Lou's List

Somewhat informed observations on politics and life from a wayward journalist.

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Single-payer fight comes to Pittsburgh

Activists and legislators pushing bills to institute universal, single-payer health care (aka Medicare for all), gathered for a news conference Saturday morning at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center before pressing their case to the Democratic National Committee's Platform Committee, meeting in the building to finalize the party's statement of principles in advance of the Democratic National Convention August 25-28 in Denver.

Apparently, though, folks like Congressman John Conyers of Michigan--author of H.R. 676, the federal single-payer bill, who headlined the press conference--and state Sen. Jim Ferlo of Highland Park--primary sponsor of S.B. 300 in Harrisburg, a similar state bill, who hosted the event--are still a bit out in front of the party leaders who approved a platform calling for "...every American... [to] be guaranteed to have affordable, comprehensive health care," but eschewed an explicit call for a single-payer system.

Speakers at the press conference were adamant that anything short of Medicare for all would be only a partial fix for today's health care problems.

"This system is so badly broken it cannot be repaired," said Steve O'Donnell, Democratic nominee in the 18th Congressional District, who pledged to work for passage of Conyers' bill if elected.

"We can't fix the health care problem by selling more insurance," echoed Donna Smith of Progressive Democrats of America, whose personal health care horror story appeared in Michael Moore's "Sicko."

"Each one of us could make a documentary, we have so many tragic stories," Conyers said.

Ferlo outlined the proposed solution: "We know what works. Social Security works. Medicare works. We want to extend it to all Americans."

Conyers acknowledged that passage of his bill is not likely imminent, but said a "teachable moment" is upon us that can help build support, even in conservative parts of the country and among Republican legislators.

"There's not Democratic health care discrimination and Republican health care discrimination--They're all catching hell," he said. "We're trying to put our position against anyone else's."

He said that even reliably progressive colleagues have told him that "the forces are just too big" to advance single-payer, but that he'll fight on.

"I feel sorry for any legislator who legislates like that. You should go into something else," Conyers said.

More optimism was expressed for the state bill. Currently, thirty-seven state House members and six Senators are sponsors and Governor Ed Rendell has said he would sign it into law. Chuck Pennacchio, director of Health Care for All PA--a statewide coalition pushing the bill--said opinion surveys have shown strong public support for a single-payer plan.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

18th Congressional District Candidates' Forum

Democrats' optimism as we enter 2008 shows in the field of five candidates vying to represent the party in a bid to unseat three-term GOP Congressman Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair. It also illustrates Murphy's perceived vulnerability after allegations of ethical lapses and questionable spending and six years of a staunchly pro-Bush voting record. Past Dem primary fields in the district have drawn no more than two candidates--even despite the party's registration edge of more than 70,000 voters--and those have been mostly lean on experience, name recognition, fundraising ability, and organization. And while there are no household names in this field, there are certainly candidates with a great opportunity distinguish themselves and mount a strong challenge to Murphy in the general election.

The first of three forums to be held featuring all of the candidates, today's event at Large Volunteer Fire Department in Jefferson Hills was organized by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee in advance of its February 10 endorsement vote at Heinz Field. About 80 Committee members and others showed up to hear the candidates. This is a refreshing change of pace for the Committee, as past appeals for endorsement votes would likely have been made through closed-door meeting and personal gifts. And while that type of thing will doubtless still go on for the next three weeks, Committee Chairman Jim Burn--who moderated--improved his mixed record on internal reform by opening things up here. Forums are also to be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, January 22 at the Churchill Municipal Building and 6:30 p.m. Thursday, January 24 at the Regional Council of Carpenters Hall in Robinson.

Perhaps the only surprise of the event was the absence of fish magnate Dan Wholey--perhaps the most highly touted candidate by the media upon his entry into the race--who has apparently dropped out.

The remaining five candidates were each asked to address a range of today's most prominent topics during the two-hour forum, including Iraq, No Child Left Behind, the energy crisis, veterans health care, the mortgage foreclosure crisis, the war on terror, the impending Bush recession, and Social Security. Substantive policy differences between the candidates seemed few and far between, but a great range of styles were on display that will doubtless impact the race.

For instance, we should all be angry, but Penn Hills School Board President Erin Vecchio is really angry. Vecchio--who initiated the effort to question former Senator Rick Santorum's residency in Penn Hills and thus the district's funding of his children's cyber school tuition--laced her criticisms of Murphy and the Bush administration with invective and sarcasm. She stressed her working class background and was right on target with her denunciations of the corporate culture in Washington, even going out on a limb and slamming Hillary Clinton for her reliance on big business-connected contributors. But one has to wonder how well this tack would play in a district rife with swing voters and pro-business moderates.

