Friday, November 03, 2006

PSF: It's Almost Over

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

The name George W. Bush does not appear on any ballot in 2006, but, make no mistake, the day after the election the talk will be all about President Bush. If Karl Rove is correct and the Republicans maintain control of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, prepare for non-stop heralding of another Bush mandate to govern as he sees fit for the remaining two years of his presidential term. If the Democrats take control of the Senate, the House, or both, their political mouthpieces will proclaim the country's humiliation of President Bush and its rejection of his policies, especially in Iraq.

In short, both sides will engage in the political diarrhea that we associate with 21st century political news on FOX, CNN, MSNBC, and radio talk. That's not to say the 2006 elections are unimportant -- they are critical in determining how this country's citizens feel about the leadership and direction of America -- it's just that I think both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of hyperbole as they depict what is at stake on November 7.

What fascinates me most is that the 2006 election appears to have become a national referendum on George W. Bush and his waging of war in Iraq. The election has been 'nationalized,' not because of anything clever the Democrats or their strategists did, but because of events on the ground that, arguably, the president had no control over. As we enter the last week before the election, my Politically Savvy Friends, read on for my take, then feel free to comment and criticize.


The Referendum on Bush:

History has it that the mid-term election during the second term of a president is always bad news for the party in the White House. [President Clinton was the exception to that rule in 1998 but, then, Republicans overplayed their hands in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, trying to impeach Clinton over a sexual tryst. The country rebuked the GOP by electing more Democrats to Congress that year]. But the general rule (Reagan in 1986, Nixon/Ford in 1974, Eisenhower in 1958, etc.) is for second-term presidents to pay a price in their sixth year in office. So from the beginning of this year, everyone thought the Republicans would lose a few seats in the House and Senate.

But nobody really expected a battle for control of both the House and Senate coming down to the wire just one week before Election Day. After all, the Republicans have had all the advantages -- the power of incumbency, more campaign dollars, gerrymandered congressional districts, and (all too often) weak opponents. Now you do have to credit the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (led by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (led by U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanual) with fielding just enough credible opponents to make a turnover possible. But missed opportunities still abound, as we shall surely note the day after the election.

Ironically, it may not matter. The public seems so unhappy with President Bush, the war in Iraq, the Congress and its leadership, and the general state of things, that perhaps the only thing that counts for voters is whether you are a Republican incumbent (and, presumably, part of the mess down there) or not. Now this is terribly unfair to many Republican members of the House and Senate who have been worked hard, brought home the bacon, and generally done a good job. But all that is swept away because almost every Republican has a strong support record for President Bush (85% and better) and, obviously, almost all backed the war in Iraq and failed to criticize (i.e., exercise 'oversight,' in Capitol Hill lingo) the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld management of the war.

The belief among many voters that party loyalty to the White House trumped any independent critique of the war and how best to protect American troops and extricate them from Iraq has been given an added boost by the whole Mark Foley scandal. This issue, nationally, is not Foley's emails to congressional pages, but rather whether GOP leaders in Congress from Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader John Boehner, National Republican Campaign Committee chair Tom Reynolds on down failed to act on earlier information in order to protect a fellow Republican. While the bipartisan House Ethics Committee sorts through what really happened, the public is left, again, with the overwhelming sense that party loyalty trumped the protection of teenagers. Toss in the few bad apples (like former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and U.S. Rep. Bob Ney) who have stained the Congress through their own personal culture of corruption with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, and it's no wonder that approval of the Congress is only 16% (Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll), a record low.

It would appear to be a perfect storm with President Bush right in the eye of it. If voters are unhappy about Bush, and the polls certainly suggest so (ranging from 36% approval/CNN poll to 40%/FOX poll) -- and if the voters are unhappy about the war in Iraq (64%/CNN to 66%/Gallup disapprove of Bush's conduct of the war), the only way to send a message is to toss aside some perfectly decent Republicans and vote Democratic. As noted below, individual Republicans are fighting hard to separate themselves from this equation. But in my view, the control of the Congress very much depends on how nationalized this year's election has become.


The U.S. Senate Battle:

In some ways, the race between incumbent U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and his Democratic challenger, state treasurer Bob Casey, both exemplifies the points I have made above and defies them. Nobody has been more identified in PA with President Bush than Rick Santorum. He has strongly advocated the president's views and chaired his reelection campaign in 2004. Unlike his colleage, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, over the years Santorum has rarely made a public display of his differences with Bush, although he does have them on a few issues. Nor has there been a more fervent supporter of the war in Iraq than Santorum. Indeed, Santorum has outlined a much more aggressive approach to dealing with what he calls "Islamic fascists," starting with Iran, than the administration has embraced, at least publicly. In short, Santorum epitomizes the two big issues that seem to be driving voters away from Republicans.

But elections are not held in a vaccuum. Santorum's opponent, Bob Casey, is a thoroughly likeable man from a great political family in PA, but as a series of four debates demonstrated Casey is hardly the passionate fighter that Santorum is. I have argued in this space that maybe Pennsylvania is ready for a more laid-back, conciliatory senator rather than one who is a polarizing firebrand. If so, Casey is a shoo-in for election on November 7. But the debates, if anyone was watching, also highlighted Santorum's uncanny ability to go on offense in a way that some people find endearing in a politician even when they disagree with him.

