Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Not A Machine, Right?

In an op-ed piece that appears in today's Post-Gazette, Allegheny County Democratic Committee (ACDC) chairman Jim Burn tries to argue that there is no longer a Democratic political machine here in Pittsburgh. He describes some of his efforts over the past 10 months to give his committee members "... the tools, training and technology to better engage voters on the issues and to become more involved with their communities". He tries to explain that the ACDC endorsement process exists only, "... to give the most active, faithful and engaged Democrats a vehicle to meet with candidates and vote for their favorites", and rejects the suggestion that these endorsements have any effect on the elections themselves. All of these things, he contends, mean that the days of old-style machine politics are behind us at last, despite the most obvious evidence to the contrary:

... many have attributed the fact that Mayor Ravenstahl has no primary opposition to the local Democratic Committee instead of Mr. Ravenstahl's proven popularity. Several radio talk-show hosts and news and public affairs programs have voiced concern that a small group of the city's population is deciding the outcomes of our elections. And, of course, there are cries that "the Democratic machine" is back, controlling events in local politics. Nothing could be further from the truth.
He didn't mention the bloggers of the burghosphere in there, but maybe the poor man doesn't quite understand what this whole "internet thing" is all about.

The piece itself is unconvincing. It extols a small number of rather esoteric changes made within this obscure group of political insiders, all of which are largely meaningless to the 99% of the public who don't participate (or even care to) in the ACDC. But his argument falls completely apart if you step away from the on-line version of the piece, and instead invest a couple of quarters in the on-dead-trees edition of today's Post-Gazette (which, I'm proud to say, is still delivered to my family's doorstep every single morning).

I realize that the Post-Gazette's website is exceptionally popular, and that it is accessed by a huge number of people everyday. But the print edition is still quite important, and one could rather suspect that it is the on-dead-trees version, read over the breakfast table, that finds its way in front of our city's most likely voters. The print edition is also much less correctable than the Post-Gazette's website. Mistakes made in print might be "corrected" in some obscure corner of the next day's newspaper, but most readers will never even notice them. That's why a subtle little "mistake" made by Mr. Burn, which now appears only in the print edition of today's paper, is so very illuminating.

In both circulated versions of Mr. Burn's op-ed piece, he argues that City Councilmember Bill Peduto's decision to withdraw from the mayoral primary was not caused by Mr. Peduto's failure to win the ACDC endorsement, but was instead made because he respected the many changes made within ACDC:
Bill Peduto won his first City Council election after defeating a party-endorsed candidate in the Democratic primary. This time, in running for mayor, he saw the potential added value in campaigning with the party's endorsement and dropped out after failing to win it. Perhaps he recognized the positive changes our committee is making.
For the moment, let's ignore the fact that it's completely impossible to understand what in the hell Mr. Burn is even talking about here. The important thing is that he then feels compelled to cite yet another example of the ACDC endorsement process doing great things for the people of Pittsburgh. In the on-line version that is currently available on the Post-Gazette website, Mr. Burn manages to get his facts straight (emphasis added):
Another reflection of respect for the committee's endorsement process was evident in the city controller's race. Controller Tony Pecora [sic], after losing the endorsement by one vote to Prothonotary Michael Lamb, went to court seeking to have the result overturned. He lost the case and Mr. Lamb was endorsed, but he clearly recognized the value to voters of being identified with the new Democratic Party.
But in the print edition of this morning's paper, this paragraph tells a decidedly different story:
Another reflection of respect for the committee's endorsement process was evident in the city controller's race. Controller Tony Pecora [sic], after losing the endorsement by one vote to Prothonatary [sic] Michael Lamb, went to court and ended up winning the party endorsement. Perhaps he also recognized the value to voters of being identified with the new Democratic Party.
There are only two possibilities here. On the one hand, Mr. Burn may be a buffoon and a complete failure as ACDC chairman, such that he honestly didn't know that Michael Lamb is his committee's endorsed candidate. The argument in favor of this possibility is buttressed by the fact that that Mr. Burn managed to mis-spell Acting Controller Tony Pokora's name in both versions of this op-ed piece, along with the word "prothonotary" in the print edition.

On the other hand, maybe there is a more sinister motive behind Mr. Burn's "mistake". The endorsement race for controller was a very close one. As chairman, Mr. Burn is forbidden from campaigning for anyone other than Michael Lamb, who ultimately triumphed in this contest. But perhaps Mr. Burn wasn't all that happy with the result. He may especially be unhappy with the fact that Mr. Lamb is one of the few candidates supported by local progressives who managed to secure an ACDC endorsement. Progressive candidates are never good news for the party's "machine" , but Mr. Burn is bound by the terms of his post to support one in this race.

One way around that restriction, of course, is to make a little "innocent mistake" in the print edition of the Post-Gazette, and suggest -- in a forum that more likely to be read by an older, more established, and voting demographic -- that Mr. Pokora, and not Mr. Lamb, is the endorsed candidate of the Democratic Committee. Then, once the print edition is safely out on the streets, the "error" can be corrected in the on-line edition of the paper, where younger and more progressive voters are likely to encounter it.

