A group mobilizes for a City Council race
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Anthony Coghill, 43, didn't feel he needed help from Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his allies to win a 2009 council race in the city's South Hills. But as he faced a three-way Democratic primary that also included Patrick Reilly and Natalia Rudiak, he wasn't looking gift horses in the mouth.
"I took the support that they offered," he said in a recent interview. The support he got provides a window into the political operations of part of an informal business network that has been deeply involved in the region's governance.
As he ramped up his council bid, Mr. Coghill mobilized friends, family and "a cast of great, young kids," he said. He thought the addition of the mayor's allies "was just the thing I needed to slam it home."
In a series of e-mails dated March 24, 2009, the team members planned the operation. The day started with an early morning missive from lobbyist Jeffrey Thomas to Coghill campaign manager Matt Hogue, with carbon copies to John J. Verbanac and city Chief of Staff Yarone Zober. In it, Mr. Thomas urged the team to "get to work" on door knocking.
Mr. Zober, in an e-mail timed hours before his work day at city hall began, chimed in with instructions for a needed photo shoot. "With his family, walking the business district talking to business owners, speaking to seniors at the senior center, one picture with a mix of ages and genders," Mr. Zober prescribed. "Clothes should be a mix of suit and tie, open collar shirt with rolled up sleeves, polo shirts (even if cold). Need some interior shots of Coghill with seniors talking at a kitchen table that looks like Pittsburgh."
"That's all [Mr. Zober] was really involved with," said Mr. Coghill, as he reviewed the e-mails.
Around noon on that day, Mr. Hogue sent an e-mail to Mr. Verbanac asking: "Is there any time frame on seeing the funds roll in?"
Mr. Verbanac's response: "Ed Grattan is working on the finance plan right now."
After that e-mail, the funds that rolled into the Coghill campaign account were laden with contributions from sources tied to firms that do business with the city or its authorities.
The political committee of Chester Engineers, which has multimillion-dollar contracts with both the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, gave a total of $6,000 from April 23 through May 14.
Three executives from Walnut Capital Corp., which is developing the city-subsidized Bakery Square site in Larimer, gave a total of $2,000.
Lobbying firm Greenlee Partners and one of its employees, Vanessa Getz, gave a total of $1,000. Greenlee, and specifically Ms. Getz, represents Verizon, which was at that time in the late stages of negotiating a cable TV agreement with the city that was unveiled 21/2 months later.
Merrill Stabile, whose firm Alco Parking has managed garages for the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, added $1,000.
An executive from engineering firm Wilbur Smith, and a member of the household of another manager of that firm, gave a total of $750. Wilbur Smith got several engineering contracts from the city and Urban Redevelopment Authority in 2008.
Members of the Cargnoni family, of Collier, gave $500. They own Independent Enterprises, which repairs pipes for the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority.
A PAC associated with accounting firm Schneider Downs gave $250 on April 23. A week earlier, the city had finalized a $44,500 contract with Schneider Downs to review payroll tax collection.
Impel PAC, the political committee for lobbying firm Impel Strategies, gave $200. One of its clients, which also serves as its landlord, is Orbital Engineering, which has had contracts with the Pittsburgh Parking Authority and in 2007 got a lease for a parking lot from the Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Alfred DePasquale, of October Development, which has built homes with URA support, gave $100. The owner of a firm called Mr. John, which previously provided the city with portable toilets, added $500.
Those contributions made up 36.6 percent of the money Mr. Coghill raised during the campaign. Another 28.5 percent came from Mr. Coghill and his fiancee.
"Those people that we got checks from, we never spoke to those people, ever," said Mr. Hogue, now an aide to Councilman Bruce Kraus, when presented with a list of contributors to the campaign who had business interests with the city. He said he believed that most of those contributions came through Edward J. Grattan, co-finance chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, who did not communicate much with the campaign or with Mr. Coghill.
Those contributors reached by the Post-Gazette either said they did not remember why they contributed, or declined comment. Mr. Grattan declined to be interviewed and did not respond to e-mailed questions.
"I didn't know what vendors gave me money," Mr. Coghill said. He said vendors who contribute to candidates might expect something in return. "As a practice, maybe it's not such a good idea."
Mr. Coghill said that he met with Mr. Verbanac just once.
Mr. Thomas said he joined because he "was contacted. I don't know who contacted me" about participating in the Coghill campaign. "I don't miss an opportunity to involve myself in a campaign." He said he was not paid for the campaign work.
Media reports of campaign collaboration tied Mr. Coghill to the mayor, but the council candidate said that may not have gotten him many votes. Though Mr. Ravenstahl won the South Hills easily that May, Ms. Rudiak won the council primary and now often votes with the council foes of the mayor.
This year, when he backed a slate of candidates for the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, Mr. Coghill relied on his friends and family, he said, rather than seeking help from the mayor's political team.
First Published September 13, 2010 12:00 am