Politically Savvy Friends

Sunday, May 24, 2009

PA Primary Election Aftermath

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Pennsylvania held a primary election on Tuesday, and nobody came. It still counts, of course, but the biggest news was how many people stayed home. This quick post-election edition of my PSF will focus on the results and the set-up for November – but, have no fear, my analysis of the 2010 gubernatorial and senatorial races will be out shortly. Truth be told, nobody cares about 2009 much, but never forget that one election is prelude to another!

By the way, I now tweet – as in twitter. So if you would like quick instant political snippets from me, just go to http://twitter.com/JonDelano and follow me.

Where Were the Voters?

Across the commonwealth, the weather in most areas was picture-perfect for an election. It didn’t matter. Most Democrats and Republicans didn’t bother to vote. After last November’s election, I suppose it’s easy to view a race for statewide judges, county officials, mayors, school directors, and council members as rather ho-hum.

As many of you know, I give lots of talks to organizations around the state and region, and, frankly, the topics of greatest interest lately have been the first 100 days of Barack Obama, the future of Arlen Specter, and the aftermath of Ed Rendell. Nobody seems to care who was elected judge, mayor of Pittsburgh, or district attorney of Philadelphia except the candidates and their fervent supporters.

I don’t have the full statewide figures on voter turn-out yet, but they will not be good. On the Republican side, the “hotly” contested race for Supreme Court drew just over 550,000 votes. That’s about 18% of 3.2 million Republicans. The Democrats did not have a contested race for state Supreme Court, so this measure of turn-out will not be accurate (lots of voters skip uncontested races). Nonetheless, only 530,000 Democrats cast a ballot in this race, about 12% of the state’s 4.4 million Democrats. Both numbers suggest that voter turn-out, statewide, was probably not much better than 20%.

I used to complain about voter turn-out until I realized that every voter who stays home gives my vote more power. Since like most of you, I never miss an election, I look forward to the day when just a few of us will nominate and elect public officials. Just kidding, of course, but it is amazing to me that these socalled “off year” elections seem so unimportant to so many. Who do you think raises Pennsylvania’s ignominious property taxes?

PA Supreme Court Up for Party Grabs

Put bluntly, this year’s election will determine which political party controls the state Supreme Court as we head into the reapportionment of the state’s legislative districts. That’s a subject that always seems to be litigated, and both parties would like to have an edge in any judicial decision that is rendered.

Of course, members of the Court will deny that politics plays any role in their decision-making, and this year’s candidates are likely to eschew that line, at least in public. But behind the scenes, you never know what goes on – and both parties are taking a keen interest in security the seat for their nominee.

The Republican nominee will be Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin of Allegheny County. She just happens to be the sister of the third-ranking GOP senator in the state Senate, Sen. Jane Orie, the majority whip. With 55% of the GOP vote, Orie Melvin, the endorsed candidate for Supreme Court, easily defeated her opponents in the primary, Philadelphia Judge Paul Panepinto and Superior Court Judge Cheryl Lynn Allen.

To give them the 4-3 edge on the Supreme Court, the Democrats have picked Superior Court Judge Jack Panella of Northampton County (the Allentown-Bethlehem area). Panella is well-liked and highly regarded by those who know him, but he hardly has name recognition across the state.

What Panella has going for him this November is a 1.2 million Democratic voter registration edge, if the party can get those Democrats out to vote. But never underestimate the Ories! Orie Melvin will work tenaciously, and remind voters that she was the one judge who tried to turn back that infamous pay raise. You know, the big one that state lawmakers later repealed for everyone but the Supreme Court subsequently ruled could not be repealed for judges! Orie Melvin was on the side of the angels in that debate.

I think the Panella v. Orie Melvin race is going to be a lot closer than some Democrats believe. By the way, both candidates are rated “Highly Recommended” by the PA Bar Association.

Winners & Losers in Other Statewide Races

Voters don’t seem to care much about the Superior Court and Commonwealth Court, but these appellate courts are an important judicial appeal for every citizen who believes their local county courts have screwed up. This November, three new judges to Superior Court and two new judges to Commonwealth Court will be elected.

On Tuesday, Democrats picked Allegheny County Judge Robert Colville, Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Kevin McCarthy, and Philadelphia Judge Anne Lazarus. They will face off against three Republicans, Allegheny County Judge Judith Olson, Tioga County attorney Sallie Mundy, and Allegheny County attorney Templeton Smith. With the possible exception of Colville, whose father was a highly popular District Attorney and later judge in Allegheny County, the public knows little about these candidates, although Lazarus benefits from having run statewide for Superior Court two years ago. The PA Bar Association rated all the candidates “Recommended” but gave a “Highly Recommended” to Lazarus and Olson. The Allegheny County Bar Association, which ranks judges and lawyers from the county, gave Colville, McCarthy, Olson, and Smith a “Highly Recommended” rating.

The race for Commonwealth Court could be much more interesting than expected. On Tuesday, the Democrats nominate two Pittsburgh attorneys, Barbara Behrend Ernsberger and Linda Judson, while the Republicans chose former Allegheny County Judge Patty McCullough and Dauphin County attorney Kevin Brobson.

The two best known candidates are Ernsberger and McCullough. Ernsberger was the first woman to head the City of Pittsburgh Democratic Committee and is on the Pittsburgh Planning Commission. She is hard-working and frank in her opinions, unafraid of the political old boys. McCullough was Gov. Rendell’s Republican choice for local court in 2005 but could not win election in Allegheny County. Her husband, Chuck, the former county solicitor under Jim Roddey, is a county councilman at-large, who is now on trial for theft from an elderly client. Among other things, Chuck is accused of directing unauthorized sums of his client’s money to political candidates and to Catholic Charities, where Patty served as executive director. Nobody has ever accused former Judge McCullough of any wrongdoing.

To further complicate matters, the PA Bar Association rated McCullough, Judson, and Brobson as “Recommended” for Commonwealth Court, but said Ernsberger was “Not Recommended” because of their concerns about her temperament. The Allegheny County Bar Association rated both McCullough and Judson as “Not Recommended At This Time” and called Ernsberger “Unqualified.” Remains to be seen how the voters sort through all this come November.

Ravenstahl Wins Big but Not as Big as Some Thought

It’s been like a non-stop three-year election campaign for Luke Ravenstahl, the 29-year old mayor of Pittsburgh. Taking office nearly three years ago after the death of the late Mayor Bob O’Connor, Ravenstahl faced voters twice in 2007 and again this Tuesday. If elected in November, he will – finally – get a four-year term to call his own.

From the beginning of this campaign, Ravenstahl had all the advantages, incumbency and money being chief among them. Nobody ever really thought he would lose the Democratic primary. You have to go back to the 1930s to find an incumbent Pittsburgh mayor losing in his own party. So the question all along has been how big a win would he rack up.

On Tuesday, Ravenstahl got 26,848 votes to Councilman Patrick Dowd’s 12,592 and former police sergeant Carmen Robinson’s 5,916. That’s pretty impressive in my book, a better than two-to-one victory over his nearest competitor. But Ravenstahl fell short of walloping his opponents, at least in the percentage department, where some (including yours truly) felt he could win as much as 65% to 70% of the vote. He ultimately got 59% of the Democratic vote.

Ravenstahl may have been hurt by very low voter turnout. Four years ago, Bob O’Connor won 28,812 votes (more than Luke) against much stronger opponents, Councilman Bill Peduto and now City Controller Michael Lamb plus four others. O’Connor beat both his big challengers by two-to-one (Peduto got 14,344 and Lamb got 13,114). The big difference was that 58,843 Democrats voted in the ’05 primary, compared to just 45,356 in the ’09 primary.

None of this should take away from Ravenstahl’s success. Even if 40% of the Democrats would prefer somebody else, you can’t please everyone, and I think he is well on his way to a long tenure as mayor of Pittsburgh. [During the KDKA-TV debate, Luke said he would serve out his full four-year term, if reelected, and not run for County Executive should Dan Onorato be elected governor – all of which suggests that he wisely knows his political home is in the city, not the county].

Patrick Dowd and Carmen Robinson both made names for themselves in this run. Robinson was feisty, assertive, and didn’t hold back in her attacks on the mayor. In a city where there should be more African American elected officials, Robinson opened some doors for herself, and I suspect we’ll see her on the ballot again sometime.

Dowd, of course, returns to city council. For a man who was written off by most and could scarcely raise a dime against the Ravenstahl financial juggernaut, Dowd made a strong impression for his passion, his energy, his independence, and his unfailing urge to call things exactly as he sees them.

This did not endear him to Ravenstahl, or many in established Democratic circles, including some who might have agreed with his ideas. But it is quintessential Dowd. Whether he can move on politically remains to be seen. No doubt Luke will cast about for a strong council challenger to beat Dowd in 2011.

Patrick’s charges of mayoralty corruption, pay-for-play, clearly got under Luke’s not-yet-hardened political skin. On election night, when he could have assumed the role of gracious winner, Ravenstahl never returned Dowd’s concession phone call and then on local TV accused Dowd of crossing the line and asked for his apology. He won’t get it from Dowd. There’s surprising bad blood here that threatens to last for awhile. You can watch the play-by-play on http://tinyurl.com/pc97ap.

I’ll reserve comment on the November election until later. Both Luke and Squirrel Hill native (and a real Republican) Josh Wander staged a write-in for the Republican nomination, but we don’t know who won that yet. Already, two independents have announced: Kevin Acklin and Franco “Dok” Harris. More about them later, but nobody I know (except maybe Acklin and Harris) thinks Ravenstahl will lose this November.

Mayor Loses Some Allies on City Council

While the mayor won big, Pittsburgh city council took a turn towards greater independence and youth when voters nominated Natalia Rudiak and Daniel Lavelle. Rudiak will replace Ravenstahl-stalwart Councilman Jim Motznik, who won a race for district magistrate against friend-turned-foe Michael Diven, in the South Hills council district. Ravenstahl supported Anthony Coghill to replace Motznik, but Rudiak, a 29-year old Carrick native with a Masters degree from CMU’s Heinz College, staged an impressive grassroots campaign to win.

