So I was visiting with an old friend who moved to the Midwest about six years ago but still reads the Post-Gazette online most days. As a native Pittsburgher, he was surprised and pleased to find himself in a city where good government is the norm and corruption rarely surfaces.
"Things actually work the way they're supposed to," he said, looking somewhat amazed over a sausage-and-egg breakfast in Regent Square.
"Once in a while a local official might misappropriate funds to pay for a gambling addiction or something, but generally speaking it's all pretty clean and above board."
I said that must be nice.
"Yeah," he replied. "The stuff going on here is really kind of disgusting. Between the three Ories, the Turnpike Commission and Nate Harper ... and Luke's departure was pretty abrupt, who knows what's going on there ... not to mention the state legislators in the slammer."
"I know," I said. "It's a bit of a cesspool. But at least it's not boring. Plenty of news to cover, lots to talk about."
He shook his head over the prospect of Jack Wagner becoming the next mayor, just because Mr. Wagner's been around for so long and run for just about every office there is -- city council (lost in '81, won in '83, '87 and '89), mayor (lost the primary in '93), state senator (won in '94, '98, '02), lieutenant governor (lost in '02), auditor general (won in '04 and '08) and governor (lost the primary in '10).
My buddy had been hoping that with a wide-open primary, some newer blood might rush into the void. He wanted to see what city Councilman Bill Peduto could do with the office.
That's hardly assured. After Mr. Wagner's late entry, the endorsed Democrat, city Controller Michael Lamb, withdrew, and Mr. Wagner set about wooing Mr. Lamb's supporters and those of Mr. Ravenstahl. Mr. Peduto is now his only real competition, but the councilman will have to scare up votes well beyond his East End stronghold. Also running are state Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District and A.J. Richardson, who had a little DUI problem a few weeks ago. Neither seems to have the reach that will be required.
Speaking of Mr. Wagner, my friend said: "Same old names and faces, over and over. It's so inbred here. You don't realize the extent of it until you go somewhere with a more open political process."
Ah yes, the perennial conundrum in politics. Experience can be a good thing if you've learned to work the levers of government for the public good. Then you're a pro. But it can be a bad thing if it means cronyism, tired ideas and self-interest. Then you're a hack.
The nation also has an approach-avoidance thing about political royalty -- family names that carry both the cachet and baggage of previous generations, such as Casey, Kennedy and Bush.
Matriarch Barbara Bush was highly cognizant of that during the opening of her son George's presidential library last week. Asked by NBC's Matt Lauer about the possibility of a presidential run by son Jeb, Mrs. Bush said she didn't think it would happen even though he was the most qualified.
"We've had enough Bushes," she said, adding that he would get "all our enemies and half our friends."
If I'd been having breakfast with someone who'd never lived in Pittsburgh and didn't understand the region in all its quirky, 130-municipality weirdness, I might have risen to the defense of my hometown and compared it with other places that are far more corrupt or inbred -- and there are plenty of those. But this guy is a native, so there was no point.
Still, our conversation got me thinking about how much better or worse Pittsburgh and Allegheny County could be.
We're nothing like the big-city swamps named in a study last year by University of Illinois' Institute of Government and Public Affairs. It singled out the most corrupt areas by federal judicial districts. Chicago's -- surprise -- led the pack with more than 1,500 federal public corruption convictions from 1976 to 2010. The California district that includes Los Angeles was second, with more than 1,275 convictions in the same period. Southern District of New York (including Manhattan and the Bronx) had 1,200; the District of Columbia, 1,005; and the Southern District of Florida, 970. Finishing the top 10 were New Jersey, Ohio-Northern (Cleveland), Pennsylvania-Eastern (Philadelphia); Virginia-Eastern (Richmond) and New York-Eastern (Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island).
I couldn't find a corresponding study for the least corrupt cities, but I did come across the five least corrupt states, as designated last year by 24/7 Wall St., a Delaware-based financial news and opinion operation. Its list started with Nebraska, followed by California, Washington, Connecticut and New Jersey. Instead of convictions, the criteria were public access to information, legislative accountability, political financing and ethics enforcement agencies.
Apples and oranges, but neither Pittsburgh nor Pennsylvania is on either list.
My friend and I did agree on all the positive energy around Downtown's residential development, how much better Market Square looks, the proliferation of cultural events throughout the city and other hopeful signs.
I didn't have to tell him about all the "best" lists that Pittsburgh has topped in recent years, which was a relief because reciting them always seems a little desperate. But in the end, I landed in the familiar middle ground occupied by many midsized cities. We could be better, absolutely, but we could also be a hell of a lot worse. I can live with that.
Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412-263-1610).