started their attacks on Casey.
Regular PSF'ers know that I have consistently said, even a year ago when no other analyst in the state would say so, that Santorum could beat Casey. That's not a prediction, just an observation based on years of watching both candidates in action. Santorum is doing exactly what you would expect -- attack, attack, and attack -- and, perhaps more importantly, setting the agenda for what this race is all about.
Now it's true that Casey has been hampered by less campaign money and, apparently, fewer "independent" allies to attack Santorum or promote the Democrat in their own TV ads. And Santorum seemed to own the airwaves for most of the summer, first with generally positive and folksy ads about himself -- and now some of the hardest hitting ads we've ever seen. [The 'corner bar' ad that attacks Casey's campaign team as criminals meeting behind bars has already garnered editorial attack around the state]. Casey has started to hit back, although his TV attacks (so far) focus on Santorum's voting record, not the senator's character or political associates.
The Casey campaign suggests that Santorum, recognizing that he is losing this race, is going nuts, uttering expletives to reporters. First, the Casey people sent out a release headlined "#@?^*!!! Santorum Comes Unglued...Again." Then, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued their own release, "Temper, Temper: A Few of Santorum's Greatest Tantrums." When I first saw these headlines, I thought Rick must have said something truly outrageous. But it turns out that the expletive he used was the relatively mild "bullshit" to describe his view of a reporter's comment that Casey had won the "Meet the Press" debate earlier this month.
Now it's hard for me to imagine that Bob Casey would ever say anything mildly off-color, but Rick Santorum is a very passionate guy. His voice goes up, his speaking rate increases, and his hands gesticulate when he really gets into his groove. So if BS is the worse that he's ever said, I would be very, very surprised. Bottom line -- it's hardly a sign that Santorum thinks the race is over!
To me, the most interesting thing about all the polls is that Santorum, while cutting Casey's numbers, has not been able to raise his own. Santorum appears stuck at the 40 percent mark. He's raised doubts about Casey, but he has not recruited any new voters to his camp. If he cannot do that over the next six weeks, Casey wins.
Enter the Iraqi War Vets:
Army Capt. Jon Soltz, 28 years old, served in Iraq in 2003, chaired PA Veterans for Kerry in 2004, and now heads up a national Iraqi War veterans group called VoteVets.Org. Soltz is passionate about politics and about what he sees are the screw-ups in the prosecution of the war in Iraq, and has been on most of the national TV talk shows in recent years. VoteVets wants to elect Iraqi War veterans to the U.S. Congress. Oh, and Soltz comes from Pittsburgh.
His most recent foray into the political fray was the production of a generic political ad, targeted at members of the U.S. Senate who, in his view, voted against modern bullet-proof body armor for U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq. The ad is both shocking and very powerful. If you haven't seen it, click on http://www.votevets.org. The ad's first target was U.S. Sen. George Allen of Virginia; the second target is PA's own Rick Santorum. Liberal bloggers have embraced the ad, helping to raise the funds needed to get it on the air.
The problem for Soltz and his group is that the specific vote on which they rely for "proof" that certain senators opposed better body armor is, well, not air-tight. In April 2003, U.S. Sen. Marie Landrieu offered an amendment (Number 42 to S. 762) to an appropriations bill to add $1 billion to purchase more equipment for the National Guard and Reserve. As most of these folks will tell you, over the years they got the hand-me-downs from the active military, not exactly what you would want American reservists and guard members to have if you were sending them off to fight a war in Iraq. But Landrieu's amendment, by its own words, was for unspecific "National Guard and Reserve Equipment," and during her floor speech on the measure, the senator made no mention of body armor.
This has allowed senators like Allen and Santorum to claim that their "no" vote for this increased appropriation was not a vote against better body armor. Indeed, Santorum can provide a list of other votes where he says he did vote to upgrade the equipment of reservists and guard members. VoteVets says Landrieu's press release at the time did note the need for more "bullet-proof and tactical vests," and the group rejects claims that the shortage was a snafu in delivery, saying the problem was under-funding from the Congress.
It seems to me that both sides have a case here, and the dispute highlights the danger of using a single vote to characterize an elected official's stance on an important issue. It's hard to believe that any senator would, knowingly, vote to send Soltz and his buddies to war without proper gear. The record is the record, but, in my view, to suggest that Santorum opposed modern body armor for soldiers is as much a stretch as his own suggestion that Casey's campaign team is a bunch of shady crooks.
Will the Keystone State Deliver for the Dems?