Across town, another Ravenstahl ally, Councilwoman Tonya Payne, went down to defeat to 31-year old Schenley Heights native Daniel Lavelle. Lavelle’s family is well-known and respected in the Hill District for both its real estate and banking work, among the first African American families to break down racial barriers years ago in these key businesses. The Kent State University graduate also has prior government experience, having worked for both former councilman Sala Udin and PA state Rep. Jake Wheatley.

Both Rudiak and Lavelle are not inherently anti-Ravenstahl, even though the mayor did not back them. Both will support the mayor when his actions benefit their neighborhoods, which both believe have gotten short shrift from downtown.

Also renominated on Tuesday were incumbent Councilman Bill Peduto and Councilwoman Theresa Kail Smith. While Peduto works with the mayor when their agendas agree (i.e., certain government reform issues), he has no problem taking on City Hall. Neither do most of the others on council.

As I survey the nine likely members of council come January, Ravenstahl’s most stalwart ally appears to be Councilwoman Darlene Harris from the North Side. All the others – Council President Doug Shields, Councilman Bill Peduto, Patrick Dowd, Ricky Burgess, Bruce Kraus, Theresa Kail Smith, and newcomers Natalia Rudiak and Daniel Lavelle are not automatic Ravenstahl voters on much of anything. The mayor has some fence-mending to do in the years to come.

A Word about the Allegheny County Judges

As an attorney, a one-time member and chair of the Allegheny County Bar Association’s Judiciary Committee (that evaluates and rates candidates), and now a member of the ACBA’s board of governors, I really do care about the people we elect to the judiciary. Over the years, the public has elected some very high quality judges – and some real duds.

As voters, most of us lack the information to make informed choices. The ACBA ratings are not always perfect either. I remember years ago when Judge Ron Folino was “not recommended at this time,” and he is now considered one of the best on the bench today. He’s not the only example of lawyers screwing up their evaluations.

Lawyers run for judge for lots of reasons, some good and some pecuniary. The current salary ($158,105) is usually more than a lot (not all) of these candidates make practicing law. I also believe we need greater racial and gender diversity on the bench, and I would also argue for diversity of background. I like to see elected and appointed officials from other branches of government run for judge, along with non-traditional lawyers from the non-profit or corporate world, because these individuals have unique real-world experiences that add to the judiciary.

Unfortunately, much of these qualifications are overwhelmed by gimmicky advertising that now seems the preferred way to win a seat on the bench. I suspect 2009 will set a record locally for the amount of money spent by local judicial candidates on TV, billboards, lawn signs, and mailings.

In the end, three candidates won nominations in both parties: Susan Evashavik Dilucente, Phil Ignelzi, and Arnie Klein. Dilucente had the cleverest ads, Ignelzi spent the most money, and Klein (running for his third time at least) was the most perseverant. All three got good ratings from the ACBA and have the potential to be outstanding jurists. For the remaining two seats, it will be state Rep. Don Walko and appointed Judge Joe Williams (running as Democrats) versus attorneys Alex Bicket and Michele Zappala Peck (running as Republicans). Williams and Bicket were both rated “highly recommended” and Walko and Zappala Peck rated as “not recommended at this time.”

One final note. Did anyone notice the strange configuration of the computer ballot in the judicial races? There were two columns, and it was very easy to miss the second column because the first column did not run down to the bottom of the page. Instead, at least three lines were left blank, giving the impression that the ballot was over before it was. I have no doubt that this hurt all the candidates listed in the second column.

Well, that’s enough election analysis for today. Next week, I’ll be back with a focus on 2010. As always, I welcome your off-the-record comments and suggestions. Finally, this is Memorial Day Weekend. Please fly the American flag in memory of those men and women who have lost their lives to protect our right to vote and to debate what it all means!

March 11, 2009: Forty Days & Forty Nights

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Thanks for all the kind comments to my last PSF, the first e-newsletter I have penned in quite awhile. I really do appreciate the feedback, especially if you have an inside political 'scoop' or comment to share, always off-the-record. From your comments, I gather some of you may have had difficulty emailing me back. In the future, just use delano.jon@gmail.com, and your communication should get to me.

Curiously, my little rant about Washington's Birthday, the legal and official name for what some misguided marketers, media, and presidents incorrectly call "Presidents Day," elicited some interesting comments. A number of you thought the 1968 change that moved the federal holiday from Washington's birth date, February 22, and made it the third Monday in the month was designed to consolidate two federal holidays, one for George Washington and one for Abraham Lincoln. Nope. Believe it or not, there never has been a federal holiday for Lincoln, as southern congressmen blocked that long ago. While some northern states celebrated Lincoln's birthday as a state holiday on February 12, the reason for moving Washington's Birthday was solely to create a 3-day weekend. While some purists might dislike that move, my 'bitch' is with what we call the day and the fact that so many sheep so blindly followed Richard Nixon's silly attempt to rename the holiday so he could be included.

Your other comments were much more policy-directed, and I really welcome those. I am truly a "flaming moderate" and that often means that both those on the hard left and hard right will take issue with my characterization of events. That's fine. My goal is mostly to provide information that you may miss in the mainstream media, provoke some conversation, and have some fun in the process!

If you want to scroll around, you'll see I've touched on everything from Obama to Rooney, from Specter & Toomey to Onorato & Cunningham, and Luke-Patrick-Franco. As always, I welcome your comments. Of course, if you think this is spam, there's a button below to get off my Politically Savvy Friends' list!


Obama Tries to Deliver on Campaign Promises:

Forty days and forty nights in the White House is hardly enough to draw many conclusions about President Obama, but one thing seems crystal clear to me - this guy intends to shake up the status quo in Washington, just as he promised during his campaign. Unlike his Inaugural Address, which I thought was uninspired, Obama's speech to the Congress and nation last month was a home run. In an address that even got Republicans to their feet on many occasions, the president made it clear that he was in charge and that he had a plan to not only revive the economy but also to restore America's superiority in energy independence, health care delivery, and educational opportunity.

Right after that address, the CNN/Opinion Research Poll found 88% of Americans believe Obama's policies will move the country in the "right direction," up from 71% the week before. And an astounding 85% of Americans said they are "optimistic" about the future of the country under this president. Gallup found that the president's speech boosted his job approval from 59% to 67%, near his high point of 69% during his first couple days of office.

In my view, a lot of this support was wishful thinking from an electorate that is yearning for better times, likes the strength and good talk of this president, but really doesn't understand exactly what he is proposing as part of the "change" he was elected to deliver.

The most recent early March polls show some slippage. Obama's favorability is down to 57% in the Cook/RT Strategies poll, 58% in the most recent Newsweek poll, and 59% in the Quinnipiac poll.

The president's release of a $3.6 trillion 2010 federal budget has given opponents plenty of grist with which to attack him, but I was impressed with how the president is using his popularity to deliver on many of his campaign themes. Some commentators have noted that this budget, if enacted, would end the generally laissez-faire approach to national problems that characterized much of the Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush era in American politics. No doubt the belief that lower taxes on the wealthy and a government hands-off approach would "solve" problems is obviously being cast aside as a failure.

Instead, President Obama intends to spend dramatically to move the country to energy independence, to deliver health care insurance to every American, and to increase both the quality of and access to American education. And he will pay for some of it by raising taxes on the top 5% of Americans, while cutting the taxes of everyone else. It's an ambitious agenda that will require Democrats in Congress, and perhaps a Republican or two, to buy into the program.

In the end, the president is not going to get everything he wants. But he has laid down a very high marker and is essentially daring everyone to come up with something better. Because so many special interests are affected, you can be sure that lobbyists are swarming Capitol Hill, where they enjoy incredible clout among both Democratic and Republican members of Congress. Even when it comes to a popular president versus powerful special interests that fund congressional campaigns, I suspect we know who wins out in the fine print of public policy.

Republicans Search for a Response:

For a party that seems remarkably united in its opposition to President Obama's plans to stimulate the economy, the Republican Party is having a hard time finding a singular message that resonates with the public. Certainly Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was, by almost all accounts, unable to deliver a formal response to the president's speech that anyone took seriously.

And the recent brouhaha between GOP chairman Michael Steele and conservative talk radio entrepreneur Rush Limbaugh over who really speaks for Republicans gave Democrats a perfect chance to sow more division. Obviously, Steele is the elected leader of the National Republican Party and obviously Limbaugh is a clever entertainer who knows how to keep his name out there. But Steele's rather bold attack on Limbaugh for saying he hopes Obama fails (he meant Obama's policies fail) and then quick apology and suck-up to the powerful conservative voice left one wondering who really was in charge.

Fundamentally, the problem for Republicans, as Gov. Mitt Romney said cogently at the convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, is that it's not enough to just oppose something - you need concrete plans on how you would do things better. While Republican credibility on the Wall Street mess and the economy in general is about as low as it can go, Republicans need to start thinking creatively about how they would get health insurance to every American, how they would get America off its energy dependence on foreign oil, and how they would improve American schools and make higher education affordable to everyone. Whether his plans are good ones or not, Obama at least has ideas, and it's not clear - certainly it wasn't from Jindal - what the G.O.P. alternatives are.

Accusing the president of being a "socialist" or ranting on about "class warfare" will be no more effective against Obama than it was against Franklin D. Roosevelt 75 years ago. Indeed, income disparities seem just as bad today as they were in the 1930s, and reports of bankers and other corporate high-rollers giving themselves million dollar bonuses (and more) while their company's stock plummets and workers are laid off only helps Obama against such puerile attacks. When the president said, "I get it," he was speaking to the 95% of Americans who don't want another dime going to overpaid executives. The question for Republicans who voted against Obama's stimulus plan and oppose his budget is, do they "get it" too?

Don't Tax Me, Tax the Guy Behind That Tree:

Right after the election, I commented on how, in Pennsylvania, Obama won every income category (according to exit polls) except one. Those with family incomes between $100,000 and $150,000 voted for John McCain. But some 57% of those with incomes between $150,000 and $200,000 voted for Obama over McCain, and 58% of those with incomes over $200,000 voted for Obama. Given candidate Obama's frequently repeated message that those in the latter category could expect higher taxes, nobody can be surprised by his 2010 tax proposals.