This frustrates the hell out of some Democrats who wish Casey was a Democratic version of Santorum, fighting back, spitting venom, and oozing the passion for Democratic ideals that Santorum does so well for the Republicans. But that is totally alien to Bob Casey's character, and when he tries to play tough (as he did a few times during the debates) it just appears awkward. Democrats need to recognize that Casey will never be Santorum on that level, and the great irony is that it's precisely because he's not Santorum that Casey appears likely to win election on November 7.

Going in to the last week, Santorum appears to be the loser. But I have said on this page many times that Democrats should never underestimate Rick Santorum. Certainly, under the radar, Santorum is working hard to bring out his base, especially Christian evangelicals who nearly delivered PA to President Bush in 2004. Last week, Dr. James Dobson (Focus on the Family) emailed Christian evangelicals. Asserting in a footnote that the group "does not endorse candidates," Dobson then implicitly did exactly that, urging evangelicals to "do everything in their power to vote" and ripping Bob Casey apart for "taking disturbing positions on key issues" like gays and abortion. You can be sure that churches within this network are doing everything they can to keep Santorum in the Senate.

In the end, as I have said frequently, this race comes down to suburban women, especially suburban Republican women in the Philadelphia region. In 2000, suburban Philadelphia voters supported Al Gore and Rick Santorum at the same time, political schizophrenia at its best. In Bucks County, Gore beat Bush by 11,000 votes, just as Santorum was beating Ron Klink by 41,000 votes; in Delaware County, Gore beat Bush by 29,000 votes, while Santorum beat Klink by 23,000 votes; and in Montgomery County, Gore beat Bush by 32,000 votes, and Santorum beat Klink by 34,000 votes. Now Casey is much better known and better funded than Klink was, but if these suburban voters opt for Rick over Bob, this race suddenly becomes very close.

My gut says this won't happen -- Santorum is much better known as a ideological conservative in 2006 than he was in 2000 -- but don't be surprised if this race is a whole lot closer than those double-digit margins in some polls suggest.

Has Rendell Clinched It?

It's hard to find anyone in PA who really thinks that Gov. Ed Rendell will lose reelection on November 7th. In PA, the incumbent has always won reelection since 1968 when governors got the right to a second term, and the tradition seems unlikely to be broken by Republican Lynn Swann. In my view, Swann's campaign got off to a weak start earlier this year and continued over the summer, but it has been much stronger this fall -- and, in some ways, the candidate himself has gotten better in the waning days of the campaign.

Still, despite some occasional gaffes from Rendell (what was that stuff about senior citizens and the slots?), he has run a pretty flawless campaign. That's easier to do when you have millions of dollars to overwhelm the other side. But Swann continues to hammer his points in some well-crafted TV ads that have also improved as election day got closer.

Conventional wisdom is that Rendell beats Swann with double-digits. I don't believe so. There are enough people unhappy with the governor, and still plenty of Steeler fans in western PA, that this is still a single-digit race. When National GOP Chairman Ken Mehlman was here in Pittsburgh last week, I asked if he was predicting an upset for Swann. He would not do so, only saying that Swann has put in place the groundwork for an upset. It was a weird way to put it, and, in any case, it's hard to see an upset one week out. But I still think this will be closer than most people think. Of course, a win is a win, and Rendell will take it any way he can get it!

The Congressional Battleground in PA:

The Democrats need 15 seats to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and one-third of those seats could come from the keystone state of Pennsylvania. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has its sights on five incumbent Republicans: U.S. Reps. Curt Weldon (opposed by Joe Sestak), Jim Gerlach (opposed by Lois Murphy), Mike Fitzpatrick (opposed by Patrick Murphy), Don Sherwood (opposed by Chris Carney), and Melissa Hart (opposed by Jason Altmire).

Now even Republican strategists in the state tell me that two of these five Republicans are likely to lose, but all five? Not likely, unless there is a national political tsunami to send a message to Washington about Bush and Iraq [see above]. Three of these races are in suburban Philadelphia, one is in northeastern PA, and one is in suburban Pittsburgh.

In some ways, Pennsylvania has had an imbalanced congressional delegation since 2002. Even though Democrats outnumber Republicans by a half million registered voters, 12 of the state's 19 districts are held by Republicans. That's because the GOP controlled both houses of state government and the governor's office after the 2000 Census. This allowed the Republicans to engage in some very extreme forms of gerrymandering to protect Republicans. [Mind you, the Democrats did the same for their Members of Congress in states they controlled]. So, Weldon-Gerlach-Fitzpatrick-Sherwood-Hart have some built-in advantages that generally befuddle Democratic challengers. That's why I am particularly conservative in predicting a sweep for Dems. Still, the fact that even five GOP seats are in play one week before this election tells you how much this year's election has become a referendum on President Bush and Iraq.

Altmire Makes It a Race:

A few weeks ago, only a few of us thought the race between U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart and Democrat Jason Altmire would move into the "up for grabs" column. This 4th Congressional District in southwestern PA stretches across six counties but its heart is the northern suburbs of Allegheny County and Beaver County. Hart has been a hard-working representative, focusing on lots of local issues and winning reelection with big margins in the past even though Republicans number only 39% of the district's political make-up.

