Monday, December 24, 2012

Square Pegs, Sadness, and Old Rock Stars

A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more. 

                             - Matthew 2:18

I would like to be writing about something else as Christmas approaches. It should be a time of joy and quiet reflection, surrounded by those who love and care about you. Despite this, there are other things going on that are making this year's holidays more challenging. 

The Newtown, Connecticut mass shootings have been at the forefront of the national conscience for the last week. This event, even more than others of recent note, has shown the need for all us to step back, breathe deeply, try to make sense of the news flashes and rumor-mongering, and resist the urge to make snap judgments. 

wrote at length earlier this year after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. My feelings about the nature of these events remain unchanged. There are some things that spring to mind about this latest event that have to be said, however.

Newtown is to me but a momentary blip on a well-traversed road. Sandy Hook Elementary is but a mile or two from Interstate 84, part of a seemingly bucolic suburban/rural countryside between the New York state line and Hartford, scarcely noted and just as quickly forgotten while trying to get somewhere else. 

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons of Newtown - once and for all - is that it can happen here.

Several articles compared the Newtown shooting with the the biblical account of the Slaughter of the Innocents - in the time after the birth of the Christ child, King Herod ordering the death of all boys under 2 years of age, in hopes of catching the infant Jesus among the dead. 

This was not the first thing on my mind when contemplating these events. My thoughts were thrown back to two evenings before, when I tuned in the Concert for Hurricane Sandy Relief that was broadcast on seemingly every cable network. We were confronted with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd singing what is probably the toughest song of his masterpiece The Wall, with the assistance of Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.

Mr. Vedder's presence caused me to start interlacing the lyrics he was singing with one of his own band's more famous songs, topical to the events at hand - 

I have become comfortably numb...

Jeremy spoke in class today....

These were combining in my head with the lyric and haunting solo piano of an Elton John masterpiece from 1974. As a result, the soundtrack of my life this week has been in a decidedly minor key.

You've lived too long in silence, Mama said, remember Mama said, ticking, ticking..

Assuming that life can be compared to a movie, the quality of the script hopefully trumps the background music. Resolve on the part of the players to not allow these events to define us as a society, to rise above them, and join together with the President in saying "enough" - is but the tip of an iceberg of issues that seem to combine to create the atmosphere where such atrocities can occur. 

To be sure, we've had enough - but enough of what?

Guns - I believe that gun laws would likely not have prevented what happened in Newtown - the guns used were legally owned by a law-abiding citizen. Regardless of what the NRA had to say (and was there really any doubt about what they were going to say?), we as a country need to take a good hard look at both the practical and cultural aspects of guns in our society. 

There are legitimate arguments on both sides of the debate about whether or not to ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons. Efforts to close the so-called "gun show loophole" equate to the prohibition of gun sales between private individuals, which would effectively require a background check for any gun sale conducted within the boundaries of the law.

The NRA's initial suggestion of an armed presence in every school - something they're calling National School Shield - sounds more at the onset like a reactive posture that only addresses one component of what needs to be a comprehensive solution. As such, it landed in Connecticut with a decisive thud.

best practice methodology - one that addresses technology, processes and people and leverages resources on a multi-disciplinary basis - is for me the best approach toward applying a solution that is both responsive in the short term and sustainable over the long haul. Those other disciplines are:

Mental Health - Newtown is yet another example this year of deadly actions taken by a subject - in this case 20 year old Adam Lanza - who had displayed very high intelligence accompanied by social isolation, combined with the means, financial or otherwise, to accomplish his ends. 

This is bringing additional public debate about the nature of the safety net that is supposed to be in place, in the form of community mental health services and crisis team response.

There are several excellent posts on a Washington Post blog that delve into many issues surrounding the mentally ill in America - from the lack of effective treatment options to the lack of understanding of certain disorders such as Asperger's Syndrome to the demonization and stigma surrounding those who are suffering.  

One writer took the novel approach of suggesting that the firearms industry should take an active role in funding mental health outreach programs. This made me think of Chris Rock's idea on how to reduce gun violence. 

Still another blogger saw a post written about her personal experiences as a parent of such a child, titled "I am Adam Lanza's Mother", go viral. She wrote an excellent follow-up in USA Today. This all sounds like a bizzaro version of an Erma Bombeck column.

I believe that there are many people, including myself, who share personality characteristics similar to the shooters at Western Psych, Aurora, and Newtown. I believe that the effects of social isolation, along with environmental factors and stimuli unique to our period in history, are contributing factors to a documented increase in children being diagnosed with what are known as Persuasive Developmental Disorders.  

