This week’s debate between Ravenstahl and his two rivals for the Democratic nomination, attorney and former Pittsburgh police sergeant Carmen Robinson and City Councilman Patrick Dowd, did nothing to change the likely outcome of the May 19 primary. But what the debate did offer was a glimpse at some of the real divisions within Democratic Party and why it would be great if Ravenstahl actually felt pressured to change some of his policies.
Early in the debate the focus was on guns and public safety. The media panel asked the candidates about the shooting deaths of three police officers in Stanton Heights earlier this month and the record homicide rate of last year. Predictably for a debate between Democrats, banning guns and specifically banning assault weapons was discussed. Ravenstahl is hoping the federal government will pass an assault weapons ban, while he touted the increase in the number of police officers under his administration. His rivals have other ideas.
First, Robinson doesn’t believe in banning guns, though she was quick to deny any allegiance to the National Rifle Association. She argues that it’s the police who should have better weapons instead of creating a situation where “we won’t have guns, but the criminals will,” she said. Her solution? Focus on getting young African Americans to finish high school.
“We spent millions of dollars on a police force, even now, on reacting to crime, on things that juveniles do, instead of preventing them,” Robinson said.
Dowd agrees with Ravenstahl on banning guns, but he, too, is skeptical about an assault weapons ban. As a former member of the school board, Dowd agrees with Robinson that crime prevention should be a higher priority. His solution for increasing public safety is to allow greater school choice.
“Let’s get serious about truancy and dropout rates,” Dowd said, and let’s have “many, many more” charter schools.
This could have been a great start for a more general discussion of school reform. Instead, Ravenstahl stuck with his Pittsburgh Promise program. He argued that the program is well on its way to full funding and that $40,000 to help public school graduates go to college is a big step toward improving their lives and helping Pittsburgh’s economy. He may be correct about both of these claims, but how does helping pay for college help those who won’t even graduate from high school? Where was the discussion of greater accountability in the schools? What about the failure of the current system to educate young men and women, prepare them to enter the work force and be productive citizens? What about doing away with the school board and having the mayor take over the schools as has worked so well in cities like New York?
Another missed opportunity appeared in the discussion about small business growth and supporting local businesses to stay in Pittsburgh. Tax cuts, though, received scant mention. Ravenstahl touted parking and business tax cuts but those were, in part, state mandated. And as a self-employed Pittsburgh taxpayer, I can attest to the onerous, complicated,
inefficient, unclear and costly price of running a small business here. None of the candidates spoke about further tax cuts and neither Dowd nor Robinson challenged the mayor to lower the cost of doing business here. A more fiscally conservative Democratic voice or even a serious Republican challenger on the horizon could have come in handy.
There was much agreement that Pittsburgh has a pay-to-play culture and Ravenstahl even supported City Councilman William Peduto’s proposed legislation to shine a light on the relationship between government contractors and campaign contributions. All the mayoral candidates agreed on the need for campaign finance reform, but none seems to understand that curbing contributions isn’t the solution. The problem isn’t how much people are allowed to contribute to political campaigns, it is the secrecy of those who give the contributions and then get rewarded with work from the city as a result. Limiting contributions only limits freedom; the solution is disclosure of all government business contracts and a transparent system of bidding.
Finally, all three candidates sank to the ugly depths of political pandering when the subject of diversity in city government arose. Ravenstahl, Dowd and Robinson stepped over each other to tout and critique the city for how many African Americans and other (visible) minorities fill high-level government positions. With all due respect to race relations, we do have a black president. How about spending just a second talking about hiring the best qualified, most talented people for the job rather than whether they fit the bill because of their skin color.
(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based political columnist, can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org.)