Insurance executive Brien Wall of Upper St. Clair seemed to assert that he is the most electable candidate in the field, but was the most uncomfortable public speaker in the crowd and offered--for me--the only cringe-worthy policy proposal of the forum, suggesting expanded offshore drilling as a solution to the energy crisis. He also gave a startlingly opaque answer to a question about the course to follow in Afghanistan that I can't even begin to analyze.

The Afghanistan question also tripped up Vecchio, who suggested U.N. forces be responsible for picking up the slack there since the U.S. "does enough favors for the U.N." This despite the reality that the U.S. does not meet its funding obligations to the international body and routinely circumvents its will.

Former real estate developer and social services executive Steve O'Donnell of Monroeville is obviously well-versed in policy with a progressive bent, but comes off as a bit sober and wonkish, which he will need to improve if he is to appeal to many voters. He did make the most innovative policy proposal of the event, suggesting that lenders who refuse to renegotiate variable-rate mortgages be penalized by having their overnight interest rate jacked up. He also got the only applause during a response for advocating the proverbial Social Security "lockbox." All of the candidates said they support raising the cap on earnings subject to Social Security tax.

Iraq vet and former Army legislative and strategic command staffer Wayne Dudding of Robinson brought a decidedly apolitical tone to the forum. He carries himself in the strong but reassuring posture of a military officer, and was non-committal about many of the issues outside his military and business comfort zone. A Carnegie Mellon MBA with executive experience in several local corporations, he stressed business development--especially in the area of alternative energy production--as a cure for economic woes. He struck a noticeable policy difference from many of his cohorts on Iran. While the others seemed to believe that concern about Iran was a right-wing scare tactic, Dudding stressed that he believes the Islamic Republic is "a serious threat." He also exasperated Burn by exceeding the time limit on nearly all of his responses.

Overall, the candidate who most combined passion with a demonstrated understanding of the issues and a measured delivery was Beth Hafer. Hafer, of Mt. Lebanon--a management consultant and former middle school teacher--struck the right notes from her opening statement, in which she stressed that we need representatives concerned with public service, not the "personal privilege" of holding office. Her performance throughout was strong, although it did take the air out of the room a bit when she declined to commit to supporting an outright repeal of NAFTA, though she stressed that environmental and labor standards need to be enforced. This allowed Vecchio to bombastically stake the "repeal it now" position.

Hafer was the only candidate to endure detectable slaps from her opponents due to the fact that her mother, Barbara Hafer, was a longtime local and statewide officeholder as a Republican and the GOP's governor nominee in 1990 before switching parties in 2003. Both Vecchio and Wall took pains to stress that they are "lifelong Democrats." But Barbara Hafer's working class background and moderate stances made her one of the most successful Republicans in the region, and she briefly considered her own challenge to Murphy in 2006. Beth Hafer stressed that she was driven into the current race not by a desire to follow her mother into public office, but by seeing deficiencies in the No Child Left Behind law and government efficiency in her professional life. In her closing statement, Hafer convincingly laid down three planks in her platform that will be vital to winning our national struggle: alternative energy development that will not only improve the environment, stem global warming, and reduce reliance on foreign oil, but also create jobs; instituting universal health care (the only time those words were uttered during the forum); and returning accountability and ethics to Washington.

So hopefully the endorsement vote this year will hinge on more than "who has the nicest nail files," as Burn quipped, and doubtless the eventual nominee will be better prepared to face off against Murphy having honed their messages in these forums.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Tim Murphy locks out his constituents

Thursday, June 07, 2007

(Belated) Primary roundup, Part 3: Judicial Races--wtf?

I'm having a lot of trouble making sense of the results in the statewide judicial races. Roughly a quarter of the votes statewide on Election Day came from Philadelphia, which was holding a hotly contested mayoral primary. This resulted in just one Philly candidate being nominated for any of the four Democratic nominations up for grabs. That was Superior Court Judge Seamus McCaffrey, who finished second among four candidates in the Supreme Court primary. He was outpaced by his colleague Judge Debra Todd* of Cranberry, who may have benefited from being the only candidate not from Philadelphia and the only woman on the ballot. Both victorious candidates had been endorsed by the Democratic State Committee.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Court President Judge Darnell Jones was endorsed by Gov. Ed Rendell and progressives around the state, but only scored three percent more of the vote than his colleague Judge Willis Berry, who was the subject of a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial headlined "Don't Vote for This Man" days before the election.