Now imagine, if you can, being unable to effectively interact with anyone unfamiliarinstead retreating into an artificial environment of television, computers, and/or video games. Something happens, that world is threatened, and you cannot cope. Your attempts to secure help are met with misunderstanding, dismissal, or contempt. You drive yourself deeper into escapes from this reality, until circumstance backs you into a corner. A response from outside the acceptable boundaries of reality appears inevitable.

This was expanded upon by an anonymous writer, who submitted an essay to Newsweek/Daily Beast, which published it under the provocative headline I Was Adam Lanza. Now a more stable adult after years of therapy, the writer attempts to explain, from first person experience, how someone like Mr. Lanza may have been driven to his actions. This stuck out for me -

When your brain works more efficiently than everyone else's, that means it performs most mental tasks more efficiently than other people, including go crazy. Worse, because a smart person's brain is so good at running through hypotheses and rejecting them, it tends to come up with insanity that's more resistant to basic therapy, because the rationalizations are built to withstand the assault of a genius level intellect. When people say genius and insanity are close cousins, this is what they're talking about.

And when you're isolated from other people, your own mind - and its crazy ideas - becomes the only company you have.

I have no scientific basis for any of this, of course - just a feeling based on my own life - that there is a comfort in the speed and ease (mostly) of electronically produced results, and the illusion of control when dealing with the cool, arbitrary nature of ones and zeroes. It doesn't translate well when facing tragedies and choices in the real world. Paging Neo and Morpheus...

School Safety - Before we establish an independent, separate layer of armed security at the behest of a lobbying group that serves firearms manufacturers, let's look at what's in place so far, and how we as a community can enhance those efforts.

My experience with school safety and response planning, mostly in Colorado, centers on extensive use of the School Resource Officer (SRO) concept. According to a tutorial from the Center for Technology in Education at Johns Hopkins University, an SRO is best defined as - 

..a sworn law enforcement officer, assigned to a school on a long-term basis. The SRO is specifically trained in and performs three main functions, law enforcement officer; law related counselor; and law related educator. In addition the SRO works in collaboration with the school and the community as a resource.

That aptly describes the SRO's I worked with out west - not just an armed guard standing next to a metal detector, but someone who was invested in providing an active, responsive police presence not only to their assigned schools, but to the general community surrounding them. A component of the community public safety system, there to educate as much as to protect and serve.

This concept appears not to be as well embraced in Pennsylvania as it could be. A comprehensive article, published in 2000 by the National Center for Juvenile Justice - now headquartered in Pittsburgh - detailed what was then a grant-funded program to place SRO's in several schools across the commonwealth.

The article detailed the daily activities of North Fayette Township Police Officer John Bates, the SRO at West Allegheny High School, and the pilot SRO program initially funded by grants from the Pa. Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

The SRO program there is still in place and functioning well, according to now Sergeant Bates, who when contacted last week stated he was getting a lot of calls from nearby school districts about their program, which is now jointly funded by the township and the school district. 

As reported extensively in recent days, Quaker Valley schools employ an armed police officer as an SRO. Robert Wright appears to function as a district employee when on duty, even though he also works as a police officer in Sewickley. Whether Officer Wright can exercise police powers when he's wearing his QV hat is unclear, and is something I will explore further after those in charge return from their holiday breaks.

The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO)responding to the NRA's recent comments, stated that "only a fully-trained law enforcement officer should carry a firearm on school property. In addition, law enforcement officers assigned permanently to schools should receive specialized SRO training as soon as possible."

It sounds as if Quaker Valley is ahead of the curve on this issue, but I think that there's room for improvement in terms of providing a layer of protection, service, and response that is seamless between school and community. This means that the officer protecting the high school can also help to investigate and mitigate problems in the neighborhoods surrounding the school. Things like traffic and parking issues.... 

As much as I would like to talk about moving forward in the spirit of peace and love, the reports of continued violence continue to stream in. While I wrote this today, public safety brethren in the Rochester, New York were reeling from today's fire and ambush that killed 2 volunteer firefighters. One was also a police officer, the other a 9-1-1 Dispatcher.

Hope is a precarious emotional commodity, even at this time of the year. I remain faithful that we'll see our way through this. Hearts and minds are stirring - it will be messy, but we will get through it - together.  

We need to watch out for, and care for, one another. That collective action of our hearts and minds is greater than any gun, badge, doctor, or government agency, and is keeping with the true spirit of this season. 

The luminaria will probably be wet tonight, but they will still be lit.

I'll wish you the best possible holiday with a couple of 70's throwbacks, both involving old rock stars and some unlikely combinations of music and performers.

