Thursday, February 1, 2007

Incumbent Protection Through Chaff

Back in my Navy days, my ship, like nearly all naval craft, was equipped with something called chaff. Chaff, at least the shipboard variant, is basically a rather low-tech rocket (click on the picture for a larger view) stuffed with strips of aluminum, mylar, or some other lightweight material which reflects radar waves. If a radar-guided missile was inbound, these rockets would be launched skyward, where they would explode and fill the air with thousands of little radar reflectors. The idea was to decoy the incoming missile, so that it would head toward the chaff cloud instead of us. The enemy's best chance at success was to have one single big radar return, namely our ship, for the missile to target. Our best chance at survival was to give the missile so many targets to choose from that it would be almost certain to pick the wrong one.

The Pittsburgh Democratic machine seems to be employing a similar strategy to protect the weakest incumbents on City Council. It is giving voters an ever-increasing number of candidates to choose from, and they are almost certain to pick the wrong one.

Yesterday, the Post-Gazette told us that a ninth -- no, that's not a typo -- the ninth Democratic challenger has entered the primary race for the District 9 council seat currently held by Twanda Carlisle. I just read the article, and I already can't remember the new candidate's name. And why should I even bother to refresh my memory? Ms. Carlisle can now retain her seat by getting merely 10.01% of the vote. Given the historically low turnout in her district, she probably already has enough people on her staff and on her various "consultant" contracts alone to swing the 10% she needs. Even if District Attorney Stephen Zappala manages to indict Ms. Carlisle for her impressive string of scandals, she has already purchased enough votes to win.

I've already discussed the District 9 primary in a previous post, and it's worth repeating the conclusion that I made back then:

Unless these people get their shit together, Ms. Carlisle's reelection is all but assured. With the anti-Carlisle vote split across six [now nine] different challengers, she should have no problem at all in securing the Democratic nomination, allowing her to run (most likely unopposed) in the November general election.

Perhaps the good people of District 9 could follow the example set by the citizens of Pittsburgh School Board District 2 in 2003. Back then, the District 2 seat was held by well-reviled Darlene Harris, and Democratic candidates to unseat her were threatening to come of out the woodwork. The primary would have been overwhelmed by challengers. The only way to handle things was to hold a kind of pre-primary to select a single Democrat candidate to go up against Ms. Harris. So in January, a grass-roots group of concerned citizens held a meeting at the local public library, and selected Patrick Dowd to be the only other name on the Democratic primary ballot. It worked. Darlene Harris was booted off the school board.
What I neglected to mention in that earlier post is that that defeat was by no means the end of Darlene Harris. She returned, using her nicotine-fueled old-school-machine-politics muscle to elbow her way into the Democratic nomination (and hence the general election victory) for Interim Mayor Luke "Handcuffs" Raventahl's old seat on City Council. Old political dinosaurs never die, at least not in Pittsburgh; they just get elected to a post where they can do even more damage to our city.

And now the same chaff strategy is beginning to emerge in Ms. Harris's own fight to retain her incumbency on City Council. A second challenger for the Democratic nomination, Robin Rosemary Miller, announced her candidacy today. She joins Canadian immigrant (and recently-naturalized U.S. citizen) Dave Schuilenburg, who was already in the race. I would fervently hope that this primary contest could somehow be capped at just three candidates. But Darlene Harris is such a disaster that there are likely to be plenty of other people who will jump into the race to unseat her. Ironically, these collective efforts will only serve to ensure her reelection.

I realize that all of these candidates are their own people. It is unlikely that any of them realize that they are being used as electoral chaff rockets by the local Democratic machine. All of them have a genuine desire to eliminate the ability of Ms. Carlisle and Ms. Harris to embarrass our city any more than they already have. But regardless of their motivations or qualification, they are filling the air with distractions. They are spreading the anti-incumbent vote far too thin. And they are all but guaranteeing that our disastrous status quo will continue.

Pittsburgh is caught in a very real Catch-22 here. The worst members of our elected bodies logically attract the largest number of people who wish to unseat them. But because we are locked into perpetual one-party rule, these challenges can only occur during the Democratic primary. When primary day finally arrives, incumbents are almost always the endorsed candidate of the party's machine, and giving voters a multitude of non-endorsed options can only serve help the incumbent further. Our very real desire to rid our city of the worst only leads to us never getting the best.