In November, Todd and McCaffrey will be up against Superior Court Judge Maureen Lally-Green of Butler County and former State Environmental Hearing Board Chief Judge Mike Krancer of Montgomery County, who bested big spending Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Paul Panepinto for the GOP nominations.

The results for Superior Court are even more curious. Only one of the four Philadelphia candidates--Common Pleas Judge Anne Lazarus--even performed respectably, but fell short of two local candidates and barely bested another.

Attorney Christine Donohue of Squirrel Hill cleaned up in the race, receiving better than 112,000 more votes than her nearest competitor even with poor ballot position. Her campaign was virtually invisible here but she must have been doing something right somewhere. Like Todd, she likely benefited from a combination of gender and geography.

At various times throughout Election night and into the next morning, it looked like Lazarus, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Ron Folino, and attorney Tim McCormick of Westmoreland County had claimed the second nomination. Folino eventually came out on top, setting up an all-Allegheny Superior Court ticket despite the huge Philly vote.

A local also topped the balloting for the GOP nomination, with Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Cheryl Allen* besting two competitors in a tight race. Dauphin County Judge Bruce Bratton barely squelched an all-Western PA battle royal by squeaking past attorney Jackie Shogan of Westmoreland County for the second Republican nod.

The local judicial results were nearly as surprising as the statewide numbers. North Side District Judge Cathy Bubash*, who looked like a long shot early in this race, finished first among Democrats and second among Republicans to virtually guarantee herself one of the four slots up for grabs. Also resting easy going into November will be attorneys Mike McCarthy of Ross and Kelly Bigley of Upper St. Clair, who also secured both nominations. Assistant county Solicitor Jack McVay* of the North Side claimed the last Democratic nod, with the fourth GOP slot going to attorney Arnie Klein of Upper St. Clair. Rumor has it that Klein--who was endorsed by the Democratic committee for the primary and prides himself as a loyal Dem--may drop from the race to be replaced by the county GOP committee.

*= winning candidate endorsed by PA League of Young Voters PAC.

(Belated) Primary roundup, Part 2: No County Shakeup

While the political waters were roiled in the City of Pittsburgh, things were quiet at the county level as the primary results rolled in.

County Executive Dan Onorato cruised to victory over longshot challenger Rick Swartz, who failed to meet even the most tempered expectations in the Dem contest. And while GOP County Councilman Matt Drozd of Ross launched a late write-in drive on behalf of his son--recent college grad Matt, Jr.--he acknowledged almost immediately after the polls closed that it had failed, making November look like even more of a walk for the incumbent than May had been.

Acting Sheriff Bill Mullen* won a majority in the three man race to fill the vacancy in that post. He will face Republican former County Councilman Ed Kress in November.

Democratic machine efforts to install a County Council less inclined toward reform fell flat, with two incumbents who had been defeated for the party endorsement easily retaining their seats. Councilwoman Brenda Frazier* of Stanton Heights bested machine stalwart Matt Arena of Morningside by almost 2,000 votes, while Councilwoman Joan Cleary of Brentwood dispatched endorsed challenger John Palmiere of Baldwin Twp. by a margin of more than 1,000. Councilman Bob Macey of West Mifflin also retained his seat, winning a majority against two established challengers.

Longtime establishment hanger-on Jim Ellenbogen of Banksville managed to carry his party endorsement to victory, defeating Councilman Bill Lestitian of Brookline, who had served by appointment since December. Council has already begun taking steps to repeal its ordinance banning public employees from serving on the body, a thinly veiled effort to thwart Ellenbogen's candidacy.

Three general election Council contests were set up. The matchup between GOP incumbent Councilman Vince Gastgeb of Bethel Park and Democratic Mt. Lebanon Commissioner Barbara Logan is sure to be a barnburner. In addition, GOP Councilwoman Susan Caldwell of Plum will face Democratic restaurateur and Verona Councilman Nick Futules, and Cleary will face Republican insurance agent Don Lacek of Castle Shannon.

*- winning candidate endorsed by PA League of Young Voters PAC.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Primary roundup, part 1: A New Day for Pittsburgh

While the average Pittsburgher was loath to entertain the idea of a fourth mayor in four years--resulting in accidental Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's unopposed Democratic nomination to serve the next two--voters in three City Council districts turned to hotly contested races for those seats to inject some new blood into city government.

