Why Jack Wagner?
By Dan Sullivan
My friends have seen the Jack Wagner signs on my recumbent bicycle, and have been asking why I am supporting him.
Isn't Bill Peduto much more liberal? Isn't Wagner the machine
candidate? Isn't Peduto more forward-looking? The short answer is, perhaps on
superficial level, but on a deeper level, I have found Wagner to
be far more courageous, and far more dedicated to putting the
well-being of the city ahead of his own popularity. I have also learned
that there is more than one machine, and that the corporate-welfare
machine is far worse than the Democratic Party machine that we elect.
(Yes, every four years you elect a committee man and a committee woman
for your voting district.) No candidate in the race got the
endorsement, but it is generally conceded that Wagner would have got it
had the current slate been in the race at endorsement time.
The longer answer requires some explanation, and I am making it mostly for the benefit of those who know me personally. This is not just another race for me. It ties to several things I care deeply about, things I have dedicated my life to, and things that could change this city in very fundamental ways. I am including links for those who want to know more about the issues to which I refer. If you want to focus on a particular part of this letter, click on that topic in the left column.
As many of you know, I have long been an advocate of land value tax,
which has played an important role in helping this city. In the 1980s,
Pittsburgh was losing young people at an alarming rate. The
University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon were drawing them in, but
they were not staying, and neither were those who had been born
here. The Masloff administration surveyed people who had moved away,
and found that their number one reason was the city's 4% wage tax.
Masloff proposed to replace wage tax with conventional property tax and
got forceful resistance.
Wagner showed how land value tax was not only kinder to home owners,
and especially retired home owners, but was good for compact economic
growth. He led the shift from wage tax to land value tax.
As you can see from my video of the 1990 tax hearing,
Wagner and Masloff got a lot of flack from angry senior citizens who
railed against any increase in real estate taxes, backed up by some of
the most powerful real estate interests in the city. Pressure was
so intense that Councilwoman Michelle Madoff tried to illegally adjourn
state-mandated public hearing. Wagner calmly and
courageously took the heat and championed his reform. I can't stress
enough how rare it is for a politician to stand up to an angry public
and powerful interests at the same time in order to do what must be
done for the good of the city.
The outflow of young people had been increasing every year
since Caliguiri started increasing wage tax in 1978. The very first
year Wagner cut the wage tax, the rate of outflow began to fall, and
continued falling until 2000, when more young people moved into the
city than moved out for the first time in two decades. Since then, the
influx of young people has continued to increase. Other factors have a
lot to do with keeping them here, but it is clear that the wage tax
Wagner shifted onto land values had been driving them away. No revenue
was lost in Wagner's tax shift. Ironically, the young people that are
here because of Wagner's actions were not around at the time, and many
are voting for his opponent. (No good deed goes unpunished.)
Pittsburgh is one of very few cities whose real estate prices
actually increased during the "Great Recession." The tax on land values
had discouraged speculation during the 1990s boom, keeping housing
affordable. Pittsburgh has had a land value tax since 1913, and since
then has missed every housing bubble that has plagued so many other cities.
In general, the higher the tax on real estate, the milder the bubbles,
but taxing land values alone discourages idle speculation far better
than property tax does.
I have worked with many elected officials who supported land
value tax in Western Pennsylvania, but I generally have not campaigned
for them. However, two have stood head and shoulders above the rest:
Bill Coyne and Jack Wagner. Coyne was able to prevent some of the
proposed wage tax hikes in the late '70s and early '80s, or else we
might have had nearly a 5% rate like Philadelphia. The story that is
important to me, though, is how
they sold the idea to others. Neither one grandstanded, neither one
vilified opponents, and neither one tried to take credit. They both
quietly and methodically reasoned with other council members, and even
with interest groups whom they knew would oppose the shift. Both were
president of City Council when they did this, and both worked
diligently and effectively to make council meetings decorous and
productive. Indeed, both had the votes to pass much larger shifts,
which they demonstrated in the preliminary vote, and then both of them
compromised and got nearly unanimous support. They didn't have to do
this, but winning at the expense of others is not the Coyne or Wagner
way. Rather, they sought consensus and a spirit of cooperation. The
rancor we have seen in recent years was much less common under their
tenures. When I asked Wagner why he wouldn't run attack ads (and
offered him plenty of ammunition), he said, "You can't do the job right
if you make enemies trying to get the job."
There is a natural desire for public adulation and celebrity
status, but there is also something superficial about it. To be admired
by people who do not really know you is not as genuine as to be
appreciated by those who do. Coyne and Wagner established their
reputations with civic, community and business leaders, as well as with
fellow politicians, and those leaders have let the public know how
effective these council members had been. This worked well for Coyne,
but times have changed, and people are so out of touch with community
leadership that they are more easily swayed by credit-grabbing,
grandstanding, pandering, attack ads, and blather from the blogosphere.