EdHeath said...

There's a race in my neck of the stupidly steep woods, Stanton Heights and district 7. Len Bodack is being challenged by a doctorate, that same Patrick Dowd that ran successfully against Darlene Harris. I was kind of happy to maybe get a PhD on the council. Two things happened, though. Opie-gate erupted and Tom Fallon, recently of Jim Ferlo’s office, also entered the race for Bodack’s seat. I can’t figure that out, I didn’t think Ferlo had any problem with Boadack. He was popular in the district, though, so if anyone connects Fallon with Ferlo then Fallon could gain some traction. Meanwhile, no one is paying any attention to this race that I can tell. My crappy little blog scores high when you google Pat Dowd, a sure sign that no one is writing anything about this race. Sure, it’s early days, but Dowd needs to treat this like New Hampshire, get his more complicated views out early so people can think on ‘em for a while.
You know, there is a similar problem with the bus drivers. If they took a voluntary pay cut maybe some jobs could be saved (which means the senior drivers, who are paid the most, probably would never go for it). But we (the citizens of Pittsburgh) can’t ask them to take a cut, because if they agreed, there bargaining power would be forever diminished. The bus drivers have to propose their own pay cut, and I doubt we are going to see that. So this part of the solution has to stay just out of reach, and we will lose bus routes and drivers will lose jobs ….Yet another catch 22 (that’s some catch)…

Anonymous said...

And Len Bodack was the benefactor of the too-many-cooks-in-the-kitchen syndrome in 2003. He won a special election with six candidates by 53 votes, and then held onto the seat in the primary against two other challengers. Sigh.

Mark Rauterkus said...


I agree, mostly. Last time this surfaced, I think I posted ideas as well.

I was in a nine person election. I didn't get last. But, this was for an open seat. And, I was pulling against the guy (turkey) that got second. Thank goodness. Eight of us were against Bruce Kraus. He was and is bad news.

Open seat races can be big and that can be a benefit.

But, the biggest issue of all is the one-party rule statement: But because we are locked into perpetual one-party rule, these challenges can only occur during the Democratic primary. THAT IS WHERE progress needs to occur.

There are many ways to fix these global issues too.

And, likewise, I'm not sure what to think about Tom F in the race.

I'd be happy to see Dowd pull out so as to help Tom. Tom ran in 2003. He was okay.

Dowd's groupies should NOT have had a meeting, an undemocratic meeting, so as to pick a lone candidate for an open seat that Pat Dowd is leaving on school board. That is shameful. They should have hosted a debate -- or series of debates -- instead.

Anonymous said...


The meeting to select a grass roots School Board candidate to fill Dowd's seat was an OPEN meeting.

Hundreds of district residents were invited to attend & to bring friends & neighbors. The 3 candidates had the opportunity to speak about their vision/plans. It was a candidates' forum. Then those in attendance voted on which one to endorse.

How in the world is that undemocratic? How in the world is that shameful?

This is how Darlene was defeated by Dowd in '03. It makes sense. It is all volunteer driven, that is one of the reasons there is just one meeting, not a "series of forums".

And why in the world would you want Dowd to step down in favor of Fallon? Dowd's done a good job on the School Bd., sure not everyone will like everything he's done. He has a track record that's solid. Fallon's an assistant to Ferlo. We've already got one of those in City Hall. Fallon was going to run twice before & backed out.

If anyone should back out, (actually should never have gotten into the race), it's Fallon. Quite a few voters in the district have asked him to do so.

Richmond K. Turner said...

The meeting to select a grass roots School Board candidate to fill Dowd's seat was an OPEN meeting.

Hundreds of district residents were invited to attend & to bring friends & neighbors. The 3 candidates had the opportunity to speak about their vision/plans. It was a candidates' forum. Then those in attendance voted on which one to endorse.

How in the world is that undemocratic? How in the world is that shameful?

I don't know that I would go as far as to call it "shameful", but I don't see it as enormously democratic. After all those invitations that we described went out, a grand total of what the P-G called "more than 100" showed up.

