Politically Savvy Friends

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Week That Was

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

Last week was certainly a fascinating political week where political news – local, state, and national -- seemed to pile up on itself, and much of it involved Pittsburgh. So much for the summer doldrums. For me personally, last week week was a hectic week with one-on-one interviews with Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain during his visit to Pittsburgh wherein he confused the Pittsburgh Steelers with the Green Bay Packers and with Steelers chairman Dan Rooney on the future of the beloved local football team, followed by a trip to Harrisburg to cover the financial rescue plan of Don Barden’s North Shore casino (still under construction) by Chicago billionaire Neil Bluhm on the very same day that state Attorney General Tom Corbett charged 12 past and present Democratic officials and staffers with multiple felonies for using state tax dollars to reward employees for political campaign work. And let’s not forget a Westmoreland County jury acquitting state Sen. Bob Regola of perjury charges over the death of his next door neighbor’s 14-year old with a loaded handgun of Regola’s. Wow! Catch your breath.

We’ve got a lot of issues to cover in this edition of my PSF e-newsletter. As always, I welcome your off-the-record comments, or if you want to post something publicly, go to my blog at www.delanosden.blogspot.com. As always, if you prefer not to receive this occasional email, feel free to use the unsubscribe key below. I really hate to lose you, but I don’t want to be anyone’s spam! As regular PSF’ers know, I write this freebie out of love on the dubious assumption that after 14 years on Capitol Hill as chief of staff to a PA congressman and now nearly 14 years on the “other” side as a television/radio political analyst and TV reporter in “real” America outside the Capitol Beltway, my observations might be amusing, if not helpful. The honest truth is that I just like to write about politics!


Did McCain Fumble in Pittsburgh?

The political blogosphere, the cable news shows, and now some of the mainstream print and broadcast media have picked up on parts of my KDKA-TV interview with John McCain last Wednesday at the Consol Energy Research facility in Pittsburgh. The essence of the story is, that in response to my questions, McCain recounted how he resisted physical torture (he calls it “pressure”) by the North Vietnamese to name his crewmates by reciting instead the names of the Steelers defensive line. Well, as many others have already pointed out, McCain’s original account of this story was that he named the Green Bay Packers, not the Steelers as he said to me. The McCain campaign says the senator just made a mistake in this Pittsburgh interview.

What Actually Happened?

As the political editor for KDKA-TV, I have wanted to do a sit-down interview with the Arizona senator for quite some time. During the PA Democratic primary, I had a number of one-on-one interviews with U.S. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, but the Republican candidate was not available to local media when he visited Pittsburgh in April. This trip in July was different. Working with McCain’s new press person for PA & Ohio, the campaign set aside 5 minutes for me, following the senator’s tour of the Consol research facility. [The day before I was able to cover McCain’s arrival and his ‘unannounced’ visit to Primanti’s, Pittsburgh’s famous sandwich shop, wherein he joked on camera with me that Primanti’s sandwiches, known for piling on French fries and sauerkraut along with meat between two slices of bread, was actually “low cal.” It was at Primanti’s, by the way, that McCain also joked about U.S. cigarette exports to Iran killing more Iranians].

As is typical of most campaigns, I was asked to be in place about a half-hour (at least) before the one-on-one interview. My photographer, Jeff Roupe, working with the photographer from WPXI-TV, another local station getting an interview, was actually there a couple hours ahead of time, setting up lights, positioning chairs, and testing microphones. And the campaign staff had their American flag properly positioned for the camera shot. At the last minute, we were told that Cindy McCain would also be joining the senator for the interview. The photographers quickly rearranged everything!

Now my approach to these presidential interviews, especially since time is so constrained, is to keep the focus very local. The national media, who have much better daily access to the candidates than the local media does, can query Obama and McCain about the great national and international issues. I want to ask about things that are important to western Pennsylvanians, and I never ever have sufficient time to do even that.

