Ruling Pittsburgh

Our city shows all the symptoms of a one-party state: corruption, incompetence, a paucity of ideas

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One-party states by their nature suffer bad government. Alternation of parties in power brings different people and fresh ideas to problems. It is, by its nature, healthy.

Dan Simpson, a retired U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com).

I have lived some 18 years of my life in single-party states. I define such a state as one in which opposition parties may exist and be legal, but it is generally understood that they have no possibility of winning elections.

In Burundi the party was UPRONA, the Union for National Progress. In Bulgaria it was the Bulgarian Communist Party. In Zaire, it was the Popular Movement of the Revolution and in the Central African Republic, the Central African Democratic Assembly. In Chicago, under Mayor Richard J. Daley, it was the Democratic Party, as it is here.

Pittsburgh has been under Democratic Party control for more than 70 years. It shows virtually all of the effects of single-party rule, with the exception of the use of police and other security forces to keep the ruling party in power, although one of this year's mayoral candidates, Ryan Scott of the Socialist Workers Party, complained repeatedly about police repression in the mayoral candidates' forum the Post-Gazette sponsored last week.

Perhaps the most serious disease of a one-party state is that the ruling-party candidates feel no need to address any issues -- even the most serious issues -- that they don't want to address. In the case of Pittsburgh, one of these is consolidation of the city and county.

Both are controlled by the Democrats, everyone knows that consolidation has to occur if Pittsburgh is ever to break out of its vicious cycle of insolvency and high taxes, but the Democrats do not want to achieve that efficiency since it would mean moving their supporters out of patronage jobs. County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and city Mayor Luke Ravenstahl both pay lip service to consolidation, but neither takes any meaningful action that goes beyond nibbling at the edge of the problem.

The most serious problem of a one-party state is that it does not offer the electorate dynamic leadership. It doesn't need to. Instead, it knows quite well that it can put forward the most mediocre of candidates and have them elected anyway.

When Mr. Ravenstahl grows up he might make a decent mayor. At 27, being 27, as he tells us when we the media point out what he is doing, he feels free to accept gifts from the Penguins and UPMC and to commit the typical cardinal sin of officials in a one-party state -- employing public assets for his private use. Only someone who knows he will get elected no matter what he does would use a Department of Homeland Security-provided vehicle to go on a recreational outing with his wife.

But that is normal behavior in a one-party state. President Mobutu Sese Seku of Zaire used to requisition the planes of the national airline, Air Zaire, for personal trips to his vacation homes around the world. For him there was no distinction between public and private property -- what was his because of his position and what was his personally. No party but the ruling party in a one-party state would dare put up for election such a candidate.

Another frequent problem of one-party states is corruption. Pittsburgh's parking tax could be an example. There is virtual unanimity among Pittsburghers that the high cost of parking is a major deterrent to development and prosperity Downtown. The state Legislature required Pittsburgh to lower its parking tax by 5 percent at the beginning of the year. Instead of passing the savings along to parkers, the lot owners pocketed the 5 percent. Pittsburgh city lots, which could have forced the private lot owners to lower their rates by lowering its own, didn't. What we don't know yet is who got paid off in that transaction. It was either corruption or incompetence, take your pick.

Another tactic that the ruling party in a one-party state uses to distract the population is to exaggerate factionalism within the party to give the population the false impression that there are alternatives out there when there aren't. In Pittsburgh it is City Council members such as Bill Peduto, who either deliberately or unwittingly put forward the message that there are different points of view within the ruling Democratic Party. That is an illusion that the population should not buy. If someone like Mr. Peduto were elected mayor, it would be highly unlikely that he would change anything significant, having incurred the debts that he would have had to incur within the party to get elected.

It is also the case that lots of people like Pittsburgh the way it is. Some of the nonprofits are one example. Some shovel in big profits. They make token contributions for public services that are supposed to make up for the taxes they don't pay. Has anyone, starting with the Democratic leadership of the city and the county, even broached the subject of reviewing their status? If that subject comes up, it is quickly stifled, with reference to "Harrisburg" or "Washington." Did the thought ever occur to our local alleged leadership that if Pittsburgh and Allegheny County put together a strong, coordinated pitch on the subject it would be hard for either of those two capitals to ignore them?

So is there any way out of this mess? It's hard to say. The Republican candidate, Mark DeSantis, is not exactly a ball of fire, either. Ryan Scott, 24, the Socialist Worker candidate, and Tony Oliva, 27, the Libertarian candidate, are basically repositories of undeveloped ideas, works in progress like Mr. Ravenstahl.

A small voter turnout might be seen to deliver a message to the ruling party, but, in reality, for the electorate to do that (voting with its feet instead of those new electronic machines) is simply to fall into one more trap that is characteristic of a one-party state: Everyone knows elections mean nothing, thus people don't vote and the single party's candidate, no matter how hopeless, once more sweeps into office by a large percentage, even if the tally is small.

Please let's don't kid ourselves that we live in a democratically governed city.



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