In a nutshell, Obama will allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for the two highest tax brackets in 2011, reinstating the Clinton tax rates of the 1990s. That means that for individuals who earn more than $200,000 and couples with more than $250,000 tax rates will go up from 33% to 36%, while taxes for those with incomes over $357,000 will rise from 35% to 39.6%. To be absolutely clear, taxes on the wealthy will not go up in 2009 or 2010, but be put off until 2011 when, presumably, the economy will have recovered.

For those who make less than $200,000 ($250,000 a couple), the president will make permanent the lower Bush tax rates, and he wants to make permanent the additional tax reductions ($400 per worker, $800 per couple) that are part of the stimulus bill for 2009 & 2010. In other words, for most Americans, Obama cuts income taxes.

Ironically, this is not some radical tax-the-rich scheme, as some conservative commentators charge. For the well-off, this just restores tax rates to where they were before George W. Bush came along, and the top rate is well below the 70% top tax rate in effect with Ronald Reagan became president. However, Obama has proposed a more controversial limiting of tax deductions for those in these high income brackets. Instead of getting the full value of these deductions, deductions would be capped as if they were at a 28% tax level.

Charities that depend on philanthropic giving from the wealthy are already expressing some concern about the impact of these limits on deductions, fearing the wealthy won't donate as much. I suspect this is one proposal that will see some modification in Congress.

The administration also wants to correct one tax loophole that the Wall Street high rollers enjoyed in recent years. Instead of paying normal income taxes like the rest of us, many executives at hedge funds and other venture capital and equity firms got to treat their portion of the firm's profit as if it were a capital gain and not ordinary income. That meant paying taxes at a 15% tax rate, instead of what normal people of their income would pay.

On the capital gains tax itself, Obama will keep it the same reduced rate introduced by his predecessor, but he proposes raising it from 15% to 20% for those in the highest two income brackets. That actually is still below what it was during the Clinton years.

On the federal estate tax, the president sounds somewhat Republican. In 2011, the amount of an estate subject to federal tax was supposed to drop back down to $1 million. In other words, the heirs of anyone with an estate over $1 million would pay federal taxes on the amount above that dollar level. Obama proposes freezing the current $3.5 million exemption, allowing a lot more (but not all) wealthy families to escape this tax. Most Americans don't worry about this kind of stuff - are you leaving more than $3.5 million to your kids? - but some Republicans denounce even these high exclusions, saying there should be no "death taxes at all" on multi-million or multi-billion dollar estates.

"There will be overwhelming opposition from the American people" to these tax changes, the third-ranking House Republican, U.S. Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana predicted last month. Somehow I doubt it. Those under $200,000 ($250,000 a couple) will actually see their taxes go down under Obama, so opponents are going to have to make middle class Americans care that the wealthy are going to pay what they did under Clinton. It will be interesting to see who wins the "spin" in this important battle. Stay tuned.

Rooney Hopes for the Luck of the Irish:

Over the last couple of months, I have done several stories on Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney's special relationship with President Obama and the possibility that Rooney could become the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. While there is no official word from the White House, the speculation is growing that Rooney is number one on a short list of candidates for this job. Traditionally, this appointment is announced around St. Patrick's Day and, coincidentally, Rooney will be in Washington next Monday to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Ireland Fund (which he co-founded decades ago). On Tuesday, Rooney will be at the White House for a special St. Patrick's Day reception with Obama and the Irish Prime Minister.

Last April, Rooney broke ranks with members of his own family and the political establishment of both the region and state to endorse Barack Obama. At the time, no one of his stature had embraced Obama from Pennsylvania. (U.S. Sen. Bob Casey endorsed Obama shortly thereafter). After that, Rooney campaigned hard for Obama, raised money for him, and hosted Michelle Obama at his North Side home. Talk to the president, you quickly learn that this is a mutual admiration society.

In my view (and, admittedly I'm biased because I am a big Rooney fan), Dan has not only earned the ambassadorship the traditional political way, but he is also uniquely qualified to be ambassador because of the work he has done for so many years to promote peace and reconciliation in Ireland. If you want to learn more, check out these stories, including a Jan. 17 interview I did with Dan wherein he said he would serve in any position the President wants. http://kdka.com/video/?id=54536@kdka.dayport.com ; uncut interview http://kdka.com/video/?id=51971@kdka.dayport.com


Can Anyone Stop Onorato for Governor?

It's still more than a year until the 2010 Pennsylvania primary when voters pick the nominees for Pennsylvania's highest office. But everyone knows that these campaigns for governor cannot wait until 2010 to get started. On the Democratic side, Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato, who has a whopping $4 million in his war chest already, would like everyone to believe that he is the strongest Democrat in the field to succeed Gov. Ed Rendell, a term-limited Philadelphia Democrat.

Truth is Onorato is right. At this stage, he has got to be considered the front-runner. Even if he didn't have all this money, he has a bigger political base than any of the other candidates, and the conservative Pittsburgh Democrat arguably may be best placed to break the 50 year jinx that dictates the Republicans win the governor's mansion after eight years of Rendell.

But don't tell that to Lehigh County executive Don Cunningham, who thinks he can give Onorato a run for all that money. I had the chance to sit down with Cunningham not long ago, and he makes a case that he can raise the money and has the issues to out-flank Onorato within the more liberal Democratic Party.

Ironically, on many levels, Onorato and Cunningham are similar - both 40-somethings come from working class backgrounds, an Italian Catholic versus an Irish Catholic. Cunningham was a young mayor of Bethlehem when Bethlehem Steel shut its doors, and he says now his region is the fastest-growing part of Pennsylvania. Both are committed to practical approaches to economic development, and can point to examples of success. Indeed, they sound a lot alike when they talk about growth.

But on one social issue, there's a big difference. While Onorato is pro-life, Cunningham is pro-choice, and within the Democratic Party that could be a defining issue for some. However, Cunningham is not about to change Pennsylvania's already tough anti-abortion law (neither did pro-choice Rendell) while Onorato is hardly pushing to make the law tougher.

If that issue neutralizes for Onorato, Cunningham has no problem going after Onorato on the drink tax, the ten percent (now seven percent) levy on poured alcohol in Allegheny County. Onorato backed that tax to give public transit a dedicated source of revenue, necessary to receive federal matching dollars. The tax is unpopular among many, and Cunningham took aim at it during a recent visit to Pittsburgh, calling the tax "one of the highest, if not the highest, in Allegheny County history." No surprise, the anti-drink tax folks hosted a fund-raiser for Cunningham.

Here's my quick story on his visit: http://kdka.com/video/?id=53616@kdka.dayport.com and if you want to watch the full 18-minute interview, just click on this: http://kdka.com/video/?id=53604@kdka.dayport.com

Can Cunningham really give Onorato a run? Of course, he can, if - and it's a big if - he is able to raise enough money to get an alternative message out there. Right now, Cunningham is up for reelection as county executive in Lehigh County, and that could drain some resources. Still, in my view, it won't hurt Onorato to have some competition next spring. Many political analysts believe that's what helped Ed Rendell the most in 2002 - running against Bob Casey in the Democratic primary and forcing Rendell to campaign all over the state. By the end of that primary, everyone knew Rendell, while his Republican opponent, Attorney General Mike Fisher, was still a relatively unknown state official.

Can Anyone Beat Arlen?

After U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter voted to enact the Obama stimulus plan, Specter's arch-enemies on the right promised to take him out, politically speaking, in next spring's primary. Their biggest challenge was finding a candidate to do that, and they just might have done that.

As I opined in my last PSF, former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey, the conservative Republican who nearly took Specter down in 2004, has always been the most popular choice among the conservative party faithful. The cum laude graduate of Harvard is now president of the Club for Growth, a conservative economic think tank that opposes President Obama's economic policies. Toomey, at first, was not inclined to take Specter on again, preferring a run for governor instead. But that seems to have changed, in part, because the outcry against Specter for supporting President Obama's recovery plan has reached pandemic proportions nationwide among Republican conservatives and their talk show allies (yes, Rush).

Toomey has some advantages in 2010 that he did not enjoy in 2004, not the least of which is Specter himself. While I've never seen a 79-year old with as much vigor and political acuity as Arlen Specter, particularly given what life has thrown at him, time has taken a toll on him, as it has on all of us. Still, Pennsylvania is an "older" state, and like our neighbors in West Virginia (who will never not reelect Robert Byrd) Specter's 80-something age next year won't be a negative as long as he keeps up that feisty campaign style that belies his age.

No, what Specter's greatest problem among Republicans is not his age but the wide-spread perception that he is not a "reliable" Republican - that he "blows with the wind" on issues important to many Republicans. What the general public sees as Specter's independent voting style, many GOPers see as a betrayal of core party principles. The senator's support for Obama's recovery plan, while certainly popular in Pennsylvania as a whole, has become a political lightening rod for the base of Specter's party.

And, arguably, it's a base that has become more conservative over the years, even in this state where moderate Republicans like Scranton, Thornburgh, and Ridge held court for so many years. Some pundits have talked about the loss moderate Rs to Ds in 2008 in order to vote in the Democratic presidential primary, and certainly that happened. It's also true that Limbaugh and others encouraged conservative Rs to do the same to play havoc with the Democrats. My guess is all this party-switching stuff is over-stated. Most voters don't think this strategically when they join a political party.

A bigger problem for Specter is that he will no longer have two powerful incumbent politicians on his side - President Bush and U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. Many believe, and I am one of them, that Bush and Santorum's support for Specter delivered the 17,000 votes that made the difference in the 2004 primary. I can't tell you the number of people I met that year who told me they were "holding their noses and voting for Specter" because Rick told them to do that. Today, Santorum has politely declined to indicate whether he still backs Specter over Toomey, but it wouldn't matter much if Rick still likes Arlen. Out of office for more than two years, Santorum no longer lives in Pennsylvania and his cadre of fervent supporters are not going to listen to him a second time anyways.

Now none of this means it's hopeless for Specter to win renomination. He should have plenty of money, and he still gets plaudits for "bringing home the bacon" to key constituencies in the state. And Specter knows how to go on offense, like his charge yesterday that Toomey was partially responsible for the Wall Street mess. In his very early years, Toomey worked for investment firms in New York City and Hong Kong.