The desperation of party machine-backed incumbents in two races showed both as Election Day approached and as their impending losses came into sight yesterday. Media coverage of theft and vandalism targeting supporters of candidate Bruce Kraus* may have given the former South Side Chamber of Commerce president the momentum in District 3, and widespread intimidation of Kraus volunteers yesterday didn't stop the progressive challenger from defeating incumbent Councilman Jeff Koch by about 450 votes.

Machine tactics were similarly sketchy but the result much closer in Council District 7, where School Board member Patrick Dowd* of Highland Park bested incumbent Councilman Len Bodack, Jr. by 81 votes after hand wringing throughout the night. The victory of a politically progressive non-native Pittsburgher over the son of a longtime former state Senator and county Democratic party chairman is a sure sign that change is happening!

In a more expected result, Homewood minister Rev. Ricky Burgess defeated scandal plagued incumbent Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle and six others in Council District 9, though the 50 percent of the vote Burgess received was surprisingly decisive.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris of the North Side was the only incumbent to win a contested race yesterday, easily defeating two opponents, but will have less company in the machine-friendly ranks come January.

The victory of county Prothonotary Michael Lamb* of Mt. Washington in the City Controller's race should also be a boon to sound and progressive government in the city. A professional government administrator with a record of reform, Lamb promises to enliven the office from an inane bookkeeping entity into an active watchdog and policy shop for promoting efficiency. Lamb nearly doubled the total of his nearest challenger in the five-man race, City Council President Doug Shields.

None of these candidates seem likely to face any threat in November.

In the two contested School Board contests held yesterday, one progressive was as good as elected and another will be favored going into November. Heather Arnet* of Highland Park, director of the Women and Girls Foundation of Southwest Pennsylvania, won both the Democrat and GOP nominations for the seat vacated by Dowd. Meanwhile, neighborhood activist Sherry Hazuda* of Beechview bested incumbent Dan Romaniello of Brookline for the usually decisive Dem nod, but Romaniello managed to snatch the GOP nomination from flesh-and-blood Republican Amy Barrett-Montgomery. If Romaniello can sway enough Democrats away from voting a straight ticket in November, he has a chance to hold on to his seat.

It seems as though business consultant and government reform activist Mark DeSantis of Downtown was likely able to get a sufficient number of write-in votes to claim the GOP nomination to challenge Ravenstahl in November, likely realizing that he will be a distinct longshot but hoping to inject some small government ideals into the dialogue.

All in all this was a day to celebrate for Pittsburgh progressives and much-needed confirmation that with hard work and persistence does come reward. Congratulations to the great progressive candidates who were victorious and everyone who worked on these campaigns!

*= winning candidate endorsed by PA League of Young Voters PAC.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Gravel: Unknown legend

With the U.S. mired in Iraq and Democrats searching for a way out, surely the person arguably more responsible than any other in Congress for extricating our nation from the similar quagmire in Vietnam could make a considerable contribution to the intra-party debate as we move toward 2008.

You may not know it, but that very man is in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but represents less than a blip in public opinion polls and has received virtually no mainstream media attention. Instead of speaking to an overflow crowd in a gym or community center in Iowa or New Hampshire earlier this evening, he was speaking to around 20 College Democrats and others at the University of Pittsburgh. And on Friday, instead of pressing the flesh at a big ticket Manhattan fundraiser, he'll be taking a bus from New York to his home near Washington because his campaign can't afford for him to fly.

Mike Gravel, 77, the former U.S. Senator from Alaska, is the man who brought the Pentagon Papers to light in 1971, hastening the long-awaited withdrawal from Vietnam, and who mounted a five-month filibuster that ended the military draft. But little would you know that Gravel spearheaded these great progressive victories of yore by the lack of credence his first campaign since losing his Senate seat in 1980 has been granted by Democrats and political observers.

This is probably because he has dedicated himself since leaving office to shaking the very foundation of our political system, strongly advocating for the institution of National Initiative, a system by which laws would be introduced and passed or rejected by nationwide popular vote rather than within the confines of the Capitol. Gravel insists that a legislative system of this type is what founding fathers such as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison intended, but that their vision was corrupted by other framers desperate to protect the institution of slavery.

Turning our backs on the way we have been governed for 230 years is a rather bold reform, but "I'm not a radical. They're the radicals," he says of office holders (Democrats included) who tolerate continuing the war, sending troops into battle without proper equipment, denying care to veterans, propping up a failed health care system, and heaping the nation's tax burden on the middle class, all in opposition to the wishes of the majority, he says. "I'm reasonable."

Still, he grants, "There's not another Democrat on the face of the Earth that would talk like this."