I admit, the sinister version of these events is a bit too tin-foil-hat for my tastes. But I also can't deny that it has a certain ring of plausibility to it, too. Dirty tricks like this aren't the sort of the thing that the leader of the "new Democratic Party" would ever participate in. But they are certainly in keeping with the history of "the Democratic machine" here in Pittsburgh. It rather sounds to me like Mr. Burn is attempting to argue against the existence of machine-style politics at the very same time that he is doing his level best to perpetuate them.

Either that, or he really is a buffoon. I can't quite decide which possibility is more disturbing.


Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting for the real story on this to come out. I've heard that the party's new spokesperson - Dianna Wentz - supposedly wrote this for Burn's signature. She's apparently blaming the errors re the Controller's endorsement on the PG. In any event, the op-ed piece was awful, and Burn should have known it was awful and never signed off on it (if that is what happened). Someone should be fired (and I'm suggesting Wentz)but Burn doesn't come off looking too good either. And to think most of us thought voting for Burn as Chair was the best hope of the progressives in the party. I agree with the Admiral: "It rather sounds to me like Mr. Burn is attempting to argue against the existence of machine-style politics at the very same time that he is doing his level best to perpetuate them."

Anonymous said...

What Chris Bowers calls the progressive movement/open left in Philadelphia seems to be running circles around the Democratic Party Machine there.

Bowers seems to think it's something with larger implications elsewhere. What can we learn from them?

Anonymous said...

I was at endorsement day and the original vote showed that Pokora won. That is until Burn decided to open the provisional ballots,
Declaring Lamb the winner. It would seem to me that if Burn did not want to support Lamb he would not have opened the provisionals?
So now you will have me believe that he would go out of his way
to trick voters via the op-ed?
Sorry, just not willing to buy that conspiracy theory. But please, do me the honor of coming up with another twist that explains that?
Pokora people are not enchanted with the provisional ballots either so my guess is that they need to concoct a conspiracy of their own. I don't recall reading
too much about those provisionals
on these blogs which favored Lamb.

Anon 6:34,
" And to think most of us thought voting for Burn as Chair was the best hope of the progressives in the party"
Get real. Yourself and others elected him to get progressives in the party? Sorry, that comment sounds anal. Progressives are going to need to WORK to get themselves in.
Not when you have majority vote by the freebee breakfast eaters. The only way we can get progressives on board is to get off their butts, off the computers and out to the voters. Get elected and then you will have the majority vote and perhaps then
we can have open primaries and see some real changes.

Anonymous said...

The choice for County Chair was basically between Ben Woods, Jean Milko and Jim Burn. Who would you have voted for??????

Anonymous said...

To be quite honest with you I would of voted for Ben Woods at least he understands first hand the disparity that the Democratic Party encourages amonst party members. What leadership seems to have forgotten is that all voting, registared card carrying Democratic members have a right to be represented fairly by the party. Party leadership wants to pick who the general public votes for and then tell you that it is only the endorsed (our selection) that we want you to vote (I mean; do as I say) because I told it to you. Anther word for (slave mentality)...

Until the voting Democratic general public votes with thier own mind..then and only then can you expect change. The choice is yours....don't blame anyone for who YOU choose.

Anonymous said...

Ben Woods!!! Yea, he did his time
but only after he got caught.
You want to talk about underhanded Party politics and really, really OLD school?

"Democratic members have a right to be represented fairly by the

Ben Woods???
Now there's a leader for you. Someone who is gonna bully me if I don't like his choice or Sic those thugs Posteraro and Brimmeier on me if we didn't promise to endorse him. Makes me feel as though I'm in the movie Goodfellas.
What I cannot even begin to fathom
is why people consistently complain and then do NOTHING about it? All these bright ideas on how the party should be run but yet do not show up to contest the By-laws
(or put it in writing and submit it) Face facts that the majority of this party is still old school
and until that changes the Chairman (whoever it may be) is very limited to what they can do.

jason27 said...

My friend attended the GLBT forum the party did. It wasn't bad. And, I saw Wentz on that horrific Nighttalk thing the other night (I was sick with a cold, what else can I say?) and that chick was pretty good. I keep reading all this neg stuff in the b-o-sphere...but the stuff I'm actually seeing happening -- loathe believe me as I am to admit it -- is pretty good out there!! Could it maybe be that others are jealous because this guy Burns won? Maybe over upset committee folks friends of Jeanie's or maybe old leaders in the staff???? Just a thought....

Anonymous said...

Jim Burn and the rest of the buffoons involved in leadership roles in the current Allegheny County Democratic Party aren't individually or collectively smart enough to keep a well-oiled machine running even if it still did exist. And as far as Diana Wentz goes, she is an absolute joke also and her inexperience proved fatal to Cyril Wecht's campaign when he ran for County Executive. The machine broke about 2 years before Foerster/Flaherty lost to Dawida/Vuono.