"He's been totally in favor of deregulation, letting Wall Street run its own affairs, which has been a tremendous factor in bringing us into this current mess," Specter charged on a radio talk show in Wilkes-Barre. "So, on the basis of what he did in Congress, I think he's part of the problem." Zing. Zap.

And for some Republicans, Specter is their only hope of keeping Pennsylvania in the Republican column. With 1.1 million more Democrats than Republicans, the conservative Toomey will have to leapfrog to the middle to win a general election in the state. Of course, it's hard to handicap the 2010 general without knowing the Democrat. A Philadelphia liberal as the Dem nominee might give Toomey a fighting chance to win statewide.

But first he'll have to defeat Specter and that could get a little more complicated with the entry of Peg Luksik, the conservative pro-life activist who says she's also going to run in the Republican primary next year. The 53-year old Johnstown native, fresh off a stint as campaign manager for William Russell who lost to U.S. Rep. John Murtha, made political history in 1990 when she got 45% of the vote against then Republican state treasurer Barbara Hafer in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Four years later, she ran as an Independent for governor, garnering 13% of the vote which still stands as a record for an independent candidate.

All in all, the 2010 Senate race will be as much fun as the governor's race to watch.

Statewide Elections Are All Black Robes:

It's only natural to zoom ahead to 2010 because the 2009 off-year election, at least statewide, strikes many as boring. Voters this year will elect one member of the state Supreme Court to fill the vacancy created when Chief Justice Ralph Cappy retired, three members of the state Superior Court, and one member of the Commonwealth Court.

I daresay most voters will not have a clue who to vote for in either the May primary or the November general election. But in Pennsylvania, where judges are elected and run under the party label, which party controls the courts, particularly the highest court, can matter, particularly in redistricting and election-related matters. Right now, the state Supreme Court is controlled by the Democrats, 4-to-3. The Superior Court is controlled by the Republicans, 10-to-5, and the Republicans also control the Commonwealth Court, 5-to-4.

With the deadline for filing nominating petitions on March 10, we are beginning to get a picture of who's running for what. On the Democratic side, only one candidate appears to be running for the state Supreme Court - Superior Court Judge Jack Panella. Panella has been on this state court for five years, after serving 12 years on the Northampton Court of Common Pleas.

While the Dems seem to have united behind Panella, it looks like a true free-for-all on the Republican side. At least four candidates have filed for the Republican nomination, including three Superior Court colleagues, all women, and all from Allegheny County: Superior Court Judges Cheryl Allen, Joan Orie Melvin, and Jacqueline Shogan. The only male on the ballot is Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Paul Panepinto.

Melvin was endorsed by the state Republican Party, which comes as no surprise since her sister is Senate Majority Whip Jane Orie. Melvin has the longest judicial service, serving more than 20 years as a municipal, county, and statewide judge. But that has hardly deterred Allen, the first African American elected to the Superior Court, or Shogan, a nurse of 12 years who went back to law school (Duke) and graduated with high honors. Panepinto has served 19 years on the Philadelphia court, where the Widener law grad is in charge of complex litigation cases.

Feel Free to Buy Your Judge:

In Pennsylvania, judicial candidates can accept contributions of any amount from individuals or political committees. In addition, outside organizations have been known to dump hundreds of thousands of dollars in an effort to defeat or elect their preferred candidates. This is all quite legal, which is why the case of Caperton v. Massey Coal, argued recently before the U.S. Supreme Court, is so important. When a candidate is elected judge, at what point must he recuse himself from the cases involving those who have contributed to his campaign? Right now, it is left entirely up to the judge, some of whom appear to have no problem sitting on cases that involve their contributors.

To his credit, former Chief Justice John P. Flaherty of Pennsylvania joined 27 former chief justices and justices of 19 state supreme courts in filing a "friend of the court" brief in the Caperton case. They argued, correctly, that "substantial financial support of a judicial candidate - whether contributions to the judge's campaign committee or independent expenditures - can influence a judge's future decisions, both consciously and unconsciously." The solution is automatic recusal to protect the due process rights of the litigants who did not contribute to the judge and to avoid any appearance of impropriety. It seems obvious to me. Let's hope the U.S. Supreme Court makes the right decision.


Luke Ravenstahl Asks for Four More Years:

If it sometimes seems like Mayor Luke Ravenstahl is in one perpetual election cycle, you can be forgiven. He has been. Propelled into office at the untimely death of the late Mayor Bob O'Connor on September 1, 2006, Ravenstahl had a primary election in May 2007 (that's the race that Councilman Bill Peduto withdrew from) and a competitive general election in 2007 (against Republican challenger Mark DeSantis). Having won that special election, Ravenstahl is now running for a full four-year term as Pittsburgh's mayor.

Now age 29, Ravenstahl ought to be a shoo-in for reelection. He has amassed a sizeable campaign war chest. He is one of the most recognized political figures in the area, and, after some stupid mistakes early on, he seems to have settled down. While he is the master of the photo op [yesterday it was "Miss Smiling Irish Eyes" & today it's "Fixing Pittsburgh's Potholes"] like most mayors, he has learned to be substantive, too.

I have known Luke since he first ran for city council - just months after graduating from Washington & Jefferson College in December 2002. I think I was the first, or at least one of the first, reporters to put him on TV right after he defeated incumbent Councilwoman Barbara Burns in May 2003 enroute to election to city council that November. I have always been intrigued and admired his political acumen in a man so young and, frankly, I have always liked Luke on a personal level, although I won't let that interfere with reporting and analyzing his actions in an honest, objective manner.

The biggest knock on Ravenstahl, it seems to me, is that he often appears to be a "caretaker" - not a vision maker for a city that is rapidly losing its population and its tax base. Feel good national news stories that rank Pittsburgh positively on some levels do not solve the city's underlying financial woes or reverse some long-term trends that began long before Ravenstahl was born in 1980. To his credit, the mayor and his aides now appear more on top of some of these issues than they did a year ago, but the failure of the first couple years - aided and abetted by youth, inexperience, and the stupid stuff - has left an opening for Ravenstahl's critics.

Patrick Dowd Tries to Shake Up the Democrats:

Enter Councilman Patrick Dowd, a 40-year old Highland Park resident, who thinks he can defeat Ravenstahl in the May 19 Democratic primary. None of the political punditocracy thinks he can do that, but Dowd has always upended expectations, defeating incumbents first for the School Board and then for City Council. [He lost his first race against PA Rep. Joe Preston].

Dowd is a quintessential outsider, and he has won elections through a grassroots campaign, rather than the political clout of a Democratic organization. With less than 10 weeks to go, Dowd's challenge is whether he has enough time to reach thousands of city Democrats who have no clue who he is.

With both a Masters degree and Ph.D. in history from the University of Pittsburgh, Dowd can be sharp, analytical, and direct. Even some of his colleagues on city council who would be his natural allies against Ravenstahl are not likely to endorse him because he's too much of a loner and not a team player, they say.

In this campaign, Dowd has attacked Ravenstahl for both lacking vision for the future and for being, as some have described the mayor, the youngest old-school machine politician in America. When he announced his candidacy, Dowd compared himself to the late Mayor Pete Flaherty, who also ran - and beat - the Democratic machine forty years ago by characterizing himself as "Nobody's Boy." But Flaherty was much better known as a council member when he ran than Dowd is today, in part because back then members of council were elected at-large, not by district.

Right now, I think Dowd will be lucky to get 40% of the Democratic primary vote and could get much less because of the entry of attorney Carmen Robinson, a former city police sergeant, into the race. Still, his candidacy forces Ravenstahl to deal with the "vision thing" - to wit, the mayor's effort to create a Renaissance III plan on Monday. And that's good for the city.

Could Dowd upset Ravenstahl in May? Of course, everything's possible in politics. But in early March, time is on the mayor's side. As the campaign develops, I'd welcome the insights of any city dwellers. To get a better glimpse of Dowd, you can check out these stories on his candidacy: http://kdka.com/video/?id=53626@kdka.dayport.com; http://kdka.com/video/?id=53425@kdka.dayport.com; http://kdka.com/video/?id=53429@kdka.dayport.com.

Franco Harris for Mayor?

Rumors have swirled for months that Franco Harris, the great Steelers Hall of Famer from yesteryear, was interested in running for office. After all, the 59-year old has been a staple on the campaign trail for Democratic candidates over the years, including Barack Obama.

But it was not this Franco Harris who tossed his hat in the ring for mayor on Monday, but rather 29-year old Franco Harris Jr., who goes by "Dok," a shortened version of his mother's maiden name. Dok Harris says he will run as an Independent against Ravenstahl, or whoever wins the Democratic and Republican primaries, this November.

I sat down with Harris this week, and besides that incredible resemblance to his dad (helped by the beard) Dok was impressive for someone who does not have political experience. He's obviously bright, a graduate of Shadyside Academy and Princeton University with a Masters Degree from Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business and a Law Degree from the University of Pittsburgh. He speaks well and repeats some of Dowd's arguments against the mayor, although in softer language and with occasional compliments to Luke. But the one-time Republican, then Democrat, and now Independent knows he will have to develop and articulate a clear message for his candidacy to get off the ground.

Harris says his father's famous name will get the voters to take a look at him, but he himself must close the deal by convincing voters that he can run the city better than Ravenstahl and that he has a better prescription for the future.

In my view, if Harris can raise money, he could make things interesting this fall, but this is quite a long-shot. Pittsburgh is a five-to-one Democratic town. Four years ago, Republican Joe Weinroth (spending practically nothing) got 27% of the vote against Bob O'Connor. Two years ago, Republican Mark DeSantis (spending more than a quarter million dollars on TV) got 35% of the vote against Ravenstahl. Harris would need every Republican vote plus a whole lot of Democrats to make this competitive.

To get a better feel for this newcomer to politics, check out the story on his announcement (http://kdka.com/video/?id=54494@kdka.dayport.com) and my uncut interview with him (http://kdka.com/video/?id=54468@kdka.dayport.com).