Nobody really thought she was in reelection trouble until both party polls and independent polls showed a much closer race than expected. The Susquehanna Poll (and Altmire's own polls) show just a 4-point lead for Hart, while Hart's poll (Public Opinion Strategies) pegs the lead at 12 points. Regardless, both parties are engaged in slugfest, running negative ads attacking the other's candidate, and turning a virtually unknown Altmire into at least a familiar name. And it has quickly become Hart's first real challenge as an incumbent, since she won election in 2000 with 58% of the vote.

While Hart proclaims herself an "independent" when it comes to issues at home, down in the U.S. Capitol she is regarded as a very loyal Republican -- and an up-and-comer at that. Four days after she was first elected, Republicans picked her to give the rebuttal radio remarks to then-President Clinton. And she was later rewarded with a plum assignment on the House Ways & Means Committee, the committe that writes tax law. She was close to former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (taking campaign contributions from him) and even closer to the current Majority Leader, Jack Boehner. When the White House wanted to showcase President Bush's social security reforms in 2005, Hart hosted a "town meeting" in her district for Vice President Cheney to tout the privatization program. When the Republican leadership wanted a reliable ally on the House Ethics Committee, they named Melissa Hart. Monday the White House went to bat for Hart by sending First Lady Laura Bush into the district to campaign for her. In short, Hart's star is very much a rising one in Republican Party politics, unless, of course, Jason Altmire shoots it down.

From the beginning, Altmire's strategy has been to nationalize this election, comparing Hart's voting record to that of Santorum and Bush. Congressional Quarterly reports that in the years 2001 to 2005, Hart supported Republican Party positions 93% to 97% and President Bush's positions 88% to 100%. Altmire is relentless in suggesting that if you want to change directions in Washington and the war in Iraq, you have got to change the people you send to Washington. Hart responds with all the good things she has done for her district, and she can list a number. But, once again, the question for voters here, as elsewhere, is what is this 2006 election all about? If it's about local constituent service, Hart wins. If it's about Bush and the war, then Altmire clearly has a shot. I still give the edge to Hart, but an Altmire upset would not surprise me.

The Forgotten Race:

By every calculation, U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, the two-term Republican from Upper St. Clair, should cruise to reelection victory in the 18th Congressional District. This is another one of those gerrymandered districts, first created for Murphy, that stretches across three counties (Allegheny, Washington, and Westmoreland) with a Republican voting history (like voting for Bush over Kerry in 2004). Murphy's opponent is Democrat Chad Kluko of Monroeville, a rather unconventional, self-described 45-year old "Reagan" Democrat with no political background but strong beliefs about the war in Iraq and deficit spending. The bad news for Kluko is that, unlike Altmire, he was unable to raise any big money, while Murphy counts a campaign fund in the seven figures!

Still, Kluko's one advantage is that Democrats outnumber Republicans by 75,000 registrants in the 18th District, more than in Hart's district. Hope springs eternal for Kluko and some of his allies that Democrats, outraged over Bush and the war, will send a protest vote when they cast a ballot for Congress. Murphy is a consistent Republican and Bush vote in the Congress, although not as reliable as Hart, and he has attracted some labor union support. Like Hart, he works his district very hard, appearing at every imaginable function. In short, he should be a shoo-in for reelection unless national politics take over.

Murphy has run into one potential snag when some of his employees, both current and former, accused the congressman of using his congressional office for campaign purposes. Reporter Gary Rotstein of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette first reported the story on Saturday ( To local residents, it's all pretty reminiscent of former state Rep. Jeffrey Habay, a Shaler Republican, who was found guilty of similar offenses (divulged by his staff people) and spent time in jail this year. Murphy denies the charge and says he has asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate whether anyone did anything wrong. Of course, that won't happen until after the election.

It's been an open secret that Murphy has had difficulty retaining staff people during his short tenure in Congress, losing 38 staff people in just 3-1/2 years. That's a 250% turnover, one former staff person told me. While Santorum's staff people are among the most loyal in this region, Murphy has a hard time keeping people on board, and when they leave him, they have very little good to say about him. Now I must admit that Tim Murphy has always been congenial and respectful with me, so I find the comments to be almost unbelievable. But the gist of the complaints is that Murphy is rude, inconsiderate, bullying, and unreasonable. One former staffer told me bluntly that the congressman, a PhD psychologist, "must have skipped his classes on interpersonal relationships." PoliticsPA has posted some of the more graphic comments about Murphy's staff problem [see].

Let me repeat, again, that I have never seen this kind of behavior from Tim Murphy, but obviously some people in his office feel otherwise.

Let me also add that I don't think staff turnover is a reason to vote against somebody, unless it affects the district. After all, the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz was once accused of throwing telephones at his staff people. But one lesson is clear. If your staff thinks you're a turkey and you do something really wrong, your staff are more likely to turn you in. Just ask Jeff Habay!

Will the State House Go Democrat?

Judging from all the emails I get from state Rep. Mike Veon's campaign team, the state House of Representatives is about to turn Democratic. Veon of Beaver Falls, who could become Majority Leader if that happens, thinks the Dems are poised to win the 8 seats they need for a Democratic victory in Harrisburg. I'm not so sure, but I am admittedly not as familiar with some of the contested seats back in eastern PA.