Here's to a blessed and peaceful Christmas, courtesy of Sonny and Cher and David Bowie and Bing Crosby.

And to all a good night.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Light-Up Night: The Shadow Fireworks

Wow, it's December already.

The Thanksgiving weekend came and went quietly and uneventfully. Leslie, Gianna and I were the beneficiaries of a neighbor's hospitality for holiday dinner. 

That's how it seems to go, what with working weekends and tending to avoid participating in Black Friday, otherwise known (at least to me) as the high holy day of The First Church of My Stuff. I saw at least one Internet meme over that weekend that brought this point home very clearly.

This past Friday evening I headed to the library to review some long-awaited research materials for an upcoming post, and encountered the traffic and crowds associated with Sewickley's annual light-up night

The library was bustling with activity associated with the event as well. Staff were setting up tables for kids to do a craft project. Sewickley Herald reporter Bobby Cherry was there as part of their coverage of the festivities.

When I left just before 6, I noticed crowds making their way into the event areas along Broad Street, via the closed section at the intersection with Thorn. There were clearly marked detour signs posted, along with dedicated signs for a detour around the celebration for those needing to access Heritage Valley Sewickley Hospital.

That's when I heard the helicopter. 

Thinking that it was perhaps more than coincidental that a helicopter could be circling the village at that time - perhaps a news chopper to add to the hype surrounding the festivities - I scanned the skies for a spotlight or other visual cue. Not finding any, I started scanning the airwaves, specifically the public safety and aviation bands, for some telltale activity.

Finding some, I headed across the river to find a STAT Medevac aircraft at the landing zone adjacent to Valley Ambulance headquarters, with Moon Township VFC standing by. An ambulance had just left with the flight crew, headed toward Sewickley in bridge traffic that was backed up almost to Coraopolis, and through the village detour to the hospital previously mentioned. It took roughly 10 minutes, with lights and sirens, for them to travel the roughly 1 1/2 miles to the hospital. 

As I wrote in February, the practice of flying patients out of Heritage Valley Sewickley is an infrequent, complex, and frankly perplexing exercise. This is taking into consideration the underlying reasons for using that mode of transportation (usually speed), the proximity of Sewickley to Pittsburgh, and the ready availability of ground transportation. 

After about 45 minutes, the flight crew was making their way back to the aircraft with their patient, and shortly afterward lifted off for a Pittsburgh hospital with what sounded like someone with a cardiac problem.

It's likely that the ambulance committed to that relay back and forth from the aircraft could have had the patient in Pittsburgh in considerably less time, and for a lot less money. Finding out how and why this happens is near impossible, what with privacy laws and stakeholders less than willing to speak to anyone about the underlying processes and politics of our so-called "non-profit" health care system. 

All one can do is try to be an educated health care consumer. 

This wasn't the only thing happening in Sewickley during light-up night. When the fireworks started, the numerous police officers deployed throughout the village were alerted to a report of a male seeking psychiatric evaluation who had run from the Heritage Valley Sewickley ER. A description was aired, and hospital security was seen in the area of Broad and Centennial assisting in the search. It's unknown if the man was ever located or turned back up. 

Sewickley Borough Manager Kevin Flannery, contacted today, dismissed the incident as more commonplace than it might actually seem to be. He estimated that 5 to 7 people run from the ER a year. This makes one wonder even more about another health care factor  relegated to the shadows, perhaps deliberately - the propensity of mental illness in our society, often exacerbated by substance abuse. 

My primary purpose for speaking with Mr. Flannery was to get a sense of the emergency planning contingencies in place for an event that draws a large amount of traffic and several thousand people to a few square blocks of shopping district. I was impressed with what I heard.

Mr. Flannery cited joint planning efforts by the Police Department, Cochran Hose Company, and his office to assure that emergency resources are able to quickly respond into the event area, and that people can be moved quickly from the areas if needed. He spoke about assuring a minimum 18-feet wide clearance to allow emergency vehicle ingress and egress to and from key entry and exit points to the event. Cochran Hose volunteers also assured that the fire station was fully staffed and ready.  

This was put to the test in recent years as well as this year, when a vehicle was reported to be on fire near the intersection of Blackburn Road and McCready Way. Firefighters found that the car had just overheated.

Other reports included some who had enjoyed perhaps a little too much holiday cheer. One woman wanted officers to find a friend that she had become separated from. One man was arrested near the borough building for public intoxication. 

And in the 'ignorance is bliss' department, several reports of loud pounding noises were made by borough residents..during the fireworks display.

