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Rothfus again NRCC "Young Gun"

Published by Tim McNulty on .

The NRCC elevated PA12's Keith Rothfus to "Young Guns" status today, marking him as one of their best bets to challenge an incumbent Democratic congressman, in this case Mark Critz. He was one of 12 challengers nationwide placed in the category today, and was also a Young Gun in his 2010 race against Jason Altmire, which he lost by less than 2 percentage points.

Larry Sabato at UVa's Center for Politics today moved the race from "leans Democratic" to a tossup. (Cook Political Report did the same two weeks ago.) From Sabato's "Crystal Ball" report:

Rep. Mark Critz (D-PA), who won a tough member-versus-member primary against Rep. Jason Altmire, will face Keith Rothfus, who almost beat Altmire in 2010 in this re-shaped Western Pennsylvania district. We previously rated this race as leans Democratic with the thought that Altmire would win the primary, because under the new Republican-drawn Keystone State House map, the district was actually a touch bluer than Altmire's current district. However, because Critz won, this district could go either way -- Critz's current territory is several points bluer than the new PA-12, where he now must run.

UPDATE: The Critz campaign sends along the statement below:

"Regardless of what moniker the beltway Republicans give him, it won't change the fact that Keith Rothfus is an out of touch former Bush Administration official who supports trade deals that ship jobs overseas and wants to turn Medicare in to a voucher system in order to pay for even more tax cuts for millionaires like himself.

The people of Western Pennsylvania know that Mark Critz is fighting to create jobs by taking on China's unfair trade practices while standing up to those in Congress who want to privatize Social Security and end Medicare as we know it. This election will be about these important issues and Keith Rothfus is on the wrong side of every one."

KDKA-TV's Jon Delano previewed the race last night and noted Rothfus, who was redistricted out of the 12th late last year, plans to move into its borders in Sewickley within the month.

Today's full NRCC statement on Rothfus after the jump:

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DA: Orie should repay taxpayer-financed defense

Published by Tim McNulty on .

Jane Orie

Allegheny County DA Stephen A. Zappala Jr. is trying to get convicted state Sen. Jane Orie to repay $1.5 million in state money she used to defend herself on corruption charges, a move welcomed by good government groups. From Paula Reed Ward:

Eric Epstein, co-founder of political reform group Rock the Capital, said it's common practice for politicians to use taxpayer money to fund legal defense.

But the move by the district attorney to seek reimbursement for those costs is rare -- "a political lightning bolt," as Mr. Epstein put it.

"It's progressive. It's an important and necessary step," he said.

"In this case, it's like a double crime is committed. Not only did she rip the taxpayers off, she used the taxpayers for her defense."

Orie was charged in April 2010, and under Senate rules all legal payments for members must stop once charges are filed. She's probably headed for jail though, and she paid other legal fees out of campaign funds (a move followed by Democrats Vince Fumo and Robert Mellow).

"The government already has her down and out; do they really need to kick her, too?" Pitt law prof John Burkhoff told Paula.
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Fitz irate over transit/tunnel screwups

Published by Tim McNulty on .

The Hulk

You think Saturday night was bad at the new trolley stations on the other side of the North Shore tunnel? Wait until Steelers season.

The Port Authority claims it doesn't have the funding to run extra trolleys after big events anymore, which in part led to embarrassing transit failures over the weekend, wherein marathoners visiting from around the country and Pirates fans were stranded due to few buses and trolleys.

The failures angered county exec Rich Fitzgerald (illustrated via Avengers tie-in above), who appoints the PAT board. If he thought the half-billion connector project was a PR loser before, wait until voters start releasing the transit agency can't even use it effectively during the very events associated with the North Shore in the first place.

From Jon Schmitz:

"This problem is going to get solved. If it can't get solved by the people who are here, we'll find people who can solve it," Mr. Fitzgerald said in a phone interview.

He clearly was irate about reports that large numbers of riders waited 45 minutes or longer on crowded station platforms after the Pirates game on Saturday night, when Light Rail Transit service was plagued by a shortage of operators and trips were missed.

He also said the authority needs to redeploy service to better accommodate large crowds after events. Jim Ritchie, authority spokesman, said this week that the agency cannot afford to add service after major events as it has in the past.