That is why I am afraid Wagner might not win.
The people who have endorsed Wagner have been called his "cronies," a charge that is plausible to people who haven't been paying attention, but ridiculous to those who know what is going on. Jack has been endorsed by people who are arch-rivals of one another, and by people who have pretty much stayed out of politics for years. It is disingenuous to write these people off as cronies.
When Bill Coyne entered Congress, he made a point of staying out of local politics. I had asked him to endorse a shift from building tax to land value tax shortly thereafter, and he declined. He said, "I don't want to use my power and prestige as a Congressman to tell local officials how to do their jobs." Anyone can tell you that, as Congressman, Coyne listened to local leaders but did not give them unsolicited advice. To the contrary, many Democrats asked why they weren't hearing much from Coyne, whom they considered a great leader of the party. Even after his retirement from Congress, he took no lobbying job and limited his political involvement. Many have asked for his endorsement, and very few have received it. The suggestion that Coyne is anybody's "crony" is ludicrous.
When it was learned that mayor Caliguiri had an incurable disease and would not be seeking re-election, I asked Bill Coyne if he would run for mayor, knowing that he could easily win the position. He scowled slightly and said, "You couldn't give me that job." Coyne had worked closely with mayor Caliguiri, and knew very well that it takes a tough-minded, decisive person who to stand up to the constant pressure and demands. Coyne says Jack Wagner is that person, and I agree.
When I was trying to get council support for land value tax, I
got wonderful advice from Richard Meritzer, who was then an assistant
to one of the council members. He gave me a rundown on each council
member's interests and concerns, style of thinking, attitudes,
etcetera. When he got to Sophie Masloff, he said, "Sophie is the one
council member who wants to know if it's the right thing to do. She will also want to know how it will affect Squirrel Hill, but her first concern is whether it is right."
Sophie has also been out of office for a long time and has no interests
that would be served by being anybody's "crony." The fact is that, when
she was mayor, Wagner supported her on some issues and opposed her on
others, but always in a courteous and professional way. Her finance
director, Ben Hayllar, was furious that Wagner's land value tax
displaced his proposal for property tax, but Masloff and Wagner both
rose above such things.
There is a decent argument that Wagner and Lamb are at least allies, as they come from the same part of the city, and I believe Wagner had supported Lamb's run for City Controller. Still, the fact is that Wagner knocked Lamb out of the race, as Lamb's funding dried up after Wagner entered.On the other hand, there is no shame in having someone like Lamb for a "crony." Lamb is highly regarded for his quiet, methodical professionalism, and for saving the city from Ravenstahl's disastrous scheme to privatize the parking authority.
Luke Ravenstahl never endorsed Wagner, but it is clear that he is among the people who strongly dislike Peduto. The negative ad he ran against Peduto after he dropped out of the race was actually made while he was still in the race. To my way of thinking, it was poorly executed but accurate. Peduto even got part of Shadyside declared "blighted" so Giant Eagle could get special tax breaks to build its Market District and condo complex. That is money that could have gone to a poorer neighborhood, and every neighborhood is poorer than Shadyside. Of course nobody will bring that up directly, because nobody wants to cross Giant Eagle, one of the most powerful and politically involved business interests in the city.
The best thing Luke Ravenstahl could do to hurt Peduto is thank him for helping make Ravenstahl mayor in the first place. Pittsburgh'sdysfunctional council was deadlocked 4-4, and nobody in one camp would accept a council president from the other camp. This severe partisanship on city council led them to put a 25-year-old into the council presidency, making him mayor when Bob O'Connor passed a way shortly thereafter. Had Peduto (or anyone else) been willing to break the partisanship and support anyone from the other camp, we would not have had such a young, inexperienced mayor.
When Council President Darlene Harris endorsed Wagner, it sounded more like dissatisfaction with Peduto, with whom she had served, than admiration for Wagner. Frankly, as I don't know what happened behind the scenes and don't follow every council meeting. My own observation from what I have seen is that Harris is not a very polished speaker, but takes pains to do the right thing as she sees it, with little regard to political consequences. Peduto is bright, articulate and very polished, but takes on an issue when it is clearly in his interest to do so, and makes symbolic gestures that have little substance behind them.
Councilman Ricky Burgess constantly complains about Peduto and a few other council members. Burgess also seems to be allied with Ravenstahl. When he is not "carrying water" for Ravenstahl, I often find myself agreeing with Burgess on the issue. However, his harping on every little thing, his making things personal, and his inability to let go and move on when he has clearly lost the battle often makes him look worse than it makes Peduto look. This is a minus for Peduto, but not a big one.