Planning for these types of special events is often accomplished by emergency managers and local governments through the use of the National Incident Management System, or NIMS. There is specialized online training available through the FEMA NIMS website to address these events, defined by FEMA as "a nonroutine activity within a community that brings together a large number of people".

Mr. Flannery expressed satisfaction that the event was so well attended, but also stated that some merchants complained that foot traffic within their shops was less than expected, owing to how nice it was outside. I'm sure someone will get right on that problem for next year...

Mr. Flannery also expressed gratitude to Heritage Valley for allowing use of their parking garage during the event. He also stated that the pleasant conditions made walking from the parking lots at War Memorial Park more amenable to attendees.

As far as attendance at these types of events, Mr. Flannery also cited the annual Harvest Festival and Memorial Day observance as examples where their efforts in planning and communications have paid off.

I asked him about potential contingencies where attendance numbers would possibly require the use of overflow parking in more remote locations, with shuttle buses into the village. Mr. Flannery stated there are areas where such a contingency could be implemented if needed, but he also hoped that attendance would not get too far beyond the 7 to 9,000 that these events have been typically drawing in recent years.

That's a good perspective - not necessarily wanting too much of a good thing. Perhaps that's a message that all of us can identify with. 

May the holidays bring you joy and peace. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Election, with Ben and Elaine

Sitting on a sofa on a Sunday afternoon 
Going to the candidates debate 
Laugh about it, shout about it 
When you've got to choose 
Every way you look at it, you lose 
                    - Simon and Garfunkel

The music of Simon and Garfunkel was running through my head last month. WQED aired a documentary that was originally broadcast on CBS in 1969, prior to the release of the iconic folk duo's last album Bridge Over Troubled Water.

The film, Songs of America, was included on a DVD that accompanied this album's 40th anniversary release. Our wonderful public library system provided access to a copy in short order, and it did not disappoint. I grew up listening to this music - wore out my mother's vinyl LPs.

The quote at the top, from Mrs. Robinson, was something that I thought about when putting together my earlier post about the choices we faced last Tuesday. 

It wasn't until the aftermath of the election, and the collective giddiness that many of us felt over what seemed to be a national rebuke of the Republican Party, that I thought about the movie that this song was written for.

If you already know The Graduate, then you know how the story ends. The young couple, in love despite some serious family drama, reject convention and the establishment to break out on their own. The initial elation over this brash and somewhat hilarious turn of events gives way to facial expressions that perhaps reveal other emotions - concern, uncertainty, even fear.

On a more topical level, the last scene of The Candidate (1972) shows similar emotional contrasts. 

That's what the election last week felt like to me - a sense of near disbelief and quiet satisfaction, followed by a renewed sense of concern for many issues and situations that have yet to be addressed. 

We remain a nation largely divided, but the record turnout in some jurisdictions threw that much more water on the fire of conservative extremism, even in the face of attempts to make it more difficult to cast a ballot in many states. The comparatively narrow popular vote may not constitute a mandate for President Obama, but the turnout certainly sent a message. 

What will also be interesting is how that message is received around the world. The recent stepping up of violence between Israel and Hamas, the rise of terrorist attacks in Libya, and the impending change in leadership at State (and CIA in the wake of scandal) are just a few of the factors that will make foreign policy interesting in the coming year.

The gains and holds by Democrats in the Senate (Tom Smith's challenge of Bob Casey really wasn't), along with a few hard-fought victories in the House, seemed to send an additional message. 

This is true even if a Republican conservative defeated an incumbent Democrat to represent the bulk of the Sewickley area and Beaver County in Congress. J.D. Prose was right - Keith Rothfus and Mark Critz split the vote nearly 50/50 in Beaver County, and that probably contributed more to Rothfus' victory than other factors.

Mr. Critz, in an election day interview on KDKA Radio, called Rothfus an ideologue - for everyone's sake, let's hope he's wrong.

If the intent of the electorate was a little nebulous at the federal level, it certainly wasn't in the races for state offices. With the exception of Mark Mustio, local House and Senate representatives were all elected from the Democratic side. This includes incumbent legislator Rob Matzie and now Senator-elect Matt Smith.

Democrats Kathleen Kane and Eugene DePasquale handily won their respective elections for Attorney General and Auditor General. In the days since, the brunt of most speculation focused on those areas of emphasis that may have helped these two win - Ms. Kane's promise to probe the handling of the Jerry Sandusky investigation (along with other issues), as well as Mr. DePasquale's commitment to review enforcement and regulatory issues surrounding Marcellus Shale exploration, and the agencies responsible.