"I'm certain there were empty buses running somewhere in the county on Saturday. They have to redeploy," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "We need to adjust to the marketplace. They certainly get paid enough to know when the crowds are going to require this service."

Pirates games on Saturday typically draw crowds of 30,000 or more, and having inadequate service at the ballpark after more than $500 million was invested extending the T there is "unacceptable," he said. "It's one of the reasons we sold this to the public years and years ago."

To be fair, PAT has been saying for months that the tunnel project was built more for daily commuting than the eight regular season Steeler games or other big-turnout events through each year. Here's the agency's former rail operations/engineering officer Wayne Simmons to Jon in March:

After stadium events, authority police and personnel will control access to the North Shore stations to prevent overcrowding on the platforms. That may mean some lines forming on the sidewalks outside the stations. The system can move a maximum of about 6,800 people per hour with two-car trains operating every three minutes after a major event, Mr. Simmonds said.

Asked what he will say when he is inevitably asked why the authority didn't build bigger platforms, he replied, "You don't build the church for Easter Sunday."

UPDATE: Fitzgerald issued the statement below:

"The wait time and lack of service provided by the Port Authority this past weekend to residents and visitors alike is absolutely inexcusable. This agency must be responsive to its customers, and the recent problems indicate to me that it is not the focus of the management.

"There is absolutely no valid explanation for why there was no planning or preparation for this past weekend's influx of people into the city. It's not as if the Pirates' schedule, the Stage AE concert or the Pittsburgh Marathon were a surprise to anyone. A few call offs due to illness should have had little impact on service if planning had been done appropriately. Beyond the service, the basics of providing information on when to expect the next train or signage directing people to the subway remains a missing part of this equation.

"This will be fixed – either within the existing structure, or with changes from the top to the bottom."

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Former Sen. Mellow pleads guilty

Published by Karen Langley on .

Robert Mellow, a former longtime leader of Democrats in the Pennsylvania Senate, pleaded guilty today in a public corruption case involving the use of state employees for political work.

The Scranton Times-Tribune reports that Mellow pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud and to filing a false federal tax return for 2008.

From the story:

Speaking mostly in short bursts rather than the lofty oratory he employed in the Senate chambers, Mr. Mellow told U.S. District Judge Joel H. Slomsky he had voluntarily signed an agreement to plead guilty.

And then:

"How say you ... guilty or not guilty?" the judge asked.

"Guilty, your honor," Mr. Mellow said.

The Associated Press reports that Mellow faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced.

Mellow was the state Senate's longest-serving member when he retired in 2010. He had been the Democratic floor leader for much of the previous two decades and served as president pro tem for about 16 months in the early 1990s.

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Fiscal board still at odds with Ravenstahl

Published by Tim McNulty on .

The city's Republican-controlled fiscal oversight board remains at odds with Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration.

The board released its latest look at city finances today and it's pretty grim, despite arguments from the Ravenstahl team that the city's budget has rebounded and it should be released from its 8 years of state oversight. From Joe Smydo:

In a new report, state overseers don't say how much longer Pittsburgh should remain in financial oversight but indicate that they plan to stick around at least for another year.

The city is making financial progress, but "continues to face significant financial challenges," including labor costs, potential revenue shortfalls and post-retiree health care liability of $488.6 million, the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority said in the annual update, posted on its website.

The 40-page report is available in pdf here.

The 5-member board (with members appointed by the governor and the four General Assembly caucus leaders) briefly rescinded its approval of the city's 2012 budget in February and later criticized Ravenstahl for meeting with bond ratings agencies while it was unapproved. (Ravenstahl was there in January with city councilors Darlene Harris and Ricky Burgess to get support for an $80 million bond issue. Less than a week later two of the three major ratings firms upgraded their outlooks on the city.)

The Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority is one of two state teams that have overseen city finances since 2004. The other, the Act 47 team, released a report in October also saying city finances haven't fully recovered.

The last ICA quarterly board meeting in March featured long presentations at the invitation of the board on the city's debt, including one from Eric Montari of the Allegheny Institute, a local conservative think tank.