Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Electing to Fail

And the really sad thing is that I didn't even notice this disaster until today, after she was sworn in as our newest City Council member. In case you missed it, we have a new city council member. Somebody had to fill Luke Ravenstahl's old seat now that he has become our mayor. So a special election -- and oh, how special it must have been -- was held earlier this month, and the winner was someone whom I had hoped and prayed to have seen the last of when she got booted off the School Board in 2003.

None other than Darlene Harris, former President of the School Board and bomb-thrower extraordinaire, was sworn in on Monday to fill Ravenstahl's old seat until the next election. Given her disgustingly abysmal record on the school board, and her crushing defeat in the May 2003 primary, I really thought that we were forever safe from her style of "leadership". But the Pittsburgh Democratic Machine simply loves to churn up the same people (and families) over and over and over again, confident that the majority will always -- always -- vote for whomever the Machine tells them to vote for.

For those of you unfamiliar with Ms. Harris, pull up a chair. It is really an excellent story.

Ms. Harris was first elected to the School Board in the late 1990s. She instantly proved to be the biggest pain in the ass that anyone there had ever seen. And remember, we are talking about the School Board here. She had some real competition for the title of "biggest pain in the ass", but she won, hands-down, without even breaking a sweat.

Consider this little gem from the days when Dale Frederick was our Superintendent of Schools, as reported in the Post-Gazette at the time:

In the year since Dale Frederick became superintendent of Pittsburgh's 40,000-student school district, he has become, in his own words, ''the world's greatest expert on AstroTurf.''

And that is not necessarily a good thing.

In May, Frederick found himself spending almost a week boning up on the arcane world of fake grass after Pittsburgh school board director Darlene Harris questioned a $1 million contract the district had signed with a Texas company to install new turf at South Vo-Tech High School's stadium. Only after dozens of phone calls and research into different grades of blades was Frederick able to convince Harris that the district had made the right choice.

Today, he keeps a 6-by-12-inch sample of artificial turf under his desk as a reminder never to do that again. This year, he vows, he will spend more time focusing on improving educational achievement than trying to placate nine squabbling bosses -- the directors of the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education.
Now admittedly, this was a $1 million purchase that we are talking about here, and she was new to the school board at the time. You can almost understand why she would be concerned about this one. But clearly, it went far beyond reasonable oversight when the issue metastasized into something that took up a full week of the Superintendent's time.

And it's not just this one issue. It happened again and again and again. My favorite has to be when she wasted a good 15 minutes of the entire board's time arguing about whether a large group of student musicians, who had been invited to perform at the State Capitol building in Harrisburg, really needed to eat lunch that day, and whether the lunch should consist of peanut butter sandwiches or something else. And after all that time, she never even addressed the far more important issues of jelly selection, crust removal, and whether the peanut butter should be spread in a clockwise or counter-clockwise direction.

You see, Darlene Harris is the kind of person who is just an absolute nightmare within any deliberative body. In her self-appointed role as a micromanaging little harpy, she focuses on meaningless little details instead of the bigger and more important picture. She forces the rest of the members to waste countless hours drilling down into the smallest matters, while the core issues are left unaddressed. She takes every little thing personally, convinced that everything really is all about her. And she sows division and discontent with such relish that one can only believe that she truly enjoys it.

And this is the kind of person that we just put on our City Council. Nice move, Northsiders. At least it will prove to be entertaining.

To get an idea of what we are likely to see at City Council meetings over the next few years, consider some of the delightful events that took place while she was a member of the School Board. We had meetings that descended into endless bickering between the board members. We had the board members descend into childish name-calling and profanity while in private session. These two events actually took place when Ms. Harris was serving as the Board's President, and was supposed to be in charge of keeping the meetings orderly and on task. We also had near-chaos when then-President Alex Matthews proposed a fairly common-sense smoking ban in and around school property. Ms. Harris and her buddy Jean Fink, both of whom are smokers, took the proposal as a personal attack and launched into a minutiae-laden counter-attack. That's right, Darlene. It's all about you!

But, of course, the grand-daddy of all boneheaded moves during Ms. Harris's tenure on the School Board -- the one that ultimately got her booted out of office -- was her racially-tinged interference in the closing (and later re-opening) of Bon Air and Spring Garden elementary schools. By the time that ugly spectacle played out in public -- with all the decorum and respect one can expect from members such as Ms. Harris and Ms. Fink -- all confidence was lost in the School Board. The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and the Grable Foundation, which together had awarded the district $11.7 million in the previous five years, suspended all of their funding until the such time as the Board managed to get its shit together.

This was a huge embarrassment that was felt city-wide, and Darlene Harris was (arguably) the primary reason for things reaching such a very low state.

In the wake of these mortifying events, a band of more than 120 private citizens -- most of whom played no role in local machine politics -- got together one snowy evening to pick (and unite behind) a single candidate to go against Ms. Harris in the 2003 election. Patrick Dowd was chosen by this informal group, and ended up defeating Ms. Harris in the May primary. Once she finally left the School Board, civility returned, a new Superintendent was hired without excessive rancor, a sensible school-closing plan was quickly approved, and the three charitable foundations restored their funding to the Pittsburgh Public Schools, noting that the Board had "learned its lesson".

