Showing up: The D7 debate

Published by Tim McNulty on .

Quality of life. Public safety. Potholes. Debt and pension worries. UPMC. Tax rates.

The first forum in the special race for Pittsburgh City Council's empty District 7 seat was held last night, covering issues typical to a city government election. Looming over the whole event was something atypical -- the fact that it was organized by one major candidate (independent Tony Ceoffe) and therefore not attended by another (Democrat Deb Gross).

The latter issue, at least, was so present that the very first question asked of the four candidates who did come to the forum -- ably moderated by Nancy Hart of Urban Media Today -- was whether they had any reservations about Ceoffe organizing the debate, rather than some third-party community group.

Former Jim Ferlo staffer Tom Fallon said he would address any big community gathering -- including this one, attended by about 40 people at the Union Project in Highland Park. "For others who aren't here," he said, talking about Gross, "you aren't sure if they have the same sentiment."

Independent Jim Wudarczyk and Libertarian David Powell both complained the Democratic party -- which narrowly gave its nomination to Gross over Ceoffe in a July committee vote -- was taking advantage of the special election process, which forces other lifelong Democrats to run as independents. "We cannot allow 45 elitists to dictate who will be our representative on city council," Wudarczyk said.

"How can we vote for somebody if we don't know what they stand for?" asked Ceoffe. "How can you be accountable if someone can't ask you a question?"

Gross has big advantages in the special race to replace Patrick Dowd, from the Democratic nod to a raft of major endorsements and support from upcoming Mayor Bill Peduto, so it's no wonder her four opponents will take any route they can to gain traction. (Especially Powell, the city's Libertarian chair. "Typically, you can't get us to shut up about policies," he quipped.) Gross has been all over the district, door knocking, hitting community events and so on, but that's not the kind of interaction the other candidates want -- they want to be on the same footing as her, and like any other debate challenger, have a chance to throw her off balance.

Gross has hardly been hiding.

"In addition to Deb's 15+ years of community activism, since she has announced, in the last two months she attended approximately 45 community meetings and/or events. Deb has been at these meetings actively listening and working toward solutions for our neighborhoods," campaign manager Nikki Lu e-mailed.

As of now there are few formal debates scheduled before Nov. 5 -- a couple have been talked about for mid-October (Bloomfield, Oct.9, and Highland Park agin Oct. 17), and there are some informal "meet the candidates" nights that are nothing like multi-candidate face-offs. Gross says she will go to any neighborhood in the district for forums organized by legitimate community groups, but not to those organized by an opponent by Ceoffe (who repeatedly challenged her party nomination in court).

"Normal, community-organized debates are more inclusive, transparent and open. That's the only kind of debate I've ever seen anyone attend," Gross explained a couple weeks ago. "It's a little out of protocol to invite a candidate to your own private campaign event."

Ceoffe probably had more friends and family than anybody else at last night's forum, and more swag (including Neighbors for Tony Ceoffe mugs and cookies), but the forum itself was just like any other. Fallon, a developer, talked knowledgeably about tax rates, tax exempts, and copying the master plan process for Lawrenceville in other District 7 neighborhoods. Wudarczyk, a customer service rep and Civil War historian, zeroed in on pothole and parking concerns facing other lifelong Lawrencevillians like himself. On gentrification of Lawrenceville, East Liberty, Highland Park and other neighborhoods, Powell argued persuasively for the city's return to the land-value property tax, a system used until the reassessment brouhaha of 2001 that taxed land more than buildings. The system would combat land speculation and possibly be a way to tax holdings by UPMC and other major non-profits, Powell argued.

Before the forum, Ceoffe was steamed by comments Gross made to the Pittsburgh Comet's Bram Reichbaum about Lawrenceville United, the community group where he was formerly vice president. Bram was writing on the different styles of Gross and Ceoffe:

His is a fascinating personality contrast with Deb Gross (the results of our interview are contained here). Gross is more likely to pause to think before beginning an answer, speak deliberately, and even use silence to convey more than Ceoffe might in a more rambling response. In answer to a question about Lawrenceville United's contributions to public safety in the neighborhood, for example, she raised an eyebrow and asked in return, "Have they?"

After a few beats she went on, "One thing L.U. has done well is provide a valuable community table. That is certainly one thing they do of enormous value." Her slight sighs also seemed to suggest an opinion that there was something less-than-praiseworthy in some of the staunchest opposition to a prior Baum-Liberty development proposal, as well as to expansion of the Thunderbird Cafe -- that nonetheless were tough to capture in an interview write-up.

Last night, Ceoffe claimed those comments weren't going over very well in his home neighborhood (where his dad is the district judge and former L.U. director) and showed Gross didn't know it or the community group very well. Short of having Gross there at the debate to force her into a gaffe, it was the closest he had to one. Comparing Ceoffe to Gross, though, the very next graf from Bram's post was also right on point:

It can be challenging to elicit even these sorts of vague hints about hot-button issues from Ceoffe. His responses to the Butler St. club expansion and his posture towards the Buncher Company's sprawling development plans seem to carefully straddle each fence.

That rang true last night too. On police issues, Ceoffe criticized FOP efforts to waive residency requirements but also a council call for a referendum on them. On paying for the city's long-term pension costs, he pledged to work with unions and other stakeholders to "think outside the box" on solutions. While the three other candidates agreed with Powell on looking at the land-value tax Ceoffe said he would have to "weigh the pros and cons" and "research that one more."

Perhaps a few more forums will get stronger answers -- from all the major candidates.

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