That's more than enough for today's PSF. As always, I welcome your off-the-record comments and insights. Remember to use delano.jon@gmail.com to reach me. And for those of you in the Northeast/Midwest plagued with this never-ending winter, take solace. Spring is coming!

Feb. 26, 2009: A New Era Begins

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Yes, I'm back - and to my regular politically savvy friends, I apologize for the absence. I love writing this occasional missive, but I admit that after the unbelievably hectic schedule I had during the 2008 election year it was a bit liberating to take a break from my PSFs. But now a new era has begun with a new president, so perhaps it's timely to share some thoughts and insights with you. On some levels, this country was left in pretty sad shape by the prior administration, but some are not convinced the new guys in town have the right prescription. So that will provide great fodder for the months ahead.

As always, this is a two-way street. As a politically savvy friend, your comments and special inside tips on the national, state, or regional political scene are valuable to me, so I encourage you to keep in touch. Finally, I don't want to be spam for anyone, so if you have no interest in how politics affects your life just use that delete key down below. In the meantime, read on, enjoy, and let me hear from you.


Happy Washington's Birthday! There is no such thing as Presidents Day. I mean really - it's a hoax. George Washington was born on February 22, 1732 - 277 years ago this coming Sunday - and as the commander-in-chief who guided us to victory in the Revolution and then served eight years as the nation's first president, he deserves a special day of recognition. In 1968, Congress (always keen to meddle with things) moved the federal holiday from February 22 to the third Monday in February. Then President Richard Nixon (maybe thinking he could be included in the mix) started calling this day "Presidents Day," the silliest notion of all. The dumb calendar-makers and media followed suit. But, officially and legally, the holiday is still "Washington's Birthday." You wouldn't know that from all the marketing hoopla, mistaken calendars, and media ignorance of this fact. But I know my PSFers are smart folks, so correct the unknowing who insist that today is Presidents Day!


Four Weeks Later, Does Anyone Remember George Bush:

We've had a new president for just four weeks, and already the memory of George Bush has faded fast. To his credit, President Bush has kept his mouth shut and his face hidden, giving the new president the chance to establish himself without immediate criticism from his predecessor. That will surely come in the future, as Bush joins the ranks of Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter as former presidents who always have something to say about anything. Of recent presidents, the only one I remember who said little or nothing in retirement was Ronald Reagan and that was because he suffered Alzheimer's disease. At some point, George Bush, like Richard Nixon sought to do, will try to restore his reputation. It's hard to be the most unpopular president to leave office in modern history, but now Bush is smart to put some quiet time in before attempting the image rehabilitation.

A couple PSFers took me to task last fall for wondering out loud exactly how history would judge George Bush. Apparently, I asked whether he would ultimately be viewed as one of our better presidents like Harry Truman who left office down in the polls only to be revered later in life, or be lumped in with the likes of Millard Filmore and Chester A. Arthur. Turns out President Arthur has some local fans who did not welcome the comparison. For the moment, I leave it to you and smart historians to judge the presidency of "W" - but to refresh your memory of the last 43 presidents - you might enjoy this video listing of all of them: http://www.flixxy.com/presidents-morphing.htm Feel free to email me your list of the "worst" presidents in American history. Might be fun to do on this misnamed Presidents Day!

The Inauguration of Barack Obama:

I attended the inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1981 and Bill Clinton in 1993, and for all the pomp and glitz of those events, nothing compares to the inauguration of Barack Obama a few weeks ago. Photojournalist Dave Colabine (a KDKA-TV photographer) and I arrived in DC about midday on January 19th, where we set to work catching up to the many Pittsburgh people who were in Washington for the festivities so we could send stories back home for the evening news. Washington was certainly festive, as it always is when a new president comes to town, but the sheer number of celebrants made this extraordinary. On Inauguration Day, we got stuck underground for an hour-and-a-half on the Metro, as hundreds of thousands jammed the system. Now, normally, such crowds and delays would make people irritable, but not this day. Folks sung songs, clapped, and couldn't have been nicer to each other. In the end, two million Americans jammed the Mall that stretches two miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol. The Obama campaign clearly knew and welcomed these folks, although the same team lacked an "exit strategy" when it came time to leave - we had to walk miles to find an open Metro stop, taking more than three hours to get back to our satellite truck on Connecticut Avenue.

During the swearing-in ceremony, we were just east of the Washington Monument, about a million people away from the Capitol. The crowd was perhaps more black than white, but not overwhelmingly so. This was not a surprise to me. Washington is a majority black city, and the inauguration of the first African American president is, was, and should be a point of pride to the black community, as was the swearing-in of John F. Kennedy in 1961 to millions of Catholics who saw that religious barrier finally fall. No surprise, my TV reports showed the black crowds, which prompted some cowardly anonymous hater to send me a sick hand-written note, "You fit right in with all those niggers in D.C." Obviously, this racism isn't unique to western PA, but it's just another sad reminder that despite the election of an African American president, this country still has a segment of society that just can't get beyond the color of one's skin. What more can you say.

Standing so far away from the swearing-in itself, I watched the event on the jumbo screens placed all over the Mall. From my vantage point, the crowd was very partisan, booing loudly when President Bush was introduced and cheering for President Clinton. Despite all the controversy that accompanied the Rev. Rick Warren, his invocation prayer was well-received on the Mall, bringing tears to the eyes of many. It was hard not to catch the verbal slip-up of Chief Justice John Roberts. Why the dude didn't have a written copy of the oath of office in front of him is beyond me. This editor of the Harvard Law Review couldn't administer the oath to another editor of the Harvard Law Review? Well, at age 54, the chief justice will have plenty of future times to get it right, although he may always be remembered for this one.

As for President Obama's inaugural address, can anyone tell me what he said? I listened carefully for some memorable line and found none. To some extent, Obama was the victim of that old high expectation game. He is given to great moments of oratory, but his swearing-in was not one of them. But reading the speech later, there is plenty of meat in it, even if on the Mall it sounded awfully pessimistic about the country. One thing that caught my attention on the Mall was the president's renewed effort to reach out to the Muslim world, first by not shying away from his middle name in taking the oath, and then by reciting that America is "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers." Actually, America is about 76% Christian, 14% non-religious, 1.3% Jewish, 0.5% Muslim, 0.5% Buddhist, 0.4% Hindu, and a smattering of some others. We are still overwhelmingly Christian, but the difference is that we have no state religion, and we welcome (or at least most of us do) the practice of all faiths (or no faith) in this country.

To me, the most important part of the Inauguration itself was the spirit of change, of starting over again, of a new chance to get things right. President Obama's campaign, of course, was predicated on this notion that he, a real outsider to Washington (unlike the Clintons and Bushes), could better mirror the peoples' desires to change the direction of the country. Whether "Change We Can Believe In" is more than just a slogan will depend on the actions of the Obama administration in the weeks ahead. But on Inauguration Day, clearly the desire for change was palpable.

All the stories I filed can be searched at www.kdka.com, but here's a wrap-up montage I did a couple hours after we got back from D.C. http://kdka.com/video/?id=52112@kdka.dayport.com

As Economy Falters, Republicans Say, It's All Yours, Dems:

Having won the White House and increased their majority in both the House and Senate in large measure because President Bush and the Republicans screwed up so badly on the economy, Democrats now have both the power and the responsibility to fix the economic misery felt by millions of Americans. In short, even though they may have inherited the problem, it's theirs now, and the Democratic Party will be judged in 2010 on whether we all feel better, or worse, about the economy.

That analysis helps explain why Republicans, for obvious political reasons, were so united in opposing the president, despite his almost obsequious effort to court them. The clearer it is that the "rescue plan" is the Democrats' plan, the easier it will be to campaign against the Dems next year if things don't get better. By voting unanimously against the stimulus package in the House and almost unanimously in the Senate, the G.O.P. is attempting to wash its hands of any responsibility for the economic mess. It's smart politics, and it just might work. This is not to say that the Republicans had no legitimate policy arguments against such a costly recovery plan. The massive government spending gave opponents lots of targets. But these objections are largely irrelevant to the broader political picture.

Of course, there's a lot in the $787 stimulus package that people will like. It's hard to argue against a $400 per person, $800 per couple (filing jointly), tax cut through a smaller withholding of taxes, even if it only amounts to about $13 per bi-weekly paycheck. And most of those who get Social Security payments will enjoy the one-time $250 check. More meaningful to the economy may be some of the other provisions, like a tax deduction of the sales tax you pay if you buy a new car or truck - or a $1,500 tax credit to offset expenses in making your home energy efficient - or the $2,500 tax credit on college tuition payments - or, if you're among the many temporarily out of work, the increase in unemployment payments and, more importantly, its extension from 26 to 46 weeks (and longer in some hard hit states), along with a 60% government subsidy of your COBRA health insurance payments.

If any of this stuff works, only President Obama and the Democrats can take credit for it, with the exception of three Republican senators, one of whom is up for reelection next year [see below]. And if the economy continues to sour, Republicans can say, we told you so.

Fixing the Wall Street Bailout:

The more we learn about last fall's $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan, the less people like it. The problem may not have been in the concept, and the infusion of funds may have actually worked to stop the stock market decline, but the plan's implementation by President Bush and then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has been sharply criticized by many. From all appearances, the Bush administration simply handed out $350 billion to the banks with no rules, no accountability, and no real paper trail of what these banks did with all these tax dollars. There's no defending the award of "bonuses" to bank executives and Wall Street financiers whose organizations were going under, whose stock prices have plummeted, and whose reckless profiteering and greed in these complicated housing finance scams wiped out at least a third of most people's retirement savings in the stock market. While Standard & Poor's, Moody's, and other ratings institutions suspended judgment to give AAA ratings to worthless financial instruments so others could make billions, the Bush administration, the Securities & Exchange Commission, and, yes, both the Republican-controlled and the Democratic-controlled Congress over the last five years turned a blind eye to appropriate regulation.