In preparing my questions, I decided to ask McCain the same first question I asked both Obama and Clinton in my initial sit-down interviews with them last March – when you think of Pittsburgh, what do you think of? It’s a good opening question, designed to get a quick honest answer. Not surprisingly, both Obama and McCain gave the same answer – the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now this, of course, is a popular answer in football-crazed western PA, but it is also very political. What is more interesting is what they say about the Steelers. In essence, the Illinois senator told me how he did not have a football team growing up in Hawaii so he adopted the Steelers as his own, and then he proceeded to name some of the great players from the Super Bowl team of the 1970s. You can check out Obama’s answer on the KDKA-TV website at http://kdka.com/video/?id=39209@kdka.dayport.com. .

Senator McCain’s elaboration on his answer last Wednesday was even more surprising to me. Here is the text:

Jon Delano: “Senator, when you think of Pittsburgh, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind?”

Sen. McCain: “The Steelers. [Laughter]. I was a mediocre high school athlete, and I loved and adored sports, but the Steelers really made a huge impression on me, particularly in the early years. When I was first interrogated and really had to give some information because of the pressure, the physical pressures, that were on me, I named the starting lineup, the defensive line of the Pittsburgh Steelers as my squadron mates.” [Laughter].
Jon Delano: “Did you really?”

Sen. McCain: “Years ago, yes.”

Jon Delano: “In your POW camp?”

Sen. McCain: “Yes, yes, indeed.”

Jon Delano: “Could you do it today?”

Sen. McCain: “No, unfortunately, I couldn’t. But I certainly could then.”

Knowing my time limitations, I segued from this Steelers talk to ask McCain about Dan Rooney and the Steelers ownership issue, a very big front page news story in Pittsburgh, and then quickly moved on to more substantive local issues (i.e., does the senator, as a millionaire, feel the pain of average Pennsylvanians in this difficult economy – I had asked Obama the same question two weeks ago – and the use of PA coal to give us energy independence, along with the standard political questions about his chances in PA). You can watch my full interview with McCain on the KDKA-TV website at http://kdka.com/video/?id=43538@kdka.dayport.com.

The Aftermath:

At the moment McCain uttered his Steelers comment, I knew I had a story for one of our evening broadcasts – KDKA runs double the local news of the other two stations, from 4 pm to 7 pm – and I also knew McCain’s comments on the Rooneys added to its value. Smart politicians – and McCain is smart – know that framing an answer to a local audience is a guaranteed way of getting coverage.

Driving back to station after the interview, Jeff and I, along with my summer intern, reviewed what we recalled from the interview. I must admit that each of us, upon reflection, was puzzled by McCain’s comments because we all knew that the “Steel Curtain” of Super Bowl fame was a 1970s phenomenom. Did McCain really know the Steelers team during the earlier years when he was imprisoned? While I could name Greene, Greenwood, White, Holmes, and many other Steelers from the championship years, don’t ask me about those earlier teams. To be honest, we were not exactly sure when McCain was shot down either. Could McCain be making this stuff up about the Steelers?

Back at the station, after learning exactly when McCain was captured (October 26, 1967), our executive producer had the same reaction that something seemed peculiar. But none of us knew about the Green Bay Packers’ story, so the piece ran without comment, but carefully noted exactly when McCain was held captive so folks could draw their own conclusions. See http://kdka.com/video/?id=43555@kdka.dayport.com. By the next day, we all were aware that McCain’s autobiography contradicted his statements in Pittsburgh. In his 1999 book, Faith of My Fathers, he named the Green Bay Packers as the team he recited to his captors. Of course, Thursday evening we reported that, along with the McCain campaign’s view that this was simply a mistake. See http://kdka.com/video/?id=43612@kdka.dayport.com.

Since then, the story seems to have had a life of its own. I was surprised to open Saturday’s Pittsburgh Post Gazette to find the story on the front page, and I gather it has been picked up coast-to-coast in print and broadcast. Google “McCain Steelers” and you’ll get the drift.

Much Ado About Nothing?

Is this all much ado about nothing? Maybe and maybe not. Either John McCain deliberately lied to me in order to maximize local television coverage in a critical swing state, or he simply made a mistake, for whatever reason, confusing the Steelers with the Packers, perhaps because he had, just moments earlier, been presented with a special Steelers jersey and obviously had the Steelers on his mind.

I was there, and I have reviewed the original tape. I simply do not think that McCain was engaged in some deliberate, deceptive, or manipulative attempt to deceive western Pennsylvanians. Nothing about his demeanor in that portion of the interview appears calculating. Moreover, it would have been profoundly stupid to lie about something that he apparently not only wrote about in his autobiography but has also repeated orally. Whatever else the partisans may think about McCain, he is not stupid. Personally, I believe he made a mistake.