In this region, Dems think they have the potential to pick up two seats, although Republicans see a chance to oust to Democratic incumbents. In the th District, incumbent Republican Michael Diven of Brookline faces a strong challenge from Democrat Chelsa Wagner of Beechview. Diven, a former city councilman, is the Democrat-turned-Republican whose nominating petitions contained the signatures of a number of dead people. He withdrew those petitions but went on to win his party's nomination on a write-in. Wagner, a local attorney, is the neice of state Auditor General Jack Wagner, and she has not missed a beat in attacking Diven over a variety of issues. I moderated a local debate between the two, and both of them went at each other for over an hour. The district is Democratic, which certainly helps Wagner, but Diven is much better known personally.

In the 42nd District, two newcomers are battling it out, Democrat Matt Smith and Republican Mark Harris. Harris is the 21-year old who slayed the giant, state Rep. Tom Stevenson, in the Republican Primary. The problem for Harris is that in so doing he antagonized House Speaker John Perzel by saying he would not support Perzel for leader. While that may have played well with the voters, it has kept Perzel and state Republicans from putting much money into Harris' campaign. In contrast, Smith, a 34-year old lawyer, is close to Allegheny County chief executive Dan Onorato who has cut TV commercials for Smith running on local cable TV. Moreover, the Dems in Harrisburg think this is a potential pick-up for them, and they have put their money behind Smith. This South Hills suburban district could go either way, but the odds are looking good for Smith.

But even if the Dems pick up these two Republican seats next week, they could just as easily lose two Democratic seats. State Rep. Frank Dermody of Oakmont is in a real battle in the 33rd District with former Republican county councilwoman Eileen Watt of Cheswick. Dermody voted for that controversial pay raise, although he didn't take it, but it's enough of an issue for Watt to bruise him. Watt, the former political director for the county Republicans, is a strong campaigner, but in Dermody she's up against a practiced legislator who has been working the vineyards for many years.

Up in the North Hills' 30th District, state Rep. Shawn Flaherty (son of the late Mayor Pete Flaherty of Pittsburgh) is battling to keep the seat he just won last April in a special election. It's not that Flaherty has done anything wrong. It's just that this district has traditionally been Republican, and the GOP has fielded retired police officer Randy Vulakovich of Shaler to take on the Democrat. Vulakovich comes from the biggest community in this district -- Flaherty lives in Fox Chapel -- and this could be a real nail-biter on election night.


The Campaign for Mayor:

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl didn't want to believe the "political pundits" when many of us pontificated last September about the City Charter's requirement for a special election for mayor in 2007. But it turns out that we were right and those in the administration who thought Luke could fill out the term of the late Mayor Bob O'Connor without facing the voters were just plain wrong. No surprise. The Allegheny County Board of Elections unanimously agreed that voters will nominate candidates in the May 15, 2007, primary and elect a new mayor in the general election of November 6, 2007. The new mayor will take office as soon as those results are certified and serve until the end of O'Connor's term in 2009. [There will be another election for mayor to a full 4-year term in 2009].

With the 2006 elections still ahead, nobody is ready to announce his or her candidacy. Indeed, formal candidacies may wait until after the holidays. But, at this stage, two candidates seem certain: Ravenstahl will run for a mandate in his own right, and city councilman Bill Peduto, who came in second to O'Connor in 2005, will almost certainly do the same. Allegheny County prothonotary Michael Lamb is thinking about another run -- he placed third in 2005 -- but seems more interested in running for city controller next year. Former Allegheny County Commissioner Mike Dawida of Carrick tells me that he is very serious about running, worried that the city's financial problems requires someone with more 'gravitas' than Ravenstahl and Peduto. It is a concern also shared by Auditor General Jack Wagner of Beechview, although Wagner seems less likely to take the plunge. No doubt other candidates will surface.

The political reality is that Ravenstahl is the odds-on favorite, but certainly no shoo-in. In the 2005 primary, just under 59,000 Democrats voted in the primary. O'Connor got 49% of the vote, and Peduto got just over 24%, or around 14,000 votes. Peduto is likely to get what he got before, but whether he can build on that base is uncertain. When Ravenstahl was last on the ballot in his Northside councilmanic district, he got nearly 5,900 votes. Of course, in the spring he runs city-wide. O'Connor's nearly 29,000 votes are clearly up for grabs, along with Lamb's 13,000 votes if he chooses not to run. With Ravenstahl north of the Allegheny River and Peduto in the city's Shadyside/Squirrel Hill area, regional politics could play a role as well, especially if a candidate south of the rivers like Wagner or Dawida gets into this. All in all, as soon as one election ends, another begins!

That's it for now. I do want to thank so many of you for joining in our "Politically Savvy Friends" talkcast. We have done six episodes on TalkShoe, and you can click on to Politically Saavy Friends Talkcast to listen to any of episode you want, including the most recent one from last week when Jason Altmire phoned in. We hope to do another wrap-up edition just before Election Day, so stay tuned. As always, I welcome your comments and off-the-record tips -- and hunker down for that last round of negative attack ads!

All the best,


Jon Delano

Political Analyst

H. John Heinz School of Public Policy & Management

Carnegie Mellon University

[As always, these views are my own and not those of the wonderful institutions with whom I am privileged to be associated].

Thursday, October 19, 2006

PSF: Six Weeks to Go

[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, 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 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.


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.


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.

Torture, Anyone?

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 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
( 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!


Jon Delano
Political Analyst
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

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

PSF: As Bombs Fly

[Created July 20, 2006]

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

It is difficult to write about politics when bombs are killing innocent men, women, and children in Israel and Lebanon. As of this moment, 25 killed in Israel and 240 killed in Lebanon. The tragic escalation in the Mid-East has caught Americans with families in Lebanon and Israel in the cross-fire of the ageless crisis that too many in that region think is "solved" by more violence.