The bottom line to all this scummy behavior is that taxpayers do not want to spend one more penny on banks and their Wall Street friends. But the reality for President Obama and now-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is that they must do just that. The remaining $350 billion needs to be spent, and many think even that won't be enough to prop up the ailing financial markets. Some economists think some banks are already insolvent or heading towards insolvency. I don't know. What I do know is that the rules should be absolutely clear and transparent to the public about how this money is to be used and what conditions are attached if a bank accepts public dollars. Banning bonuses above $500,000 seems reasonable, but corporate bonuses are not really the issue, any more than strictly limiting the use of corporate jets (although that should be done, too). Restoring confidence in our financial institutions is critical, along with a renewed effort to shore up home mortgages and to ease credit for companies and individuals, and then opening up the institution's books for regulators and the public to examine. If a bank accepts corporate welfare, there can be no more hiding how the bank's dollars are spent.

As this week begins, we don't know exactly how the Obama administration will proceed in this arena. The president seems correctly focused on the housing foreclosure problem, but that alone won't solve the banking crisis. And until banks are solvent, it is unlikely that the stock market can really begin to recover.

So What's Obama's Four-Week Report Card?

It's pretty early in the game to assess how President Obama is doing, but that doesn't stop pollsters from trying. By most accounts, Obama is still soaring. His job rating in February is 62% approval (CBS), 66% (Gallup), 69% (Ipsos/McClatchy), and 76% (CNN). An interesting Pew Research Center Poll asked respondents for one word to describe Obama: 33% picked "intelligent/intellectual" followed by "change" (17%), "honest" (16%), and "confident" (15%). The first negative word was "inexperienced" (15%) followed by "socialist" (13%).

My own take on this is that the president is doing remarkably well for someone who has had a few slip-ups in his Cabinet appointments. Most people don't seem to care about who is secretary of commerce or health & human services, as much as they want a smart, honest leader who will confront the economic challenges. I think it's also important for Obama to be perceived to represent the average working family beyond the DC Beltway and not the political in-crowd in Washington or the big financial interests on Wall Street. His town meetings in Indiana, Florida, and Virginia helped to reassure people that he understands the pain most of us are feeling to which the Bush administration could never relate. The president needs to continue these trips to "middle America" both to hear the Mrs. Hughes out there and to demonstrate that he will not become captive to Washington's governing class.


Harrisburg Struggles to Balance the Budget:

Don't tell Gov. Ed Rendell that he's a lame duck. His putative successor is already out there somewhere stirring the political waters, but it's more than fifteen months until PA Democrats and Republicans nominate the next gubernatorial candidates. That leaves Rendell still in a visible driver's seat, and the guv, along with the Republican-controlled state Senate and the Democratic-controlled state House, must confront the largest budget deficit in decades - a $2.3 billion deficit that could easily double in the next couple years.

In his Feb. 4 budget address to the legislature, the governor took credit for a degree of fiscal conservatism that makes PA not quite the economic basket case of others. Rendell was quick to compare this state's fiscal mess to that of California ($41 billion deficit), New York ($14 billion deficit), New Jersey ($4.0 billion deficit), Ohio ($3.5 billion deficit), and Massachusetts ($3.1 billion deficit). Still, Pennsylvania must balance its books. Unlike many other states, Rendell made it clear that he would not increase the state's flat income tax (3.07%), or increase the state sales tax (6%) or the gasoline tax (32.3 cents/gallon). And he will not halt his effort to (slowly) reduce business taxes in Pennsylvania. So that leaves him with cutting government spending, finding some creative new revenues, and praying that the just-approved economic stimulus package will help out the most.

To close the deficit, Rendell proposed cutting or eliminating 89% of the line items in the budget. He says he'll cut completely 20% of the line items, saving $395 million, and he'll reduce most of the others, saving $582 million. That's not enough. Rendell is counting on $1.1 billion from the Obama recovery plan to help pay for Medical Assistance (the state's version of Medicaid, health insurance for the poor). The guv also wants to raise taxes on cigarettes by a dime (up to $1.45 a pack) and impose a first-time tax on cigars and smokeless chewing tobacco. He is also freezing executive branch salaries and negotiating with state unions to scale back labor costs. The most interesting new proposal was to legalize and tax video poker machines, but Rendell is not really proposing to use this tax revenue to balance the budget. Rather, the money would subsidize a new program to allow families a rebate of up to $7,600 off annual tuition, fees, room and board when their kids attend a Pennsylvania community college or one of the PA state universities.

The Republicans, who control the state Senate, are not particularly enthusiastic about the governor's budget. If past is prologue, and it usually is in Harrisburg, watch for a lot of political posturing by both sides before the deals are cut in the backrooms around the June 30 end of the fiscal year.

Onorato Tries to Scare Opposition with Cash on Hand:

Sometime by June, Allegheny County executive Dan Onorato will announce his candidacy for governor. The Democrat hopes to break the jinx since WWII that dictates that after eight years of a Democrat in the governor's mansion it's the Republicans' turn. But before turning his attention to an election nearly 21 months away, Onorato needs to convince the state's Democrats that he's just the man to break that jinx. That's where the cash comes in.

The latest end-of-the-year campaign filings shows the conservative western PA Democrat has already raised more than $4 million in his quest to succeed Rendell. An astounding $2.2 million was raised in 2008, when most political money was being sucked up by the presidential and congressional candidates. Most of the other potential candidates on the Democratic side have nothing approaching a million bucks, let alone four million. This includes Lehigh County executive Don Cunningham, state Senate Democratic leader Bob Mellow of Scranton, Philadelphia millionaire businessman Tom Knox, and (the best known) state Auditor General Jack Wagner, who's also flirting with running for the U.S. Senate. Onorato's game plan is transparent. Scare these Dems out of the race for governor.

Coming from Pittsburgh, Onorato is not your typical Philadelphia Democrat. He is both socially and economically conservative. He is pro-life, pro-gun, and generally anti-tax, and anti-deficit spending. In five years as county executive, he has never raised county property taxes and vigorously opposed any reassessment of property in the county (a traditional back door way to raise revenue). He cut the size of Allegheny County's government by firing 700 county employees and pushing the consolidation of county elected offices from ten to four. His biggest "mistake" (according to his opponents) was the 10% alcoholic drink tax (now reduced to 7%), which Onorato pushed as a way to provide some dedicated funding for Allegheny County's public transit system. The drink tax is unpopular, and his opponents will surely use it against him. That doesn't bother Onorato at all, who has a scrappy but congenial in-your-face demeanor when it comes to his critics.

Can Onorato be defeated in a Democratic primary? Of course. He's not yet that well known outside of southwestern PA, and an opponent with money could hone in on the Pittsburgh native's conservative views, which will not be popular in Philadelphia or its suburbs where so many Democrats live. But Onorato will argue that, like U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, sometimes this is the best way for a Dem to win statewide office. We're at the early stages of this race, but I give Onorato credit for having a solid game plan and sticking to it.

Corbett Positions for the Governor's Mansion:

When the television cameras panned the crowd of legislators, elected officials, and guests gathered to hear the governor's annual budget address, one man was more than visible at the back of the House chamber: state Attorney General Tom Corbett. Corbett, who hails from suburban Pittsburgh and won a very impressive reelection last November, is the Republican heir-apparent to Rendell. When Rendell began his address by hailing the victory of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, Corbett was spotted waving his Terrible Towel with gusto. History dictates that the Republicans will win in 2010, although the Dems could break that jinx because they have rarely been stronger in numbers and political clout than they are today. Whether Corbett is the right Republican to maintain tradition is a decision Republican voters will have to make next year.

Still, the attorney general, who made a name for himself by going after Democrats in the state legislature over bonuses allegedly paid to staffers for doing political work, is not the only candidate in the field. Former U.S. attorney Patrick Meehan, a suburban Philadelphian, has filed preliminary campaign papers and already raised $275,000 in his exploration of the quest. Meehan is well-known in the state's largest media market for his crime-fighting and anti-corruption cases, including the high profile case he filed (but left office before prosecuting) against former state Sen. Vincent Fumo. Meehan is no push-over for Corbett, although the political waters muddied a bit when U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, another suburban Philadelphian, announced he was exploring a run for governor. Gerlach, who has escaped defeat in his own congressional district a couple times, could easily split Republican votes in that region with Meehan. A fourth Republican expressing interest in the race is former U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey of Lehigh County. Toomey, who now leads the economically conservative Club for Growth, will be remembered for coming within an eyelash of knocking off Arlen Specter in the 2004 Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Toomey says he's interested in running because of the budget mess in Harrisburg, but another race against Specter could also be possible.

My own very early view is that, while Meehan and Toomey alone could each give Corbett a solid race, multiple candidates in the field only helps the southwestern PA native. How this sorts out in the months ahead is anybody's guess but, as the incumbent attorney general, Corbett alone has a statewide megaphone to act governmentally, which (by definition in this never-ending campaign season) means gubernatorially.

Arlen Specter Takes 'Em On:

Pennsylvania's senior U.S. senator is a unique piece of work. I have known him for nearly 30 years, and I have tremendous respect for the political skills of Arlen Specter, the longest-serving senator in PA history. Just when people count him out, he emerges victorious, a phoenix among the political carrion. The 79-year old senator, first elected in 1980, has no intention of retiring next year, and barring some medical calamity Specter's name will be on the ballot for a sixth 6-year term.

But, first, the Republican must engineer the shoals of his own unhappy party. Arlen Specter listens to his own drummer, which tends to march back and forth across the field rather than in any straight line. He is consistent in his unpredictability. So when he joined to two Republican senators from Maine to enact President Obama's economic recovery plan, it was not particularly surprising. But it has emboldened a number of Republicans who say, as they did in 2004, that it's time for Specter to retire - and if he won't, it's time to defeat him.

Could 2010 be the year of Specter's demise? Maybe, and maybe not. The 2004 Republican primary showed both strength and weakness in Specter's base within his own party. Pat Toomey got 513,693 votes to Specter's 530,839 that spring, with Philadelphia and its suburban counties putting Specter over the top. The key that year was also strong support for Specter from his then colleague, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, who encouraged his conservative supporters to back Specter over Toomey. It was enough for Specter to win the nomination, and then to go on to defeat U.S. Rep. Joe Hoeffel by 10 points and nearly 600,000 votes. Specter has always been a stronger general election candidate than he is in his own party.