While a few mainstream Democrats have had the courage to call for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, Gravel says he plans to "spring on Congress" in the coming weeks a proposal for a complete pullout that will require sworn verification by the President and Defense Secretary, with subsequent pledges by these officials every few months that troops haven't been sneaked back into Iraq. If the administration did authorize troops or were found to have falsely verified the withdrawal, the penalty would be five years in prison and a $1 million fine. Gravel said he would urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring the bill to the floor and hold a cloture vote every day until public pressure resulted in opposition to it melting away.

Far out of the Democratic mainstream, though, is Gravel's proposal to do away with the income tax completely, replacing it with a sales tax on all items with no exceptions. He disputes the liberal mantra that the sales tax is regressive, saying that it would instead force the wealthy to pay rather than employ tax shelters and loopholes and those with illicit income to contribute to the public good. Part of his plan is for every American to receive a monthly rebate for the cost of taxes paid on necessities, which would result in lower income people who consume little coming out ahead.

Gravel's health care plan is nearly as bold. He proposes a system in which each American would receive a health care voucher each year, the amount of which would be determined by their age and medical history. He also takes the very un-Democrat position of favoring caps on damages in medical malpractice lawsuits.

But "The Congress will never pass this," Gravel admits, which brings us back around to his overriding passion--the pursuit of National Initiative--and spawned Gravel's campaign slogan, "Let the People Decide."

Gravel says that Democrats are not being given much opportunity to decide for themselves about who their standard bearer will be next year because the perceived front-runners are reluctant to debate. "So far the debates have all been beauty contests," because of conditions set by the leading campaigns, he says. "It's an unfortunate process."

But he looks forward to having all the candidates on stage together at a debate in South Carolina April 26, and plans to challenge his better-known opponents, especially those who voted to authorize the war and are now offering excuses, caveats, and apologies for their votes.

"It was a political decision, and I'll say that to their faces."

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dorgan talks 'Ship' in Pittsburgh stop

North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan made an ill-publicized local appearance this evening to promote his new book, "Take This Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America." Around 30 people managed to find out about this and were happy to focus along with the three-term Democrat on the economic crisis "free trade" and corporate welfare have brought to America's shores.

Dorgan's talk was fittingly held on the former site of the Jones & Laughlin Steel Mill on the South Side, now the upscale South Side Works retail complex. But Dorgan cited examples proving that the scourge of foreign job outsourcing has reached far beyond major industries like steel. He related the story of Huffy bicycle manufacturers in Ohio who spent their last day on the job removing the American flag decals that had appeared on their product for generations. Next time you're in the mood for "Mexican food," he said, pick up some Fig Newtons cookies. He related that cheap labor makes it more profitable for Pennsylvania House furniture to ship locally-cut lumber to China to have its product assembled and then reimport it than to pay workers here. One attendee lamented being unable to find American-made socks.

But Dorgan said the worst could be yet to come. He quoted business consultants' estimates that "42 million to 56 million outsourcable jobs" remain in the U.S., and detailed a recent trade deal with China that within the next year will allow Chinese-manufactured cars to be imported with a 2.5 percent tariff, while American cars headed to China will be slapped with a 25 percent tariff.

Driving him to write the book, Dorgan said, was his frustration with failing--four times--to pass an amendment that would strip tax incentives from companies who move operations overseas. This policy has led to 12,748 corporations allegedly opearating from the same address in the Cayman Islands, he said. He blamed situations like these on trade policy made with "softheaded foreign policy" rather than the economic interests of Americans in mind, and his colleagues' willingness to buy into corporate pleas for a so-called tax relief.

"You don't have to be a tax avoider to be internationally competitive," Dorgan said. "We need to have rules with respect to globablization."

Another galvanizing experience, he said, was chairing investigatory hearings on Enron at which former executives Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skillings appeared. "When you imagine the staggering amount of greed that was going on, it's almost unfathomable," he said.

Dorgan strayed only briefly onto other issues during the question-and-answer period, eliciting applause when he said that "There shouldn't be a vote anywhere in America not recorded on paper."

Questioners got less satisfaction when they pressed him on the need for comprehensive campaign finance reform, with the senator asserting only that polls showed that the American people don't favor public financing of campaigns. He skirted away from an audience member's observation that campaign cash from corporate lobbyists could be the main impediment to reforms on the issues he addressed.

But big money politics could be holding back more than just Dorgan's agenda. When asked if he would consider running for President in 2008, he replied only that he didn't think he could raise the $15-20 million considered necessary for a bid.