Blessed are the peacemakers, the Holy Bible tells us, but where are the peacemakers? President Bush and his administration appear paralyzed. Bogged down by a war of its own war in Iraq -- a war that has isolated the United States in world opinion -- the president has precious few options. An estimated 25,000 Americans are caught in Lebanon, yet the U.S. government demonstrates Katrina-like hesitancy in evacuating our citizens from this troubled region. If the French and Italians can, as they did, remove their citizens to Cyprus, why the delay in the Bush administration from doing the obvious? Seven days into the war, the U.S. has finally chartered ships to rescue some Americans, but it's surprising how slow the response has been. And, incredibly, the Bush administration initially wanted to charge Americans for rescuing them, an idiotic idea that bespeaks Katrina-like insensitivity. What's going on here?

As a long-time supporter of Israel, I am not so quick as others to condemn Israel's right to defend itself -- and that includes targeting Hezbollah who has launched attacks against innocent Israelis. But Israel's response to attack Beirut, a city of many Christians as well as Muslims, needs more explanation to me. Target Hezbollah headquarters, absolutely, and certainly target missile sites in southern Lebanon, but why attack the civilian infrastructure of the "Paris of the Mid-East" when everyone knows that the Lebanese government has no control over Hezbollah.

The TV pictures out of Beirut and Haifa remind us that nothing is pretty about a war gone wild. Despite the cowboy talk of Bush at the G-8 summit (a reminder to always check those microphones), America continues to lose credibility to be an effective leader in this region. And the failure to protect our own citizens quicker than anyone else is an embarrassment.

Despite the death of the innocent in Israel and Lebanon as bombs continue to fly, politics at home goes on. It's been more than six weeks since my last PSF, so indulge me if I hip-hop around. And please be sure to read the last paragraph about an upcoming "talk-cast" on a key Pennsylvania race.


Bush Down but Not Out:

After creeping back up into the 40's in popularity, the latest polls have President Bush falling back down into the upper 30 percent range in job approval. The FOX/Opinion Dynamics Poll had Bush at 40 percent approval in mid-June, but that sank to 36 percent in mid-July. It almost doesn't matter. The president doesn't care about his own poll numbers, purportedly, so the only question is whether his low public approval affects Republican chances of retaining control of the U.S. Congress in the General Election just 16 weeks from now.

The generic polls continue to show that the public rates Congress even worse than Bush. In the FOX/Opinion Dynamics poll, only 25 percent approve of the GOP-led Congress. In the so-called generic poll, the public prefers a Democratic Congress to a Republican one by some 8 to 11 points, depending on the poll. But these polls are generally useless because what really counts is how congressional district voters regard their incumbent Republican and whether a Democratic challenger has the resources to win. As discussed below, PA is key battleground for control of Congress.

Stalemate in Iraq:

By all accounts, it's the stalemate in Iraq that hurts President Bush and his party the most, although high gasoline prices and a static (some say, falling) standard of living for middle class families is taking its toll, too.

The current death-count of Americans in Iraq is 2,554 (as of yesterday) and nearly 19,000 other Americans have suffered injuries in the war. While young Americans are killed almost every day, that number pales besides the number of Iraqi citizens who continue to die through suicide terrorists.

In PA, the war is very unpopular and those who defend it risk voter backlash. Some 62 percent disapprove of Bush's conduct of the war (mid-June Quinnipiac Poll), and 57 percent now say it was wrong to go to war in Iraq in the first place. Those who voted for the war like U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum either have to justify it and the on-going deaths, or argue as U.S. Rep. John Murtha does that it's time for a new strategy. The Karl Rove attack line about "cut and run" is so absurd that it's hard to see anyone with half a brain accepting it. Even former Marine Murtha, who advocates a timed withdrawal to the "perimeter" of Iraq, has never said the U.S. should "cut and run!"

Gasoline Politics:

At what point will the American people hold the president and incumbent members of Congress (of both parties) responsible for the failure to make the United States energy independent? With gas prices once again hitting $3.00 a gallon in parts of the country and some predicting $3.50 and $4.00 a gallon gas within the year, one would expect voter backlash at some point. Ironically, some incumbents think voters have become so inured to the up-and-down prices that they (incumbents) are immunized from being held responsible for high energy costs.

I don't know. I can imagine some political challengers running TV ads with gas prices when the incumbent took office, contrast it with today's prices, and ask simply: "What did Congressman XXXX do to stop this?" The truth is that the White House and Congress have done very little, as I articulated in an earlier PSF, to deal with the immediate problem, although some think their long-range energy strategy is better.

To some extent, incumbents can deflect criticism by blaming everyone from the Arabs to the Israelis, from terrorists to environmentalist, from big oil to OPEC. But, in my view, the question remains. Whatever the cause of the run-up of prices, why have Bush and Congress been so slow to react?

Finally, many of my cynical political friends think that in October, Bush and/or the oil companies will "do something" to lower gas prices to $2.50 a gallon to protect GOP incumbents. We shall see.


Is Santorum Bouncing Back?