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is looking to PA voters to turn the U.S. House of Representatives a new shade of blue by defeating a number of GOP incumbents. The Dems need 15 seats to take control of the House, and in their wildest dreams the DCCC sees five of those seats coming from PA. Not likely, unless there is a political tsunami of anti-incumbency, throw-out-the-bums, anti-Bush/anti-Republican sentiment that sweeps the Northeast.
Three of the five seats are in eastern PA where U.S. Reps. Curt Weldon, Jim Gerlach, and Mike Fitzpatrick face off against Democrats Joe Sestak, Lois Murphy, and Patrick Murphy. The polls seem to vary on these races, but no one doubts that they all are in play, no doubt helped by what is expected to be a Rendell sweep in these suburban counties.
The fourth race has been a bit of a surprise for Dems because the northeast PA district of U.S. Rep. Don Sherwood is so darn Republican. But Sherwood's marital indiscretions -- he had a mistress in Washington who accused him of choking her -- has so weakened him at home that Democrat Chris Carney is actually ahead in some polls. Whether that district can vote for a Democrat remains to be seen, but it has the DCCC salivating over an unexpected pick-up.
The fifth race is in western PA where U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, a Republican first elected in 2000, should be in good shape. In fact, UVA political scientist Larry Sabato just moved that district from "Leans Republican" to "Safe Republican." But don't tell Democrat Jason Altmire that. Yesterday, Altmire released an internal poll done for his campaign by Anzalone-Liszt Research, showing Hart with just a 4-point lead, 48% to 44%. The Hart campaign immediately denounced the poll as "shady" DCCC outfit "that has a record of artificially inflating numbers."
Looking at all the numbers, if you believe them, what is striking to me is that Altmire is doing so well when only 21% of the voters know him. The poll shows that a majority of the 4th CD, which is about 55,000 more Dem than Rep, thinks the country is heading in the wrong direction (52% to 36%) and has an unfavorable view of Bush (54% to 44%). Despite that, Hart is liked 57% to 37%. Altmire is not yet on TV, although he has raised some money, and the DCCC is reportedly poised to throw some big bucks into this race IF they think it is winnable. But if and when Altmire starts an ad war, Hart has the resources to overwhelm him three or four-to-one.
If an independent poll showed me a 4-point gap in this race, I'd say the 4th CD was up for grabs. As it is, I still think Hart is likely to keep her seat, but Altmire is working hard to make it competitive. By the way, if Altmire wins this race, you can take it to the bank that the Dems will control the House.
How's Luke Doing?
Besides the question above about Bob Casey, the other question I get frequently these days is, how's Luke doing? -- and -- will he be okay as mayor? We're talking about Pittsburgh's new 26-year old mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, who took office suddenly on Sept. 1 when Mayor Bob O'Connor passed away. Ravenstahl is largely unknown to most Pittsburghers, and he came to the mayor's office because of his position as city council president, a position he won because of a deadlock on city council when former council president Gene Ricciardi resigned early last December to become a local magistrate.
Ravenstahl sometimes suggests that he was O'Connor's choice for council president during that initial battle. But O'Connor insiders tell me that Mayor-elect O'Connor did everything he could to stay out of that battle last year. Council Members Jim Motznik, Doug Shields, and Twanda Carlisle were all in the running back then, but none could muster more than four of the nine votes. Ultimately, when Motznik recognized he could never get that fifth vote, it was he who engineered the compromise that put Ravenstahl in top. The two have remained close friends ever since.
So, thanks to Motznik (not O'Conner) Luke was in the right place and the right time. But you have to give Ravenstahl credit for getting to city council in the first place. In 2003, one year out of college (Washington & Jefferson), Luke challenged incumbent councilwoman Barbara Burns in the Democratic Primary. Burns was an ally of former Mayor Tom Murphy which did not help her at all. Moreover, in one of those interesting twists of Pittsburgh history, it was Murphy who had defeated state Rep. Bob Ravenstahl, Luke's grandfather, many years earlier. Luke was elected that November and became the city's youngest council member at age 23. Three years later, he was mayor.
In answer to the first question, I think Luke did exceptionally well during O'Connor's illness, funeral, and immediate aftermath. He was respectful to the family and avoided media attention during the hospitalization. Behind the scenes, he met with the O'Connor staff frequently. After the mayor died, he deferred all comments until after the funeral, another respectful approach many of us liked. And then, after the burial, he struck an appropriate "carry on the O'Connor agenda" mantra.