Why he made that mistake, we can only guess. I do think the jersey presentation might be part of it, but I think it was an innocent slip, nothing more. His political opponents, of course, have every right to characterize this as something more – and you know they will.

The larger question is: what impact, if any, will this have on the November election in Pennsylvania? In that regard, it may have some minor effect, but nothing fatal. True, everyone in Steelers country will know John McCain confused the Steelers and the Packers. Even if it’s an innocent mistake, it gets attention at the water cooler. McCain’s detractors will characterize this as some deliberate lie, or perhaps (almost as bad) the failings of an elderly man, but I’m not sure that will sell, at least not unless a pattern of similar behavior emerges that the public perceives. This is similar to the effort to portray Obama as a flip-flopper because he occasionally minces his words.

In the end, Pennsylvanians care a whole lot more about jobs and the economy, energy prices, health care, and the war in Iraq than they do about a slip of the tongue by either McCain or Obama.


Corbett Makes His Move:

State politicians have been waiting months for Attorney General Tom Corbett to announce the results of secret grand jury investigations into what has been dubbed Bonusgate. On Thursday afternoon, Corbett, a Republican running for reelection this year and likely to run for governor in 2010, announced charges against twelve individuals, including one former high-ranking House legislator, one incumbent legislator, and ten legislative staffers and former staffers – all Democrats.

Former state Rep. Mike Veon, a Beaver County legislator defeated in 2006, was a prime target. After all, Veon was the second-ranking Democrat in the state House of Representatives. Corbett accused Veon and Mike Manzo, former chief of staff to current Democratic Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, of engineering a scheme to reward with taxpayer dollars (bonuses) those legislative staffers who worked on political campaigns or in other political efforts, like keeping presidential candidate Ralph Nader off the ballot in 2006. Corbett also claimed that a variety of political efforts, including fund-raising and opposition research, were run out of Veon’s government offices. Manzo is also charged with maintaining a ghost employee in Pittsburgh who engaged in sex with Manzo but did no legislative work for her government paycheck.

The allegations are very serious, and, if proved, could cost the defendants both massive fines and time in jail. I have known Corbett for two decades, and I have great respect for his legal skills. He says the investigations are on-going and that Republican legislators, who also handed out bonuses although not at the dollar level as the Democrats, are also targets. Time will tell.

Whither Bill DeWeese:

The most obvious remaining Democratic target is House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese, the loquacious former Marine from Greene County for whom Manzo worked. In an exclusive TV interview with me five months ago, DeWeese made it clear that, not only did he do nothing wrong and was betrayed (my words, not his) by his staffers, but he also does not expect to be charged because he himself did nothing illegal. He told me that, while he knew of traditional Christmas bonuses in the sixty to one hundred dollar range, he was as surprised as anyone to learn about the thousands of dollars of bonuses linked to campaign work. Once he knew of the scheme, he brought in outside legal counsel to review the documents, make recommendations about changes to Democratic procedures that would prevent a repeat, and then turn everything over to Corbett and cooperate fully with the grand jury. DeWeese also fired Manzo and several other senior employees.

Harrisburg insiders always believed that Veon ran the political show, so it’s more than conceivable DeWeese was not involved in Bonusgate. In my interview, he called himself the CEO of a 1,000-person operation who, like a true Marine, delegated responsibility to others in the chain. Still, some think that he must have known more than he lets on, and that Manzo may cut a deal with Corbett that brings down DeWeese. Who knows. If you want to watch my February interview with DeWeese, it’s on the KDKA website at http://kdka.com/video/?id=38563@kdka.dayport.com.

The Peculiar Case of Sean Ramaley:

The only incumbent legislator charged by Corbett last week was 33-year old state Rep. Sean Ramaley, often portrayed as one of the young reformers in the state House. The presentment against Ramaley was the biggest surprise of the day, and the one that some Harrisburg insiders think smells the most of politics. Why? Because Ramaley is the Democratic nominee for state Senate in Beaver County (and a small part of Allegheny & Lawrence Counties), an open seat because of the retirement of the incumbent state senator. The district is three-to-two Democratic, and Ramaley was the odds-on favorite to win in November. The Republican candidate is Elder Vogel.