Specter's support for Obama has spiked renewed interest among conservative Republicans to take him on next year. Toomey would be the obvious candidate, but he seems to be more interested in running for governor than senator. That leaves the field open to others like Peg Luksik, a conservative activist from Johnstown, who is no stranger to PA politics since she first made the scene by nearly defeating then-Republican Barbara Hafer for the GOP nomination for governor back in 1990. In 1994, she ran has an independent for governor and, again in 1998, she was the Constitutional Party candidate for governor. This past year, she was the campaign manager for William Russell, a newcomer who took on U.S. Rep. John Murtha in the 12th congressional district.

Another interesting candidate is Glen Meakem, a millionaire entrepreneur who lives in suburban Pittsburgh and founded a business-to-business internet firm called FreeMarkets. Now a venture capitalist and conservative talk show host, Meakem has caught the political bug. After Specter's embrace of Obama's economics, Meakem quickly circulated a statement, boldly predicting, "There will be a Republican primary fight for Specter's Senate seat in 2010, and I am going to be actively involved in electing someone who will do what's right for Pennsylvania taxpayers, not the Washington lobbyists." I've known Meakem for a number of years, and he would be an impressive candidate. Although a solid pro-life conservative, he served as campaign chair to Bill Scranton during Scranton's short run for governor in 2006 because he liked Scranton's conservative business views and because he thought Scranton would make a stronger opponent against Ed Rendell than local Steelers star Lynn Swann. Right now, Meakem - who is Harvard educated and served in the 1991 Iraq War -- says he's not a candidate, but much will depend on whether better-known and better-funded conservatives step forward to challenge Specter in the months ahead.

The Dems Smell Blood:

With Arlen Specter under attack in his own party, there's no shortage of Democrats eyeing the 2010 senate race. MSNBC's Chris Matthews would have been the most colorful of the bunch, but he has taken himself out of the race. I've known Chris since my congressional days, and I think he could have brought national visibility to the race, to say nothing of an incredible wealth of knowledge of government and politics. That leaves the field to others, including state auditor general Jack Wagner of Pittsburgh, who many think is well-positioned for the contest. A Vietnam veteran, wounded in combat, the generally conservative Wagner has a statewide pulpit to preach fiscal responsibility. Wagner is still toying with the governor's race, and that has encouraged others to step forward for Senate. But in a crowded Democratic field for Senate, Wagner has got to be considered a strong candidate.

Joe Torsella, a 45-year old Philadelphian best known for leading the effort to construct the marvelous National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, is hardly a household name outside of southeastern PA. But earlier this month he became the first Democrat to declare his interest in running for the U.S. Senate. Torsella is no stranger to politics, serving as then-Mayor Ed Rendell's deputy mayor for policy and planning while still in his 20s. A Rhodes scholar and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of PA, Torsella has taken one stab at electoral politics, losing by just 2100 votes in the Democratic primary against U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz in the 13th congressional district in Montgomery County and northeastern Philadelphia.

While Torsella seems intent on running, other Dems are toying with the idea, including two Philadelphia area members of Congress: the aforementioned Allyson Schwartz and U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, from the 8th district which is primarily in Bucks County. Schwartz is no stranger to statewide politics. In 2000, she ran for the Democratic nomination for Senate to take on Santorum, making a lot of friends along the way. With 26% of the vote, the pro-choice Schwartz came in second to the pro-life U.S. Rep. Ron Klink of Pittsburgh who got 40% of the vote. It didn't help that four other candidates on the ballot that year came from eastern PA. Schwartz is an unapologetic advocate for women's rights and an indefatigable fundraiser, and if she gets in the race will be formidable.

Patrick Murphy is a relative newcomer to politics, having just won his second term in Congress in suburban Philly. The 35-year old lawyer is the only Iraq War veteran serving in Congress, and he was the only Pennsylvania congressman to endorse Barack Obama in the PA primary last year. During his first term, Murphy was a consistent critic of President Bush's handling of the war, and his close ties to the Obama administration could help him if he chooses to make a run for Senate.

As if three Philadelphians weren't enough, there's a fourth potential candidate from that region, state Rep. Josh Shapiro of Montgomery County. The 35-year old state rep was first elected to Harrisburg in 2004 and has already achieved some recognition in that body. He co-chaired the House commission that came up with a number of legislative reform measures, many of which were enacted. A lawyer, Shapiro began his political career on Capitol Hill in Washington where he served several members of Congress, including a stint as chief of staff to then-U.S. Rep. Joe Hoeffel.

No matter who gets the Democratic nomination, if Arlen Specter survives his primary, he's still the favorite for reelection. Having helped President Obama win his first major battle as president, watch for Specter to get a little bit of something from this White House. It's all part of the game. And few play it better than Specter, which is why a lot of folks have lost money over the years betting against him.

I've got a whole lot more Pennsylvania politics to cover, including the race for mayor of Pittsburgh, but let's leave something for my next PSF. Again, if you've got an interesting political tidbit, please send it along, knowing that I always consider your emails off-the-record! If you're lucky enough to get today off - I'm not - enjoy the day. Remember, we're celebrating the birthday of George Washington, not the less-than-luminary careers of so many of his successors.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Pennsylvania Delivers

Dear Politically Savvy Friend,

In the end, he made it seem so easy. Barack Hussein Obama -- yes, a man with an Arab or Muslim middle name -- won the presidency of the United States by more than 7.5 million popular votes and an Electoral College landslide, or what certainly looks like a landslide after President Bush's narrow wins in 2000 and 2004. President-elect Obama did it the old-fashioned way -- issues, shoe leather, volunteers, and, yes, lots of money!


Pennsylvania Summary:

Early Tuesday evening, it was clear to many of us that Obama’s coalition of supporters would put him over the top. Once the “must-win” state of Pennsylvania was denied to John McCain, it was difficult to envision an electoral scenario that could propel the Republican to the White House. McCain's political nail in the coffin occurred shortly thereafter when the neighboring state of Ohio cast its lot with Obama. From that moment on, it was only a matter of hours until enough electoral votes were declared to give the Democrat his victory at 11:01 pm ET. As McCain delivered his concession speech, Florida came through for Obama as well, giving him a trifecta -- three of the three must-win states.

Obama's win in this Pennsylvania was impressive. With 98% of the votes counted, Obama defeated McCain by 11 points: 3.16 million votes to 2.52 million or 55% to 44% [Ralph Nader and Bob Barr split one percent of the vote] -- or a margin of around 644,000 votes out of the 5,745,000 votes cast yesterday. The last time a presidential candidate won by that big a margin in Pennsylvania was 36 years ago when Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in 1972 by 907,000 votes.

So how did Obama do this here? Simply put, he clobbered McCain in Philadelphia and its Republican suburbs -- and he racked up wins in the urban counties around the state like Allegheny (Pittsburgh), Cambria (Johnstown), Centre (State College),Dauphin (Harrisburg), Erie (Erie), Lackawanna (Scranton), Lehigh (Allentown), Luzerne (Wilkes-Barre), and Northampton (Bethlehem). In the end, it didn't matter that most of the rest of Pennsylvania voted Republican.

Still, in many ways, this PA election was the tale of two regions: southeastern PA and southwestern PA. Obama overwhelmed McCain in one – and performed worst than some expected in the other. His biggest win was the city of Philadelphia, where Obama did better than John Kerry, who had set the record with a 414,000-vote margin. Obama broke that record Tuesday, winning the city by a massive 458,784 votes (unofficially). While not the 500,000-vote margin the governor would have loved, it was mighty convincing! Equally important, in the four bedroom counties outside Philly, Obama swept it all, winning three suburban Republican counties. He won Bucks County by 28,000; he won Chester County by 22,000; he won Delaware County by 59,000; and he won Montgomery County by a whopping 86,000 votes.

Southwest PA Plays Hard to Get:

In southwestern PA, it was a different story. Allegheny County (Greater Pittsburgh) gave Obama his biggest victory, winning by 98,600 votes over McCain. [John Kerry won Allegheny County by 97,000 votes four years ago]. But the outlying counties were not so kind to Obama even though most are overwhelmingly Democratic. McCain actually did better than George W. Bush in 2004. McCain won Armstrong County by 7,000 votes; McCain won Beaver County by 2,500; McCain won Butler County by 23,000; McCain won Fayette County by 160 votes; McCain won Greene County by 86 votes; McCain won Indiana County by 2,500 votes; McCain won Lawrence County by 2,000 votes; McCain won Washington County by 4,400 votes; and McCain won Westmoreland County by 26,000 votes. Many of these counties have large Democratic majorities.

Was U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha right? Is it true that western PA (outside of Allegheny County and Cambria County) just couldn't vote for a bi-racial candidate for president? Well, pundits can debate that for years to come. Obviously, race plays some role. But I think a better explanation is the conservative nature of the Democratic voters in these outlying counties: pro-gun, pro-life, pro-religion, pro-small town America. Second, McCain and Palin practically lived here for the last two months with multiple visits designed to stress their identification with the concerns and lifestyle of this region.

The Obama campaign often gave the impression of ignoring southwestern PA while spreading love all over the southeast (Philadelphia). It may have been a smart strategy given limited time for their candidate. But, privately, local Democratic leaders in this region felt the Obama campaign was giving short shift to western PA. Nonetheless, the margin out of the five southeastern counties in the Philly area was an amazing 653,000 votes over McCain.

In the end, Obama did exactly what he had to do, even here in this region. When you subtract all those southwestern counties that voted against Obama from his big vote in Allegheny County, guess who's the winner? You got it. President-elect Obama still won this region, netting 30,000 votes from the 10-county area in this southwest corner of the commonwealth.

Pennsylvania Exit Polls:

So how did Obama do it, chalking up numbers unseen in 36 years of presidential politics in this state? Exit polls give some clues. On race, blacks voted for Obama 95% to 5%, but African Americans comprised only 13% of the PA electorate. What gave Obama his solid victory was a nearly even split among white voters, 48% for Obama to 51% for McCain. While Hispanics are not many in PA, Obama won 72% of them here, as well. In short, Obama did well in PA because he attracted voters of all races.