The national attention -- from CNN to Letterman -- was his 15 minutes of national fame due to his young age, but Luke knows that this is fleeting and of no real consequence to how citizens will ultimately judge his stewardship of the mayor's office. The jury is still out on that question. The local media has given Ravenstahl the expected honeymoon, although I did see one blogger
(http://www.2politicaljunkies.blogspot.com) go after him the other day. I don't cover city hall that much -- although over the last couple months with O'Connor's passing and Ravenstahl's succession, I sometimes felt I lived up on the fifth floor of the City-County Building -- but those who are true regulars up there are professionals, and when the situation warrants, I am sure Ravenstahl will get his fair share of negative press, just like all politicians.
O'Connor was genuinely liked by the local media because he was so incredibly accessible. Ravenstahl sometimes appears to be reluctant to take questions, cutting short press conferences or allowing his highly regarded communications director, Dick Skrinjar, to shout "Thank you, Mayor" as a signal to end media inquiries. This may just be a temporary hesitation for someone not yet fully comfortable with the give-and-take of a media scrum, something Bob O'Connor enjoyed. Speaking for myself, however, I have found Luke to be accessible to me and forthcoming on every question I have posed -- and, if that ever changes, I will be the first to tell you.
Electing a New Mayor:
Pittsburgh's Home Rule Charter is pretty clear that "a vacancy in the mayor's office shall be filled by the next election provided by law." The commentary is even more explicit. "Any vacancy in the office of mayor is to be filled as soon as possible by election of the voters of the city." State law provides that municipal elections for mayor occur in the odd years, so a primary election for mayor should be in May of 2007 with a general election in November.
That makes a lot of sense. Both Mayors Dick Caliguiri and Sophie Masloff, who became mayors through the city council presidency, faced elections within months of their succession. The argument is even more compelling today because, unlike Caliguiri and Masloff who were elected to city council at-large and knew all parts of the city, Ravenstahl was elected after council went to a district system. Luke, a North Sider, was elected by one-ninth of the city to council.
Given both history and the city charter, there probably would have been no debate about an election next year for mayor had not the city's law department inserted a paragraph in their formal letter of Sept. 1 to Council President Ravenstahl that Mayor O'Connor had passed away. That paragraph asserted that Ravenstahl would essentially fill out O'Connor's term until 2009. Very reliable sources tell me that the then-acting solicitor (whose specialty is real estate law, not election law) did not volunteer this opinion but, rather, was told to insert it by someone.
Who told him to do that? Ravenstahl tells me that it was not him, and he has no idea who instructed the solicitor to stretch out Luke's term. The notion that city voters do not get to pick their own mayor "as soon as possible" rests on an inherent conflict with a provision in the charter that requires the city controller to be elected "at a non-mayoralty municipal election." Since 2007 is a year to elect a controller, the suggestion is that the controller section trumps the mayor section and, thereby, denies city voters a chance to elect a new mayor. I think this is ludicrous, but the ultimate judgment will be made by the Allegheny County Board of Elections made up of county chief executive Dan Onorato and county councilmen John DeFazio and Dave Fawcett. And if someone doesn't like that decision, no doubt it will get appealed to the courts.
Luke has taken the public position that he doesn't care when the election is held, but that's hard to believe since he really must be prepared to go to the voters as early as next May. In some ways, an early election is better for Ravenstahl since he comes off an incredibly high public profile and tremendous good will. The longer he serves, the longer problems could develop beyond his control that threaten his election. If I had been advising him (and he's probably lucky I don't) I would have had him say, "I welcome the chance to go the voters of Pittsburgh next spring to get their mandate to carry on the O'Connor agenda for the city of Pittsburgh." Maybe he'll say that soon.
Once the decision is made to have an election for mayor next year, watch for a number of candidates to surface. The Grant Street rumor mill already grinds out these names: City councilman Bill Peduto, county prothonotary Michael Lamb, state Sen. Jim Ferlo, state Rep. Dan Frankel, county council president Rich Fitzgerald, former city council president Ben Woods, and David Caliguiri, son of the late mayor. Given Ravenstahl's youth, the political reality is that if anyone wants to be mayor in the next decade or so, 2007 is the year to take a shot. This list is likely to undergo many permutations before we see exactly who is willing to take on Luke.
That's it for now. I welcome your comments and insights on these or any other topics, always off-the-record. Again, I hope you can join us this Tuesday evening on the computer or telephone for our Talkcast about the U.S. Senate race. Let's make politics fun, at least when we talk about it!
H. John Heinz School of Public Policy
Carnegie Mellon University
[As I always say, these views are my own and not those of the wonderful organizations