Still behind his Democratic challenger Bob Casey by double-digit numbers, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum is doing everything he can to bounce back. After a royal screw-up over the residency issue [see my last PSF], Santorum thinks he has hit upon a winning issue: immigration. At first glance, it seems an unlikely issue in PA where the only international border is a narrow strip of water in Lake Erie with Canada. No one has ever spotted boatloads of Canadians landing illegally in PA.

But, on reflection, Santorum's first TV ad, running on broadcast TV in Pittsburgh and cable in other parts of the state, is another well-crafted production of media guru John Brabender, Santorum's media-meister since 1990. With images of the Statue of Liberty, Rick reminds voters of his Italian ancestors and blue collar roots before attacking illegal immigrants for not "playing by the rules" and clearly opposing "amnesty." The ad is really a two-fer for Santorum: first, he has picked an issue, perhaps one of the few, where his views are in sync with most Pennsylvanians -- and, second, he demonstrates his independence from the very unpopular George W. Bush.

For months I have been one of the few political analysts in PA who think Santorum can win reelection. I still think he can, but it will require sharp strategy from Rick and a few screw-ups by Bob over the next three months.

Ironically, Casey -- who berates Santorum for his 98 percent support record for Bush -- lines up with the president in backing a qualified amnesty for long-term illegals who earn it. Santorum never quite addresses what we should do with the 10 to 12 million illegals in the country -- round 'em up and ship 'em back? -- but he says his hard-line, no-amnesty position has struck a chord.

In contrast, Casey's first TV ads do not hit on any hot button issues. One ad called "Turned Around" features Casey talking about how the priorities in Washington are out-of-whack with tax cuts for millionaires and American jobs shipped overseas. In his second ad, "Stands Up," Casey outlines his economic plan. Both are good visually -- lots of pictures of the very tall Casey in jeans palling round with workers, seniors, and kids -- but the ads don't have the edginess of the Santorum ad, probably because Casey himself is a much softer, quieter presence on the screen than Santorum.

Nobody expects these generally positive ads to be on the screen much longer. Santorum is expected to attack Casey on his attendance record in Harrisburg, and Casey will no doubt respond in kind. Both accuse each other of lying about their records, and the nastiness of this race is likely to get more intense as we close in on Labor Day.

Special Interests Enter the Fray:

Both Santorum and Casey are likely to have lots of help from special interest groups, spending millions of dollars to promote their favorite candidate and trash the opponent. So far, Santorum has been the primary beneficiary of this, but nobody believes the Dems will be too far behind.

Americans for Job Security -- the 527-group financed primarily by the insurance industry out of Washington -- is running its fifth "independent" ad to help Santorum and to hurt Casey. AJS, which Casey derides as a "sleazy" out-of-state special interest group, has spent $2 million in TV ads. The first ad tried to convince voters that Santorum, who strongly supported Bush's social security reforms that included privatization for younger workers, would not cut social security benefits for those 55 and over. This latest ad attacks Casey for hurting small businesses, arguably because Casey favors repealing the tax cuts for multi-millionaires.

The 60 Plus Association -- a pro-Republican seniors group financed primarily by the pharmaceutical industry -- is running a cable ad featuring their spokesman Pat Boone. Santorum appears in this ad, but does not speak. Boone sings Rick's praises for protecting the social security benefits of senior citizens.

The Lantern Project -- an anti-Santorum group funded primarily by labor unions -- has hosted a website called "Santorum Exposed" but has not yet run TV ads against the incumbent or for the challenger.

With the Santorum-Casey race being ballyhooed as the Number #1 Senate race in America, only the naive think that special interest groups will stay out of the race. So far, the Republicans have a huge edge in supporting their candidate, but I suspect that those liberal 527s are just holding back until the fall. We shall see.

Has Swann Found His Groove?

Make no mistake. Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann is trying harder these days. He is criss-crossing the state, criticizing Gov. Ed Rendell at almost every juncture, and making himself available to the media almost as frequently as Rendell (who rarely turns down an interview request). Swann still has genuine star quality. At last week's American Legion state convention in Pittsburgh, both Rendell and Swann received polite applause from the audience. But Swann is the only candidate subjected to autograph-seekers.

Still, the guv has been on a bit of a roll -- signing into laws cutting property taxes for seniors, expanding the PACENet drug program, and raising the state's minimum wage. And the floods that hit PA, especially the northeast, gave Rendell a chance to demonstrate strong leadership.
With polls showing Rendell with a double-digit lead, some have said the campaign is over. I don't believe it. But given the overwhelming resources the incumbent has in this race, the clock is running on Swann's effort to find his groove in the political arena.

Swann's Altercation with Cops Resurfaces:

More than a year ago, PoliticsPA posted an old newspaper clip on its website. The provocative headline: "Lynn Swann, 3 Kin Charged with Assaulting Officers." The Associated Press story dated back to the early morning hours of February 1, 1974, when Lynn Swann, two brothers, and a cousin were stopped by San Francisco police. The story reported that the Swanns were released from jail after posting bond for assaulting police during a traffic stop. The young men had been out celebrating Lynn's selection in the first round of the National Football League by none other than the Pittsburgh Steelers!