This is of particular interest, given the recent controversy surrounding the completeness of water testing in the area of Marcellus drilling activity by the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The war of words is escalating between DEP secretary Michael Krancer and legislators such as Jesse White (D-Cecil). On a related note, Rep. White's recent historical analysis and commentary on the behavior of a local Marcellus drilling company is great reading.

With the wholesale defeat of Republicans running for statewide office, many are reading these results as a significant message to Governor Corbett. The Governor's public face appears to be unfazed by these developments, but I'm sure that the sharks are beginning to smell blood, and are preparing to circle for a run at Mr. Corbett in 2014. 

I was quite surprised at the turn of events in other states where the government permits the people to have a more direct say on how they are governed, through initiatives and constitutional amendments. 

Much attention was paid to the amendments legalizing marijuana for personal, recreational use in Colorado and Washington. Knowing the debate in Colorado since medical use of cannabis was legalized there in 2000, the effectiveness of the will of the people will largely be driven by how the federal government chooses to respond, or not. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper's glib comments about "holding off on the Cheetos and Goldfish for now" have received a lot of attention. 

As with so many other legal vices in this country, it feels to me as if those who are tripped up by any local or federal intervention in states where these laws are passed will have done so by calling undue attention to themselves. 

The other significant results were initiatives or questions in 4 states concerning the legalization of same-sex marriage, all of which went in favor of it. A Bloomberg columnist speculated on the likely challenges that may work their way up to the Supreme Court in the coming years. That likelihood represents one of the major pluses of President Obama's re-election.

One referendum that was noticeably absent from ballots across the country was the recurrent attempts at passing a personhood amendment. I remember when this amendment was on the ballot in Colorado - twice. It was soundly trounced both times. 

The inability of supporters of this type of initiative to get sufficient signatures to qualify for any state ballot in 2012 contrasts greatly with some of the anti-abortion rhetoric from candidates that made the news during the campaign. This included some controversial TV ads from long-time abortion protester and presidential candidate Randall Terry that aired locally. The comments concerning pregnancies resulting from rape by GOP senate candidates Todd Akin (Missouri) and Richard Mourdock (Indiana) were widely criticized on a bi-partisan level, and likely contributed to both candidates being defeated last Tuesday. 

Regardless of how one personally feels about abortion, it seems as if the vast majority of the electorate has grown tired of attempts to put it forth as a political issue, or feels as I do that the issue hinges on a decision gate that should not involve the government. 

Roe v. Wade was decided almost 40 years ago. Perhaps the voters are saying that it's time to move on.

The results of these initiatives around the country seem to represent a general rejection of this and other bullet points on the Republican social agenda, if not their fiscal plans as well.
Negative ads and attitudes aside - and we all know there were plenty of those on both sides - perhaps the message being sent from the voters to our political leaders is that solutions will likely not be forthcoming exclusively from one spectrum or the other.

In short: Work together..or else.

This will hopefully continue to be emphasized by what seems to be a newly energized and involved group of voters. Young adults helped President Obama to win re-election, and will likely continue to be a force for change and accountability.

This isn't to say that the remainder of the demographic didn't play a role. Let's imagine that Benjamin Braddock and Elaine Robinson stayed together, made a go of it in work (plastics?) and family, and are now preparing to retire.

They're holding their own in the family homestead, but are eyeing either a retirement community or an SUV pulling an Airstream trailer to spend their golden years in. It seems that with the kids gone, that property tax bill from the school district makes less and less sense every day.

They believe in fiscal responsibility, but eye with suspicion the Republican agenda to make changes to Social Security and Medicare. They ask, "Why should the budget problems be tamed on our backs? What did we do all that yelling for when our friends were fighting in Vietnam, and now we seem to be firmly mired in no-win conflicts in who-knows-where-istan?" 

They've been (mostly) loyal Republicans since the so-called Reagan Revolution - Ben pulled the lever for Romney, but Elaine had serious issues with the financial and social messages, especially as they relate to rape and abortion. She voted for the President.

As an active couple who grew up around the technological revolution, they have a computer, smartphones, and social media accounts to keep in touch with the grandkids. My, how they're growing up so fast these days....

Perhaps as much as technology moves our world faster and has served as a divisive and distracting influence, it also serves to allow information sharing and collaboration across not only physical boundaries, but generational as well.

The very nature of communication in this way lends itself to a greater sense of openness, curiosity, and understanding - something that those who resort to noise, hatred, and intolerance instead of facts and reasoned discourse will have to get used to more and more.

Wishing our leaders the best - for us and them - in the challenging years ahead.

Here's to keeping hope alive.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Subduing the Silly Season

                                                                                          - Tom Tomorrow

Great empires rise and fall, the famous come and go, cities boom and then they languish, but kindness is a constant presence in America.