What brought Ramaley to Corbett’s attention was apparently his connection to Veon. In 2004, Ramaley, who is a lawyer and whose wife is an assistant district attorney in Allegheny County, left his job with the U.S. Department of Labor to run for state House in an open contest. After Ramaley won the Democratic nomination, Corbett says Veon hired Ramaley for a part-time job in his Beaver Falls office, working four hours a day. Nothing wrong with that except, says Corbett, Ramaley did nothing for his legislative paycheck. Instead, Corbett accuses Ramaley of campaigning on government time and using Veon’s office equipment for campaign work. Through his attorney, Ramaley denies all the charges.

Has anyone ever met a politician who does not campaign, or politick, on government time? As long as Ramaley did something “governmental” for his weekly paycheck, that charge will be hard to sustain against him. The more difficult count for Ramaley involves using taxpayer equipment and facilities for campaign purposes. While political old-timers reading this PSF will say that, too, was standard operating procedure in the old days, the law does not permit that today, either in Washington or Harrisburg. In the 21st century, smart politicians separate their campaign staff and resources from their governmental ones. If Veon did not, and Ramaley took advantage of that, the AG’s office has a case to take to the jury.

The political challenge for Ramaley and his fellow Dems is that he is on the ballot for state Senate this November. Innocent until proved guilty, he has the right to stay on the ballot, and nobody believes this will go to trial before the election. While some local Dems think Ramaley should step down, allowing Democratic committee people to pick a new nominee, others are not sure this is fair to Ramaley, who obviously believes he did nothing wrong. The decision is solely Ramaley’s, and there’s no indication of what he will do.

Could Corbett Aim Higher?

Besides looking at whether Majority Leader Bill DeWeese violated the law, there’s buzz that Corbett may be looking at whether the Nader petition battle leads to other officials at the highest level of state government. In 2004, Ralph Nader sought to run as an independent candidate for president against Republican George Bush and Democrat John Kerry. That year, Pennsylvania required such candidates to submit petitions signed by 25,697 registered voters in order to get placed on the ballot. Nader submitted 51,273 signatures. But after his petitions were challenged, the Commonwealth Court found that nearly two-thirds of Nader’s signatures were either invalid or fraudulent.

Writing for the Court, President Judge James Colins was scathing. “I am compelled to emphasize that this signature-gathering process was the most deceitful and fraudulent exercise ever perpetrated upon this court,” wrote Colins, saying Nader’s petitions “shocked the conscience” of the court.

Getting Nader off the Pennsylvania ballot was highest priority for Gov. Ed Rendell, the Kerry campaign, and the Democratic Party in 2004, and proving the fraud of Nader’s petitions was a massive undertaking. Polls showed a very tight race between Bush and Kerry with Nader hovering around 3 percent. In the end, with Nader off the ballot, Kerry squeaked out a win in Pennsylvania with 2.5 percent of the vote.

On Thursday, Corbett, who in 1988 was the Western PA campaign director for then Vice President George H. W. Bush and who, after Bush’s victory, became U.S. Attorney for Western PA, noted that at least 50 House Democratic caucus employees were engaged in reviewing the Nader petitions on government time. In his press statement, Corbett said the grand jury found that these employees contributed “a staggering number of man-hours.” Did the order to use Democratic staffers in this effort come from someone other than Veon? Well, as Corbett says, the investigation is on-going.

Upcoming Congressional Battles:

In 2006, Pennsylvania was one of those key states that helped deliver the Congress to the Democrats. Besides Bob Casey’s win over Rick Santorum for the U.S. Senate, four incumbent Republican members of the House lost reelection here in PA to Democratic challengers. In 2008, Democrats hope to add to those numbers, while Republicans think they have a shot at regaining a couple seats.