According to exit polls, Obama overwhelmingly won the young voters in Pennsylvania, winning 66% of those 18 to 24 years of age and 64% of those between 25 and 30. But the president-elect also attracted support of some of the older folks, winning 57% of those between 50 and 65. As for the coveted 65+ crowd, Obama split that group evenly, 49% to 50%
While some Catholic clerics tried to influence their parishioners to vote pro-life, Catholic voters – just like Protestants – split right down the middle between Obama and McCain.

Finally, on issues, it was pretty clear-cut: 58% of those who said the economy was the most important issue opted for Obama; 66% of those who said the war in Iraq was most important voted Obama; 53% who named energy as the top issue supported Obama; and 71% who put health care at the top voted Obama.


Corbett Survives the Tidal Wave:

Attorney General Tom Corbett solidified his credentials as the Republican's best hope to capture the governorship in 2010. Despite the Democratic tide, the suburban Pittsburgh Republican won a 365,000 vote margin over his Democratic opponent, Northampton district attorney John Morganelli. Corbett had double the cash and with the help of his superb media consultant, John Brabender (yes, the architect of Rick Santorum's emergence on the political scene beginning in 1990) had the best television ads. Corbett's high profile on the Bonusgate scandal, especially in this region, certainly helped. While Allegheny County was voting for Obama by nearly a hundred thousand votes, Corbett actually carried his home county by 34,000 votes -- not bad for a Republican. What also made a big difference was Corbett's wins in suburban Philadelphia, where he defied the presidential trend by winning Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties and only losing Montgomery County by 2,400 votes.

Wagner Positions Himself for the Future:

Auditor General Jack Wagner, a Democrat, swept to a second term, adding to his own bona fides as a potential candidate for either governor or U.S. senator in 2010. It was a landslide for Wagner who defeated Republican gazebo manufacturer Chet Beiler by 1.27 million votes. Wow! Wagner, a generally conservative Democrat, blitzed the state, winning 41 of the state's 67 counties, a remarkable achievement for a Democrat. In fact, it didn’t take Wagner’s press folks to rush out a press release touting his 3.2 million votes as the most received by any PA candidate on the ballot on Tuesday. But it’s not a record. Bob Casey got 3.3 million votes in 2004 when he was reelected state treasurer.

Enter Rob McCord:

The open seat for state Treasurer will be filled by Democrat Rob McCord who beat former Montgomery County commissioner Tom Ellis by 678,000 votes. McCord is a newcomer to the state political scene, but I suspect it won't be long before the well-spoken suburban Philadelphian makes his presence known. One sign that McCord may have some other elective desires is the fact he decided to spend election night in Pittsburgh rather than in his hometown.


Pennsylvania Democrats not only beat back the Republican attempt to defeat a couple of their incumbent congressmen, but they also added to their numbers from Pennsylvania. The state's 19 representatives in the 111th Congress will be 12 Democrats and 7 Republicans. There's some irony here because when the Republican-controlled state legislature and a Republican governor (Tom Ridge) gerrymandered PA's congressional districts after the 2000 census, they elected 12 Republicans from PA. Now the situation is reversed in the very same districts the Republicans created! Of course, the state now has many more Democrats than in did eight years ago.

Dahlkemper Makes History:

U.S. Rep. Phil English (3rd CD), the Erie Republican, was defeated by Erie Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper. Dahlkemper calls herself a conservative Democrat -- pro-life, pro-gun, pro-small business -- but that didn't stop House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) from pumping a lot of money into her race. In the end, she beat English by 8,300 votes. She kept it close in most of the counties, including Butler and Armstrong outside of Pittsburgh, and clinched victory with a 16,000-vote win in Erie County. Dahlkemper has told me that she wants to be more visible in the Pittsburgh media market than her predecessor. Her sister and son live in this area, and her first grandchild will soon be born in Pittsburgh, giving her plenty of "family" reasons to be around here. It will be interesting to see whether the new congresswoman is able to establish any kind of identity in the Pittsburgh media market.

Dalhkemper is only the second Democratic woman ever elected from western PA to the U.S. House of Representatives. Vera Buchanan of Pittsburgh was the first back in 1951 when she was elected in a special election to fill her husband's term. Buchanan went on to win two terms in her own right before dying in office of cancer in 1955 -- the first female Member of Congress to die in office. Dahlkemper will take office after a 54-year absence of a Democratic woman from this region in Congress.

Murtha Flexes His Political Muscle:

U.S. Rep. John Murtha (12th CD) was supposed to be in deep, deep trouble. But that was before he called in a lot of chits, raised a lot of money in two weeks, and overwhelmed his opponent, Republican William Russell, with both attack ads and a positive message of accomplishment for western PA. One month ago, Murtha took reelection in his district for granted. Then Russell, who raised a lot of money through a DC-based direct mail agency, exploited the congressman's own words about racism in western PA. A Republican-based poll suggested Russell was only four points behind Murtha, and all of sudden the nation's eyes were on this district.

In the end, Murtha beat Russell by 41,000 votes, winning a healthy 58% of the vote. Russell, who was upfront that he had moved to the district to run against Murtha, could not beat back the carpetbagger charge, especially when Murtha trumpeted all the millions of dollars his seniority has brought into the district. Murtha carried most of the nine counties through which his district stretches, including Fayette, Washington, and Westmoreland Counties which were relatively new to the 12th CD.

Altmire Wins Convincingly:

It was hard to find anyone who ever thought U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire (4th CD) was really vulnerable to the Republican he had defeated two years earlier, former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart. Rematches are always tough in politics, and Hart just didn't have the resources or the issues to plant the seed of "buyer's remorse" among the voters in this suburban Pittsburgh district.

Altmire beat Hart by 39,000 votes, considerably more than the 8,800-vote win he had two years ago, giving the freshman a double-digit victory that probably takes him off the GOP list for some years to come. Altmire beat Hart by nearly 11,000 votes in Allegheny County, 23,000 in Beaver County, 9,000 votes in Lawrence County -- and that was all she wrote!

Murphy Defines a Republican Landslide:

Local Democrats would love to beat U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (18th CD), but they just can't find a candidate who can unseat this popular, well-funded, and politically savvy Republican. Monroeville businessman Steve O'Donnell thought he was the Democrat who could do the trick, but he ended up losing even worse than Chad Kluko, the Democrat who tried with much less resources in 2006. This time, Murphy -- who ran both positive TV ads on himself and negative attack ads on O'Donnell -- cruised to an impressive 90,000-vote win, 64% to 36%, over the Democrat. O'Donnell didn't come close in any of the four counties that make up the 18th CD, which means that thousands of Democrats (in a district with a 70,000 Democratic registration advantage) voted to give Murphy a fourth term in Congress.


Forget Bonusgate, Democrats Stay in Charge of State House:

It appears that Bonusgate had no impact on the legislative races. In this region, House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese faced a repeat challenger from Republican Greg Hopkins in his 50th legislative district. DeWeese knew what was coming and prepared well. Last February, he was out walking his district in the snow, knocking on doors, a practice he says he continued throughout the campaign. The end result was a larger win for DeWeese than two years ago, more than 2,000 votes this time. DeWeese’s return to Harrisburg does not guarantee him his top ranking spot in the Democratic Party, and concerns about his former chief of staff’s private conversations with the Attorney General about DeWeese’s role in Bonusgate trouble a lot of his colleagues. But DeWeese is nothing if not a survivor. Stay tuned.

The latest report is that the Democrats will not only retain control of the House but also add to their numbers. The current number, 102 Dems to 101 Republicans, could end up being 104 to 99. The Dems lost four seats on Tuesday, including Beaver County Rep. Vince Biancucci (15th LD) who was upset by Republican newcomer Jim Christiana and an open Westmoreland County seat (57th LD occupied by retiring Democrat Tom Tangretti) that Republican Tim Krieger won over Democrat John Boyle. The third Democratic loss was in Elk and Clearfield Counties where incumbent Rep. Dan Surra (75th LD) was upset by Republican Matt Gabler, and the fourth loss was in Bucks County where incumbent Rep. Chris King (142nd LD) was upset by Republican Frank Farry.

These four Democratic losses could have been fatal to state House control had they not picked up six seats in eastern Pennsylvania. Four Dems won open seats: Steve Santarsiero (31st LD in Bucks County), Richard Mirabito (83rd LD in Lycoming County), Paul Drucker (157th LD in Chester County), and Brendan Boyle (170th LD in Philadelphia). Two other Democrats defeated Republican incumbents on Tuesday: Democrat Tom Houghton beat Republican John Lawrence (13th LD in Chester County) and Matt Bradford defeated Jay Moyer (70th LD in Montgomery County).

The most interesting question now is whether the Democrats will be able to reach some consensus on a Democratic Speaker of the House. As the truly savvy know, two years ago the Dems picked Philadelphia Republican Dennis O’Brien to be their speaker because their top Democrat Bill DeWeese could not get the votes from his caucus. O’Brien would love to keep his job, and he’ll keep it as long as 102representatives cannot agree on someone else!

State Senate Goes Even More Republican:

You would think that with the Democratic landslide for Obama, a couple of Dems might have won some state Senate seats. Not so. The Republicans actually increased their control of the Senate, 30 to 20. In two nasty contests in western PA, Republicans managed to keep control of one seat and picked up another. In the 39th SD (Westmoreland County), county commissioner Kim Ward defeated Democratic chiropractor Tony Bompiani by 8,000 votes. Ward replaces retiring state Sen. Bob Regola, a fellow Republican. In the 47th SD (Beaver & Lawrence Counties), Republican Elder Vogel defeated Democrat Jason Petrella by 14,000 votes to replace Democratic state Sen. Gerry LaValle. The stories behind these defeats take too much time to digest, but at the beginning of this campaign year the Dems were favored to win both and managed to blow the opportunity. They were out out-foxed, out-hustled, out-negatived (yes, that too), and out-spent by the GOP, so two senate districts with more Ds than Rs now join the Republican column for four more years.

That’s a quick run-down 24 hours after the election results have come in. I welcome your insights and comments. Now it’s time for all of us to take a break, get some sleep, and start to think about Campaign 2010! Yeehaw!