Brian Swann, Lynn's older brother, was ticketed by two cops for running a red-light, and having a "mutilated" driver's license. Apparently, words between the white cops and the black males ensued, and some kind of physical altercation occurred. Ultimately, the Swanns were charged with assaulting police officers, but a jury found them not guilty of the charge. At that point, the Swanns sued San Francisco and the two police officers, Dennis McClellan and Walter Cullop, for their injuries. The city and the officers countersued for their own injuries. In the end, San Francisco had to pay $40,515 each to Lynn and Brian Swann and their cousin, Michael Henderson. The city had to pay $40,530 to Calvin Swann. At the same time, Brian Swann and Henderson were ordered to pay $10,000 to Officer McClellan and $3,298 to the City of San Francisco. Lynn and Calvin Swann were ordered to pay $5,000 to Officer Cullop and $672.39 to San Francisco. Case closed.

All this might have been forgotten had not a young actor named Mark Rosenkranz (his credits include "Bikini Planet" and "Ice Scream") not published a book entitled "White Male Privilege." Rosenkranz interviewed Brian Swann, who revealed more details about the incident, and the Philadelphia Inquirer's Angela Couloumbis brought the whole story to public light on June 18.

I have read the relevant chapter of Rosenkranz's book, and Brian's comments are elucidating. Apparently, the police were on the alert for black males who had murdered a dozen white people between 1972 and 1974, the so-called Zebra murders. When the Swanns were pulled over for running the light, a ticket was issued for a torn license. That prompted the men to get out of the car to question that ticket. One of the officers ordered them back into the car, but, according to Brian, as they turned to get into the car, one of the officers "had his Billy club out and ran after my cousin to hit him as he got into the car."

"My brother Lynn, who has quick reflexes, turned around, saw this happening, and snatched the Billy club straight out of his hand without any pressure, and he had thrown it down the street. The police officer went beserk at that point trying to get his gun out. [The Swanns] constrained him by just holding him, his arms pinned to his sides, talking to him the whole time asking him to calm down. He never said a word; he just began to struggle."

When the other officer saw the black males holding his comrade, he called for police back-up. Ultimately, other officers arrived, and, according to Brian, "The resolution was that they began to beat us in the street with clubs, they kicked me in the side of the face as they handcuffed me from the back, and they just pulverized us in the street." The Swanns were arrested, spent a night in jail that Rosenkranz said involved events so graphic and offensive that he wouldn't repeat them.

Knocking a club out of the hands of a police officer, as Lynn Swann did, and then constraining the officer, as his brothers did, are not exactly the actions calculated to win respect from law enforcement. But if the Swanns truly believed they were acting in self-defense, then it is all quite understandable. And don't forget a jury ultimately acquitted them of criminal wrong-doing.

After the Inquirer ran its story, the Swann campaign sent a message to their supporters. "Lynn was involved to the extent that he pulled police officers off his brother, and during the altercation, Lynn was subjected to physical brutality at the hands of the officers," the statement read.

Perhaps to offset the police brutality claim, Swann's statement goes out of its way to praise police, in general. "Lynn believes that police officers deserve a special and exalted place in our society. He believes that the particular individuals in question do not represent the overwhelming majority of law enforcement." I tried to reach the now retired police officers for their side of the story. One never returned the call, and the other hung up on me.

No surprise, the Rendell campaign has had absolutely no comment on this matter.

The Return of Tom Ridge:

Former Gov. Tom Ridge, the nation's first Director and Secretary of Homeland Security, was back in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago to help dedicate the expanded office of RAND Corporation's eastern HQ in Pittsburgh. I have known (and liked) Ridge since I first met him back during my Capitol Hill days in the 1980s when he was a freshman congressman from Erie. So I enjoyed the chance to sit down with him for a lengthy interview.

First, Ridge is out of elective politics, stating flatly he has no intention to run for president or any other elective office. The former guv says he's "8 for 8" in winning elections and that's a good record to retire on. He's started a company called Ridge Global in Washington and joined the boards of several companies, some of which are doing business with the Department he once headed. I asked Ridge about potential conflict of interests. The New York Times' Eric Lipton and American Prospect's Sarah Posner have written comprehensive pieces, documenting that two-thirds of Ridge's top executives at DHS have passed through the same revolving door. Ridge denies he has done anything illegal or unethical and insists that he will never be a "lobbyist."

And he says his former colleagues are playing by the rules. "Those who get contracts with Homeland Security, the government, go through very, very rigid bidding procedures. It's not as if somebody comes out, sets themselves down in an office, and says I can guarantee that contract. It's just not the way it works, nor should it work that way."

I asked the Pennsylvanian how tough it was to be the butt of national jokes about duct tape and color coded security levels. Ridge laughs it off, saying, "I think humor is a very effective way of communicating difficult, sometimes difficult emotional, messages." He's right about that.

One intriguing question I asked appeared to be a new one for him, "Had you stayed on, how would Katrina been treated differently?" Ridge laughed and paused, "My, my, my -- you ask." "It's a good question," I interjected. "It's a very good question," he responded.

Choosing his words carefully, Ridge clearly believes that his successor, Michael Chertoff, and FEMA Director Michael Brown didn't quite follow the game plan that Ridge's folks put in place. "There were some procedures that we used and some organizations that we designed when I was secretary that, for whatever reason, this team chose either not to use or used after rather than before [the hurricane struck]." Ridge refused to get specific, not wanting to second-guess Chertoff, by adding, "We built a national response plan that they employed after the levees broke. We might have under the circumstances with a Cat 4 or 5 heading towards New Orleans fifteen feet below sea level might have chosen to begin preparation before it hit landfall."

If you want to watch some of my interview with Ridge, log onto and use the search button to find video of Ridge.