It's great that these people were motivated and involved, but there were thousands upon thousands of people who didn't get to vote that evening. People who never even heard about the meeting until they read about it the next day. People who never even heard about the meeting at all, even now. People who had to pick up thier kids from daycare and get dinner on the table. People who got lost on the way to the library. People who didn't have access to transporation. People who were afraid to drive in the snow. People who were not Democrats and didn't think they would be welcome there. People who were happy with Darlene Harris also wouldn't have shown up. People who lived all the way up in the northern reaches of the city and were afraid of coming down into East Liberty where all those "city people" live (oh, wait, those were probably the same ones who were still happy with Darlene Harris... my bad).

In any event, for all kinds of reasons -- both good and bad -- a huge portion of District residents were not there to participate in this choice. But those 100 or so people who were there were able to limit the choices available to everyone else on election day.

That's kind of the way that elections are handled in Iran. Even if they use clerics and we use motivated community volunteers, the end result is the same. You end up with a small elite deciding who should appear on the ballot. And at least in Iran, the people get to vote for who is a member of that elite. In this case, most of the public didn't even know that there was one.

A far better idea would be to hold a completely open primary. Everyone gets to vote for the entire slate of candidates. Nothing would be limited by party. The top two vote-getters in the open primary advance to the face each other toe-to-toe in the general election.

That method might have achieved the same result, with Dowd beating Harris. But it would have been far more democratic.

Anonymous said...

Yes, around a 100 people showed up, even though hundreds were invited & encouraged invite others.

I'd venture to say that most of those who didn't show up wouldn't have shown up even if they did know about it in advance. Just like they probably don't vote. It says something about how little the majority cares about democracy, doesn't it?

The event was held on a Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m., when most people aren't at work, in school, making dinner, etc. People were welcome to bring their children, it was held in the E. Liberty Library.

"those 100 or so people who were there were able to limit the choices available to everyone else on election day."

Huh? How does a grassroots endorsement limit who runs? There is nothing sinister, cliquey, dictatorial, etc. about this group. They don't come equipped with big bucks & power brokers at their beck & call. They're just ordinary citizens.

And- not that they would - there's nothing they can do to stop others from entering this or any other race. Had there been other candidates who wanted to run, they would've been invited to participate fully.

FYI - as far as School Bd. candidates go, it's rarely a case of too many, it's more a case of please, please, somebody run! Being on the School Bd. is a thankless task, hundreds of hours in meetings, no one is ever happy with what you're trying to accomplish and it's unpaid, without even any administrative staff.

I agree that there should be open primaries. Until that time I am heartened to know that a group of everyday Pittsburghers volunteer their time and energy to find good candidates and to support them.

While this group may seem small to some, it is usually the case that a small number of people do most of the heavy lifting for a large number of people.

I've volunteered on numerous campaigns, for candidates I feel would best represent me. And year after year, campaign after campaign, there are very few new faces among the volunteers, regardless of media attention on the race or the numbers of people in the campaign's database.

This is democracy in action. Those who care about something do something; those who don't, do nothing. It's a free country.

Richmond K. Turner said...

I will grant that this small group which met at the library didn't have any power to stop anyone from putting themselves on the ballot. But my understanding was that all of the candidates who attended the meeting agreed, as a condition of attending, to drop out of the race if they were not endorsed by the group.

If I'm wrong, then please correct me. But from what I've been told, the whole point of the meeting was to end the night with one and only one candidate going up against Darlene Harris.

But hey, at least we both agree that open primaries are a cool idea. I really think we're on the same page on this. As long as we don't have these kinds of open primaries, and as long as we are stuck with single-party rule here in Pittsburgh, meetings of these kinds may be the only ways to get rid of the bad incumbents. I see where they are a necessary evil.

But I just can't bring myself to see them as being truly democratic.

Anonymous said...

Yes the point of that meeting was to vote for one of the 3 candidates then to support just that one.

Everyone, including the candidates, signed a pledge to do so. Goal: to maximize limited resources to help one good candidate, increasing the chances of said candidate winning.