Back to reclaim her old seat is former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, a Republican from Allegheny County who lost to now U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire by about 9,800 votes. The 4th C.D. is one of those swing districts in Southwestern PA that voted for Bush in 2004, Lynn Swann (for governor) and Bob Casey (for senator) in 2006. Hart thinks she lost because the public mood was sour against incumbents (it was) and she did not react quickly enough against attacks that linked her to Bush and Santorum (that’s true, too). In the rematch, Altmire has a tremendous advantage in money and has been visible, especially on veterans issues. At the moment, this is Altmire’s to lose, and nobody I talk to really thinks he will. But if anyone can make a race of this, it’s Melissa Hart.

In Delaware County, many think U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, should keep the 7th C.D. in Democratic hands. Sestak defeated former U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon by a whopping 33,000 votes two years ago. This year he is opposed by Republican Craig Williams, a former assistant U.S. Attorney, who served in the Marines during the Gulf War and returned to serve as legal counsel to the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the current Iraq War. Williams’ background is impressive, but nobody knows him – yet.

Not far away in the 8th C.D. in Bucks County, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, who narrowly defeated U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick by 1,500 votes, may have a tougher time holding onto his seat. The Republican is Tom Manion, a retired Johnson & Johnson executive whose son was killed in Iraq. Murphy himself is the only Iraq war veteran serving in Congress, and has done well in the fund-raising department. But this is a competitive district, and Republicans think Murphy can be beaten.

The fourth Democratic winner of ’06 who faces a challenge in ’08 is U.S. Rep. Chris Carney, a Democrat who defeated the morally challenged U.S. Rep. Don Sherwood by 12,000 votes in the 10th C.D. in northeast-central PA that should never elect a Democrat. This year the G.O.P. aims to prove that with its candidate, Chris Hackett, that the Carney win was a fluke because of Sherwood’s escapades with a mistress. Hackett, a wealthy entrepreneur who loaned his primary campaign some $800,000, narrowly won his G.O.P. primary but has the personal resources – and the voter registration edge – to make this competitive.

While freshman Democrats Altmire, Carney, Murphy, and Sestak have to defend their seats against Republican challengers, the Dems think they can actually pick up a couple more seats in PA. In the 3rd C.D. that stretches from Erie down into the suburbs of Pittsburgh, U.S. Rep. Phil English faces Democrat Kathy Dahlkemper, a newcomer to politics who heads up the Lake Erie Arboretum. English, who is generally regarded as one of the most moderate of PA Republicans, has breezed to victory in years past, but Dems think Dahlkemper can pull an upset. Like most of these races, much will depend on how much money she can raise to get herself better known.

Another perennial Dem target is U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, a Republican who represents parts of three SW PA counties in the 18th C.D., including many of the southern and eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. This year Murphy’s challenger is local businessman Steve O’Donnell who won a three-way primary in April. O’Donnell may have some personal money, but most think Murphy is going to be very tough to defeat even if he continues to have some alleged ethical issues. Murphy has been accused by some former staffers of requiring them to campaign on government time – sound familiar? – and the House Ethics Committee and the local FBI are reportedly looking into this. See http://kdka.com/video/?id=21611@kdka.dayport.com. Now this stuff was out shortly before the 2006 election and did not hurt Murphy at that time. Whether O’Donnell can make more of it this year remains to be seen. Most analysts I know think the hard-working Murphy is likely to get reelected, but O’Donnell has the potential to make this close.

While the Dems target two more incumbent Republicans, the G.O.P. thinks it has a good shot at another Dem incumbent, U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski. Kanjorski has represented the north-central 11th C.D. for years, and his challenger this year is a familiar one, Hazelton Mayor Lou Barletta. Six years ago, Barletta lost to Kanjorski by 22,000 votes. But since then the mayor has become an iconic political figure because of his anti-immigrant stance, including a ban on illegals working in his city. The court later struck down Barletta’s ordinance, but he would appear to be stronger today than in 2002. One problem for the G.O.P. Kanjorski is an incredibly strong fund-raiser. At the end of the first quarter, Kanjorski already had $1.8 million in cash on hand.

While Pennsylvania could provide some pick-up for the G.O.P., the more likely scenario is status quo. That means the Dems also fail in their effort to unseat G.O.P. incumbents. Of course, it’s early, and I reserve the right to revise and extend as we get closer to Labor Day.

There’s always a lot more to write about, but this is long enough for the moment. Please feel free to leave your comments on these or any other topics. In the meantime, let’s hope this coming week is just a little less politically consequential than the one just past.

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