Pennsylvania Key to Democratic Takeover:

If Democrats are to take over the U.S. House of Representatives, it will begin here in PA. Of the 19 congressional seats in this majority Democratic state (by party registration), 12 seats are held by Republicans, thanks to artful gerrymandering by a Republican governor (Ridge) and a Republican controlled legislature in 2001-02. Of those 12 GOP incumbents, five are on various hit or watch lists: U.S. Reps. Jim Gerlach, challenged by Democrat Lois Murphy; Rep. Curt Weldon, challenged by Joe Sestak; Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, challenged by Patrick Murphy; Rep. Don Sherwood, challenged by Chris Carney; and Rep. Melissa Hart, challenged by Jason Altmire. If all five incumbents were defeated, highly unlikely, the House would surely be turning Democratic.

Three of these five battlegrounds are in suburban Philadelphia, fertile ground for Dems in recent years. One of the seats is in a strong Republican area in the northeast and central part of the state, and the fifth contest is in western PA north and west of Pittsburgh. That western race, between Hart and Altmire, may be the toughest for the Dems because Hart is so well-known and Altmire isn't. But if Hart goes down, it will be a clear sign of a Democratic tsunami criss-crossing the state and perhaps the country.

Hart is an interesting candidate. Sharp tongued and witty, she first won elective office in 1990 against an incumbent Democratic state senator on her own with little help from her party. Unmarried, her whole life is politics, and there is hardly a nook or cranny in the 4th District that she has not visited. Hart, an attorney, has always been close to the GOP leadership in the House, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and current Leader John Boehner, and her partisan credentials are as pure as any GOP member of the House. But back home, she projects an independent image with a special focus on local constituent concerns.

Altmire resigned as a government and community relations executive with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) last year to run for Congress. He spent eight years on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant to then-U.S. Rep. Pete Peterson, a former POW from Florida who later became the first Ambassador to Vietnam. Altmire's focus has always been health care, where he has a Masters in Health Administration from George Washington University. Married with two young children, Altmire had to spend all his money to defeat a strong challenger in the May Democratic Primary, but thinks that has helped him become better known to Dems.

Both Hart and Altmire are pro-life and pro-gun, but Hart will get the ardent single issue voters in both those camps because of the work she has done to push their agenda. On other issues, there is disagreement. Hart brought Vice President Cheney to the Pittsburgh suburbs last year to help tout the president's social security reform plan, something Altmire attacks every chance he gets. And that's just the start of the list. Altmire says Hart was wrong to vote for the prescription drug bill, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and tax cuts for multi-millionaires.

But can Altmire really beat Hart in a district where Hart has traditionally won by pulling in conservative Democrats? Altmire released a June poll by Anzalone Liszt Research that suggests possibilities, however much a long-shot. First, Hart's vote to reelect number is just 50 percent, not great for an incumbent. In the generic match-up, Hart beats Altmire by 14 points, 53% to 39%, but 84% say they don't know Altmire. When the pollster describes both candidates in their best and worst light (always a subjective exercise), Altmire beats Hart, 52% to 40% with 8% undecided.

Now I take these kinds of candidate benchmark polls with a grain of salt, but the Hart-Altmire race is one of those contests worth watching for Dem trends across the country. The key will be whether the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) pumps resources into this district and how much money Altmire can raise. As of June 30, Altmire had $135,942, far behind Hart's cash on hand of $849,805.


Prayers & Best Wishes for Mayor O'Connor:

Somewhere over at Shadyside Hospital, Pittsburgh's Mayor Bob O'Connor is reading this PSF, if he is true to form. O'Connor has now begun his second week of hospitalization, having been laid up by a rare form of brain cancer. His doctors are optimistic that the 61-year old who has developed a love affair with the city and city residents can beat this damnable thing, and I know every PSF'er (thousands of us) join in wishing Bob a speedy recovery!

Bob's spirit and enthusiasm about Pittsburgh has been infectious, and he is sorely missed out there on the streets. His staff insists that Bob stays on top of everything through cellphones and laptops, but I really hope he's taking a break to heal that boundless body of his. And because he's still stuck in the hospital, I hope he will click on this slide-show of snapshots of the city he loves that a friend forwarded to me. It's Pittsburgh, of course, a city that prays that its mayor will soon be back in his corner office on the Fifth Floor of the City-County Building. Just click on, then scroll down.

Talk Shoe Makes Debut:

If you're like me, you can never get enough political chit-chat. That's where an internet host like Talk Shoe comes in. This Thursday morning, I am engaging in a bit of an experiment at whereby I am going to try to talk politics on the internet with you or anyone else who calls or emails in. You should receive an invitation regarding all this, and our subject du jour is the Santorum-Casey race. The discussion gets recorded, so you can download it at your convenience any time. I admit to being an internet dumbo, so I don't promise how well this will work. But if we can expand Politically Savvy Friends to talk, I'm all for it. Please tune in, but give me a chance to make it work right.

That's it for now. As always, I welcome your views above all others, so drop me an off-the-record comment or two. Hopefully, your summer is going well and you're snagging a few days of R&R in between it all. Politics, of course, never takes a break.

As always,

Jon Delano
Political Analyst
H. John Heinz School of Public Policy & Management
Carnegie Mellon University

[As always, these views are my own and not those of the wonderful organizations with whom I am privileged to be associated].