Since we're talking about just 100 people being there, with very few resources amongst them, how much of a deterrent is that to anyone else who wants to run?

As you state, there were thousands more who didn't participate in this selection process.

It's a free country. Maybe one of those thousands will do some heavy lifting and organize a grassroots coalition of their own to assist with their campaign.

For the record, I would love to see a Pittsburgh where all races were hotly contested by a diverse field of candidates, where none of the outcomes were already known before Election Day, where citizens felt compelled to run because they love their city and want to work to make it the best city in the US, where the phrase "voting straight down the ticket" didn't exist.

Mark Rauterkus said...

Sorry to have missed the thread for so long.

The shame comes because the candidates for school board who took the stage that day -- HAD TO sign a pledge to bail out of the race. What's up with that?

Hold a meeting. Vote on the victor. Do a straw poll if you wish. Good value in that. But don't elbow the others out of the race. That's un-democratic.

But, a race for an open seat and a race against an incumbent is like night and day.

The open seat race should be won or lost at the polls. You don't have to have a master-mind plan where everyone does the booster-stepping into the one-party trap. That's where the shame resides.

Open meeting: Was audio taken at the event? Video? You Tube? Text of comments/transcripts? I did hear about the pow-wow, word of mouth, but notice of the meeting didn't show up on the internet, to my knowledge. Even the neighborhood email list in Highland Park said nothing (but it is moderated). Door opened, but transparent proceedings -- even minutes -- would be nice.

That might endear more trust and support.

Sure, I see that either Fallon or Dowd might want to pull out to be one-on-one with Len B. There is still plenty of time for that. I think a re-traction should happen, for best impact, about May 5, 2007.

What P.Dowd did before was great. Glad Harris got beat. What he is trying to do now is good too. But, the ones who follow shouldn't have to do the same that he did. Else, he didn't really make any headway.

We have to make advancements in our democracy -- and then keep them. Don't lower the bar again.

Elitists would think that the others that didn't show up don't care. Thinking for the others is fine when your thoughts are so pure and theirs so vile -- sorta sucks.

Grassroots is as much or more about the ideas than the person. This process was to advance one PERSON -- not focus ideas, issues, nor foster debate among strategies and objectives. I dare say, school issues took a back steat to power, personality and politics.

Anonymous said...

Getting back to the District 9 race. Nine canidates with the incumbent and the parents and grandparents makes fourteen. Lets just wait and see after 2/13/07 who actually gets the on the ballet. Surely, not everyone will make it and after some are bumped off, then the real race can begin. Remember three or four of the proposed canidates all run the in the same inner cirles along with their parents. It is hard to believe that these loving families really want to run against each other. What could possible be the hidden agenda? Oh I know -- they are all working together so that the incumbent can get back in and give out more MONEY.

Anonymous said...

Transparency For All

Now on those lines of transparency can we begin the conversations on Marxism. What are District 2 School Board candidate Heather Arnet's feelings towards Marxist views?

I love progressive viewpoints and would like to hear her views as they relate to educating our children, I would have asked this question at the Highland Park meeting but I wasnt invited.

Heather Arnet said...

Dear Anonymous,

I am happy to share my views with you about organized labor. You are correct - I have a strong commitment to labor and to workers. My father was a member of the U.S. Postal Union till his recent retirement, my mother is a member of the Federal Workers Union, and my stepmother a member of the Federation of Public School Teachers. I too am a union member. I am proud of my union heritage and my understanding of the importance of organized labor unions to ensure living wages and good benefits to workers. As for how these "views" about living wages and workers' rights will affect my work on the school board I hope it will mean that I will bring a balanced perspective to the board understanding the concerns of the hard working taxpayers who support the schools and the staff who work for the district.

As for my thoughts regarding education - my focus as a school board member will be 1) to ensure that every child in our district regardless of household income with have equal access and opportunity to pursue academic excellence in a safe and nurturing academic environment. 2) that the Pittsburgh School District fulfills this community promise while managing taxpayer dollars with utmost responsibility and integrity and 3) that all members of the district - from students and parents to the superintendent and the board members - are held accountable for their active roles in increasing student achievement. Thank you for your interest in me and my campaign.