In that same spirit, I walk around St. Paul and think, 'This is a great country, and it wasn't made that way by angry people'.

                              - Garrison Keillor

It's been hard for me to get a handle on this year's election cycle. Perhaps it had something to do with the overload of information from multiple media outlets, political blogs, and social media wags, with different slants on what they cover, how they cover it, and what it's all supposed to mean. 

Now that I've had time to do some more reading and listening to what I consider credible sources of objective, reasoned discourse, I've tried to arrive at some conclusions about the choices we face in the Sewickley area, in just a few days' time.

There are other factors affecting the choices we have to make next week, outside of just the candidates or the issues. I'll try to touch upon those as well. 

First, some general observations - 

1. In the wake of the 2010 Supreme Court Citizens United decision, we're now bombarded by all manner of information and advertising from all manner of sources, some not affiliated with the candidates at all. 

As has been the prevailing trend with many of these efforts, a lot of this information is negative in nature - don't support this candidate, for these reasons - instead of trying to make a persuasive argument for those they do support. 

2. There has been too much focus by the media on using fund-raising totals and polls as a means to somehow drill down and prognosticate the outcome of the election, at times ad nauseam.

The media seem to be placing the weight of certainty on these statistics, perhaps in hope that they can keep the viewer or reader riveted, keep the ratings and/or hit numbers up, and possibly insert suspense or drama into a situation where it really isn't necessary or warranted. 

All of this serves to disillusion and stymie the average voter trying to get credible information from objective sources. Luckily, there are some excellent resources out there to try and make sense of it all: 
  • Project Vote Smart and it's award-winning candidate/issue tool,VoteEasy, a very accessible way to figure out what a particular candidate for federal office stands for, and how that relates to your opinions as a voter. 
  • FactCheck.Org, one of several sites that specialize in trying to distill truth from falsehoods, and just seem to be getting busier with each campaign season. Even Garry Trudeau has featured this on a recurring basis.
  • Locally, the Pittsburgh City Paper devoted the bulk of last week's issue to examining elections from a local, state, and national perspective. They did a pretty good job of it. It's worth reading.
  • The Patch Voter Guide is also a good resource for election information specific to local communities.

Cover art for October 24 edition of Pittsburgh City Paper.
                                                                          - Frank Harris

I've tried to take a look at every race involving voters in the 11 municipalities that make up the Quaker Valley School District. These are mostly just observations about the nature of the races and the politics surrounding them.

If I have a particular preference as to a candidate I'll mention it, but even when trying to focus attention on the attributes of one candidate over the other, it's sometimes tough to get through the fluff. 


A couple of Mondays ago, I asked a neighbor if she was going to watch the final presidential debate. Her disdain, accompanied by "No!", spelled out what many citizens seem to feel when thinking about presidential politics, and the battle over whose facts are more credible. The time spent debating facts is one of the most glaring symptoms of the disease affecting our political process. 

After the last debate, it became more evident to me that Mitt Romney will mold his views to fit the situation, to the point that he alienates whichever faction of a fractious Republican Party establishment that he isn't currying favor with at the moment.

In reviewing my writing from the 2008 presidential campaign, I saw John McCain as an independent thinker who became increasingly frustrated as the race went on - I believe in part due to attempts by party operatives to handle him, and also by their saddling him with a under-qualified running mate.

I see the same uncertainty and frustration on the part of Mitt Romney. He's given me the impression that he was more of a centrist during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts and in the 2008 campaign. In a sparse field of candidates, running the gamut of ideologies across the landscape of a splintered GOP, he's the most palatable to the faithful, but is also now the most fractured in relationship to who he was.

Since this race started, I've wondered if the GOP was really serious about replacing President Obama. If they were, I thought they would marshal some of their best and brightest to take the President on. They didn't - or couldn't - and as a result the nominee is someone who passes the smell test with that part of the GOP base that cares, but who doesn't seem to be able to present a bold plan for improvement that includes any new or innovative ideas. 

Instead, the GOP and its nominee seem more focused on the negative - Defeat Obama, Nobama, Fire Obama, etc . - than they do on moving the country in a direction that hasn't been tried before. Mr. Romney's advisors look like a rogue's gallery of neo-conservatism and rehash, representing for me the failed policies of previous administrations. Robert Bork? Seriously?

Who a President surrounds himself with is at least as important as the man himself. Advantage to President Obama.

If something is troubling me about the President, it is his reticence on civil liberties issues as part of the debates, as well as a mixed record on protecting liberties during his first term. The ACLU has a website dedicated to monitoring constitutional issues related to this election, as well as a report card detailing the stated positions and records of the three most prominent candidates. 