"Relations among school board members and the administration have become more collaborative and mutually respectful," Maxwell King, president of The Heinz Endowments, said at a news conference announcing the restored funding. All we had to do was get rid of Darlene Harris.

So, given the disaster that she was on the School Board, just how on earth did Darlene Harris end up on City Council? The simple answer is that the Democratic Machine simply rolled over the rest of us, trampling our best interests at the same time.

To really see just how myopic the political machine can be in this town, we have to go back to the May 2003 primary that cost Ms. Harris her seat on the School Board. Ms. Harris was decidedly unpopular at that point. The community had come together to find a different candidate in Mr. Dowd, and had largely rallied behind his campaign. And yet the Allegheny County Democratic Committee endorsed Ms. Harris over Mr. Dowd by a vote of 83-4.

Getting such a landslide endorsement from the party machine was child's play for someone like Ms. Harris. As Judy Wertheimer wrote in the Post-Gazette at the time, the fix was in for Ms. Harris:
It turns out, District 2 is comprised of voting districts from eight city wards. Each ward has a chairperson, and the chairpeople run the endorsement vote. Of the eight chairs in District 2, one is Darlene Harris, one is her campaign manager, John Morgan, and one is Len Bodack Sr., who employed Harris in his office for years when he was a state senator. Not surprisingly, when Dowd asked to address the committee on the morning of the vote, his request was denied.

One thing people involved with the endorsement process seem to agree on: It's important for candidates to connect with committee members prior to the vote. One way to do that, in addition to phone calls and personal visits, is for candidates to attend committee-sponsored candidates nights typically held by individual wards.

Unfortunately, Dowd didn't learn of the 26th Ward event until after the fact; Harris chairs the 26th Ward. As for the 11th Ward event, Dowd learned of it too late to personally address the gathering.
So what does this glimpse into the inner-workings of Pittsburgh's machine politics from 2003 have to do with Ms. Harris' recent election to City Council? As it turns out, it has everything to do with it.

You see, this was a "special" election. There was no primary election held. The party committees simply got together in the classic smoke-filled room (literally, if Ms. Harris was present) and selected the candidates who would appear on the November ballot. Of course, with all her connections, the fix was in once again for Darlene Harris. The Democratic committee wasted no time at all in selecting her to as their candidate. And in this town, of course, even Rick Santorum would win if he appeared on the ballot with a "(D)" next to his name.

It's not like the committee's selection was met with anything approaching even a lukewarm endorsement from the rest of us peons. The Post-Gazette actually the Republican candidate, Joseph Lucas, in the November election. That's far from normal behavior for the Post-Gazette, and it just goes to show the depths to which this woman is detested by anyone with any appreciable knowledge of local politics and her behavior during her time on the School Board. As the Post-Gazette's Reg Henry noted in discussing her victory a few weeks ago, "Pittsburghers will have themselves a Dino-crat instead of someone who could have stirred things up."

I couldn't have said it better myself.


Anonymous said...

The Junta that operates Pittsburgh will soon fall

Richmond K. Turner said...

It's possible that the Junta will fall. It's also possible that an asteroid will crash into the moon, knock it into a new orbit, and eventually cause it to crash into the earth. Both are probably equally likely, given that there is no evidence in the fossil record that either one has ever occured before.

Anonymous said...

RE: Electing to Fail

I know it is child's play, but I heard it was on the news today, via my husband as I was in the basement, that when the media asked Darlene Harris why she included in her budget a "smoke Eater" for her office which is a non-smoking building, she stated that "when she is working in her office at 10:30 at night she wants to be able to smoke. Am I getting this right? We the taxpayers are paying for her to have a smoke eater in her office in a building which is smoke free? She is breaking the city "rules" and we are to pay for it? Does anyone else see something wrong with this picture?"

Anonymous said...

Hi Richmond,

My name is Kevin Donahue and I wanted to comment about your Darlene Harris article. I was doing my usual googling and came across your wonderful insight. If you would please give me a few minutes because I am still laughing hysterically. I was Darlene's opponent in the 2006 General election. I placed a modest second place with no free votes to thank Rick Santorum for. I can relay to this article very much in regards to my experiences door knocking around the North Side. I door knocked til my shoes fell apart. Each house that I would go to would ask me who I am up against. My answer would be Darlene Harris. With no surprise almost 90% percent of the people who heard my answer said, "oh no" with an upset look on their face because most knew her from her school board debacle. And yet, we elect her hands down. As you noted in the article, the machine could not be stopped. Of course, Im sure you realize there were other factors that contributed to her success. I am sure the machine will not do as well in the 2007 primary. I plan to reach out to the everyday citizen and pull the plug on the machine.

My goal is simple. I want to take the decision power out of the so called 10 big-wigs in the North Side and give it back to the 20,000 residents who built this side of town. Luke opened the door of opportunity for young challengers like myself, I want to carry the torch.

If you would like to reply my e-mail is- donahue2269@msn.com