With no mayor's race, the sole citywide contest in the May 15 primary -- and it's only for Democrats -- is controller. Lotsa luck getting voters excited about that.
But the controller's job is important. He or she oversees the proper spending of public dollars by ensuring that the city receives quality for its money and by conducting audits of city departments and authorities. The controller also issues financial data on the city's overall condition.
Given the need for fierce independence in the job, it's too bad in Democratic Pittsburgh, with its Democratic mayor and Democratic council, that the next controller is likely to be a Democrat. The majority party has five candidates in the primary, while the moribund Republican Party has none.
DaMon Macklin, 28, of Highland Park is the youngest and least known of the candidates. The owner of Macklin Enterprises Property Management, he tried to make a virtue of his inexperience during the Post-Gazette editorial board's candidate interviews, but given the caliber of competition he was not successful.
Steeped in experience is Tony Pokora, 50, of Banksville, who has been acting controller since Tom Flaherty left in 2005 for a seat on Common Pleas Court. With 23 years in the office, he can easily recount the work of the controller -- audits on city finances, repeated soundings of alarm over Pittsburgh's condition, reports on merging services with the county, etc.
Although Mr. Pokora spoke with knowledge about the controller's role, he also admitted that, when he finds a city office having problems, he prefers to meet with its leadership and work things out rather than call a news conference. "I'm not flamboyant and bombastic," he said. "I work under the radar." Perhaps not what a city with one-party government needs.
Doug Shields, 53, of Squirrel Hill is also a knowledgeable insider, though his experience comes from City Council, where he was an aide to then-Councilman Bob O'Connor, then a councilman in his own right for three years and eventually council president since September. Mr. Shields is well-versed in the workings of government and all-too-familiar with the city's fragile financial state. Whether someone with so much time on council, however, can bring a watchdog's tenacity to the controller's office is debatable.
That leaves two well-regarded Democrats, Michael Lamb and Mike Dawida.
Mr. Lamb, 44, of Mount Washington is the outgoing Allegheny County prothonotary -- outgoing because the court records-keeping office will be folded soon into a new office run by an appointed administrator. The shorthand for that is "row-office reform," which was approved by the voters and spearheaded by leaders like Michael Lamb. In his 15 years there, the last five as the elected prothonotary, he modernized the office while reducing staff and budget. Although he has bucked party traditionalists in the past, he was endorsed in this race by the county Democratic committee.
Mr. Dawida, 57, of Carrick also has county experience -- as the last Democratic commissioner, plus as a lawyer and former state senator. His record is steeped in policy and in challenging old assumptions. Despite his minority status while commissioner, he was able to form a working majority with Republican Bob Cranmer and get things done, like budgets and the Plan B construction of Heinz Field, PNC Park and the convention center.
While echoing his opponents about the need for a controller's vigilance, he built a strong case for taking the job further and using it to develop sound policy for the city. Such an approach, he said, could be used to improve police performance, reduce the cost of workers' comp and reform the Pittsburgh Public Schools, to name a few.
As a public servant who, without the party hierarchy's endorsement, toppled incumbents, Mr. Dawida has the ability to go over the heads of officialdom and communicate with constituents. We're convinced he can do the same as controller for a city with a young mayor and a relatively inexperienced council.
It's this determination to affect policy -- and improve Pittsburgh -- that gives him the edge over Mr. Lamb and sets him a breed apart from the other contenders. The Post-Gazette strongly endorses Mike Dawida.