Frankly, the endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police
gives me pause. I was arrested during the G-20 protest, and I was not
even a demonstrator. I think our police need a firm mayor who will
restore order. On the other hand, they do not need an adversarial mayor
so much as one who will support their legitimate grievances even as he
imposes higher standards. I think Wagner would be effective in that
regard, and I hope he will rise to the occasion. On the other hand, I
think Peduto will rise to the occasion, but I am skeptical that he will
The Fireman's Union endorsed Wagner and the Paramedics endorsed Peduto. These two unions have long been rivals for shares of the city budget, which is unfortunate, as they are both woefully under-funded. I was once injured on a motorcycle on Brownsville road, and they dispatched an ambulance from Homewood, which was about as far away as one could get and still be in the city. Fortunately I was not seriously injured and told them to cancel the call. On the other hand, I shudder to think what would have happened if we had today's emaciated fire department during the 1963 race riots that set the Hill District ablaze.
We hear a lot about "the machine," meaning city employees, I
suppose, but the Democratic Party organization, whatever their faults,
is at least elected. Every voting district elects a committee man and a
committee woman. Their perspective is biased, to be sure, but they are
geographically spread throughout the city and generally interested in
the city's well-being. When they don't determine the outcome of the
election, it is determined by big money. I wrote about this a few years
ago on a page called "The Importance of a Healthy Committee System."
Peduto is shaped by decades of representing Shadyside and parts of Oakland and Squirrel Hill. Shadyside is the richest neighborhood in the city, followed by Squirrel Hill and Oakland. Rich Fitzgerald, our county executive, represented essentially the same territory when he served on county council. Shadyside politics reminds me of Tolstoy's comment that rich liberals"will do anything to help the poor except get off their backs. " They talk a good game, but supported stealing development money from the poor so they could have a deluxe grocery store. They screamed bloody murder when their assessments went up, even though they were still the most under-assessed neighborhood in the city even after reassessment. They are also the only three neighborhoods where the majority voted in favor of a sales tax (which falls on the poor) to build stadiums (to entertain the rich).
Peduto even claimed that Shadyside's parks and green spaces "could be a model for the whole city. Really? Never mind that Shadyside's parkland was donated by the Mellon family that lived there before they bought a third of Westmoreland County. Never mind that many neighborhoods would have to tear down people's homes to get land for green space. Never mind that parks in some poor neighborhoods are places where drug deals are made and shootings occur.
It is possible that Peduto will rise above his Shadyside perspective and represent the whole city, but Fitzgerald continued to fight against honest assessments, which means that, if you live in a more typical city neighborhood, you are paying your taxes and a part of Shadyside's taxes as well.
My Own Personal Perspective
When I worked on tax issues with Wagner, he asked tough questions and demanded hard data. He never made me think he was worried about how this would affect his political career, but only whether it was right for the city. He didn't confide in me much, so I provided him the information he requested and had to hope he would do the right thing with it. Bill Coyne was the same way. Still, Wagner came through, never embracing the ideology behind land value tax, but simply analyzing it the way an engineer would analyze a design: Either it works or it doesn't. Coyne took a similar approach a decade earlier. The fact that Coyne was an accountant and Wagner was a safety engineer might have had a lot to do with this no-nonsense approach. Wagner's marine training also make him a bit cold and off-putting at times, but it added to his decisiveness and his leadership skills. Generally, I'm not a fan of the miltary or what it does to people, but it seems to havemade him more effective. I'd rather party with Peduto, but I'd rather Wagner have my back.
There are social issues on which Peduto is more liberal, such as gay rights and abortion, but he represents the most socially liberal neighborhood in the city. You don't get extra points for that in Shadyside; it is a minimum requirement.
My greatest fear is that Bill Peduto will be another Tom
Murphy. Murphy was a great campaigner, a great talker, a social
liberal, and a guy with big ideas for parks and greenways and bike
trails and other nifty trendy things. Yet once he got in he was for
subsidizing a Heinz expansion and taking the land by eminent domain,
subsiding a baseball park so McClatchy could walk away with a huge
profit and leave the Pirates in a shambles, subsidizing a stadium for
the Steelers, subsidizing a hockey arena for the Penguins, a
casino in the North Side that North Side orgnizations unanimously
opposed, spending $40 million on $10 million worth of land in the South
Side because he thought we could build a casino there, then pouring
massive subsidies into a yuppie retail complex in this very blue-collar
neighborhood, trying to take a wrecking ball to blocks of Fifth and
Forbes Avenues so he could subsidize a nearly bankrupt Nordstroms, and
finally, municipal bankruptcy and a major funding crisis.
I don't see Wagner taking as hard a line against corporate
welfare as I take, but I do see him doing the math and making sure the
return is there for the city and not just for the corporate-welfare
machine. I see Peduto saying, "I held out as long as I could" when challenged on something he actually championed.
And that is why I am supporting Jack Wagner.