Yes, I said three. Included in the analysis is Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, a converted Republican who appears to be gaining popularity among disaffected GOP voters and others, perhaps those aligned with the persistent message of the Tea Party and/or the candidacy of Ron Paul

My son got to vote for President for the first time recently (Colorado, unlike Pennsylvania, has early voting), and stated he was going to vote for Mr. Johnson. Like father, like son on this one, I guess. My first vote for President was in 1980, and went to John Anderson, an independent candidate whose campaign I also volunteered a fair amount of time for.

The GOP establishment, apparently sensing a lot of this discontent, is making a concerted effort to challenge Mr. Johnson's spot on the ballot in many states. They have largely been unsuccessful, including in Pennsylvania. A Forbes Magazine columnist recently categorized the GOP as "running scared". 

The national political climate, as well as ideas on which direction the country should go, seems to be at polar opposites in a way not seen since the 1960's. We should remember our history about perceived third parties and political establishments, perhaps all the way back to 1860, when parties and factions such as the Whigs faded away, and the country re-aligned itself behind groups on either side of another polarizing issue; slavery. 

Back then, the fledgling Republicans, led by their nominee Abraham Lincoln, captured the White House with just under 40 percent of the popular vote in a 4-way race. 

While it will hopefully not take another Civil War to move our country's political system back toward mutual respect and cooperation, citizens should be mindful of those ideas being thrown around being spun as crucial to our country's future. This divisiveness is most readily apparent in a U.S. Congress that seems continually gridlocked in obstinate, sometimes juvenile behavior. 

It can be reasonably argued that neither side has a track record to be proud of with regard to performance related to promises made. However, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has continued to point out, it's better to have slow, incremental growth according to an established plan than to rely on nebulous promises that aren't backed up by anything substantial. Or, as Mr. Krugman put it, "a slow job is better than a snow job".  

With all of the above in mind, I believe that the Republicans have presented insufficient evidence that things will improve significantly under a Romney administration - insufficent to deny President Obama a second term. 

Upper Houses - State and Federal

The race for U.S. Senate between Democratic incumbent Bob Casey and Republican challenger Tom Smith, himself a long-time Democrat until last year, seems polarized on equal levels with the presidential race. The race thus far has seen some significant negative advertising activity, including stark, black and white road signs that state simply CASEY KILLS JOBS.

Getting past the mud and into genuine ideas, I reviewed some of the issues and plans as articulated by each candidate on their websites. Mr. Casey outlined his accomplishments over the last six years, which seem to be more focused on establishing consensus and compromise whenever possible - the bulk of this work has kept him largely out of the public spotlight. His voting record doesn't reflect a lot of variation from the positions espoused by his party, but Mr. Casey doesn't sound like someone who will not bend or consider a good idea from the other side of the aisle.

In contrast, Mr. Smith has recently released a 5-point plan to Restore the American Dream. This plan generally follows many GOP talking points, such as the flat tax, repealing Obamacare, drastically reducing financial and environmental regulation, and tort reform.

This appears disingenuous to me - most of these points involve long-term politicking, and don't speak to the day-to-day business of working as a legislator - something Mr. Casey seems to have focused most of his energies on. The choice here is fairly clear, especially considering that Mr. Casey has received the endorsements of both the Post-Gazette and the Tribune-Review.

In the State Senate, the choice facing Quaker Valley area voters to replace Sen. John Pippy (who just plain up and left in June) will be between incumbent state legislator Matt Smith and Mt. Lebanon businessman D. Raja. There has been a great deal of negativity in this campaign, most of it emanating from the Raja camp, which is ironic as Mr. Raja was the target of some really nasty advertising during the Republican primary.

It should be noted that Mr. Smith is also running unopposed for re-election to his state House seat - a recurring practice in several contests this year, and not something that generates comfort among many citizens fed up with so-called "career politicians". 

Mr. Raja ran for Allegheny County Executive last year, which kind of made sense to me given his involvement in politics at the municipal level. Some of his ideas then, such as merit hiring, were interesting to hear in Pennsylvania politics. As a result, his candidacy for state office now seems like an uncomfortable stretch just to keep his name relevant in the political scene.

Lower Houses - A Divided Valley

Unlike the Senate seats, voters in the Quaker Valley area see their representation split in both the Pa. and U.S. House of Representatives.

With the census-driven redistricting of the state, and the loss of congressional seats as a result, we not only are losing a good congressman inJason Altmire to a Democratic primary defeat at the hands of current 12th District representative Mark Critz, of Cambria County. Leetsdale, Leet Township, and Edgeworth were also culled from this district and added to the 18th District, currently represented by Tim Murphy of the South Hills.

This made things kind of interesting, at least temporarily, for Mr. Critz's opponent in the general election, Republican Keith Rothfus. Mr. Rothfus, until recently an Edgeworth resident, found himself residing outside the district he was running for. 

Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District, which includes all
Quaker Valley communities except Edgeworth,
Leet Township, and Leetsdale. Credit -
The new 12th district is a gerrymander comprised of active, growing urban and suburban areas, post-industrial river communities trying to re-invent themselves, and pristine rural regions such as the Laurel Highlands. All of these segments of the district want to increase their vitality, while maintaining their unique character and quality of life.

I'm wondering how Mr. Critz and Mr. Rothfus are each prepared to adequately represent these diverse areas and their unique interests, especially in the wake of Marcellus Shale drilling and the proposed ethane cracker plant in Beaver County. These represent both an opportunity and a threat to many potential constituents.

Mr. Altmire, according to J.D. Prose at the Beaver County Times, has been conspicuously absent from several Critz events. Should Mr. Critz hope to be victorious next week, he'll need Beaver County's significantly pro-Altmire constituency. 

Mr. Rothfus, running for the second time for a seat in Congress, has been saying on TV for months that he's a "regular guy". Aside from anything either campaign or the media has said to affirm or debunk this, one look at Mr. Rothfus' house in Edgeworth (I wonder where he is in Sewickley?) says something different to me.

Mr. Rothfus appears to be highly capable as a lawyer and administrator, who espouses the same GOP talking points that Tom Smith is carrying forward. It's likely that Mr. Rothfus will carry our area, but it's not clear if that "regular guy" appeal will extend from Johnstown to Plum to Beaver Falls. 

Here in Leetsdale, at the northern fringes of the 18th District (Ice Station Zebra, perhaps?), we know as much about Congressman Murphy and his Democratic opponent Larry Maggi as the time or money either of them has spent campaigning here. A Patch blogger in Upper St. Clair offered me his assessment of Congressman Murphy when I asked him for one:

My impression of Representative Murphy is that he is a disingenuous individual that will adopt the position which he believes is most likely to garner him votes, someone who seeks to have it both ways. He proclaims his Republican credentials as primary elections approach, but plays both sides of the street at other times.

Other assessments of Mr. Murphy's performance also indicate that he will sometimes cross the aisle to align himself with positions outside lockstep GOP ideology. Sounds pretty good so far. 

Mr. Maggi doesn't seem to espouse a great many substantive ideas on improving things in Washington, although he has an extensive background in local and county government in Washington County. Perhaps he needs a little more seasoning there. 

Before getting into the two State Legislature contests in our area, I think it's important to share the observations of Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, whose district includes parts of Allegheny, Beaver, and Washington counties.

Rep. White's recent essay Profiles in Cowardice describes a system of operations that permits legislators to engage in political chicanery to the point of impeding the ability of the legislature to do it's job and be truly accountable to constituents.

With that in mind, most of the local area is in the 44th District, represented by Republican incumbent Mark Mustio. Mr. Mustio ran unopposed in the primary election, a situation he used to his advantage to also run in the GOP primary for the 37th District State Senate seat, opposing D. Raja. 

That campaign was peppered with negative ads by both candidates. According to the Tribune-Review, these ads included the following:

Mustio's campaign for the state Senate seat mailed thousands of flyers printed with the messages, "D. Raja has outsourced many of our jobs to India," and, "Why would we ever vote for Raja to represent us?" next to pictures of India's flag and a map of the country. Another ad features a photo of Raja and his full first name, Dakshinamurthy.

Many republicans cried foul at what they perceived as a racist tone in the ads. Even as Mr. Mustio was disavowing and pulling them, the Post-Gazette took the unusual step of withdrawing its endorsement of Mr. Mustio and giving it instead to Mr. Raja, who won the primary handily.

The P-G referenced this 2 weeks ago, calling the episode a character issue while endorsing Mr. Mustio's Democratic opponent, Mark Scappe. Mr. Scappe is a former Moon Township school board member who lost re-election over the controversial decision to build a new high school there. He remains resolute in this decision, and he has apparently mustered considerable support among voters in Moon and elsewhere. 

Could this be a sign that negative campaigning has consequences? This corner certainly hopes so, especially when considering the stuff that has hit our mailbox from the candidates facing off for the 16th District race, which includes Leet Township and Bell Acres along with Leetsdale. 

The incumbent Democrat, Rob Matzie of Ambridge, is being challenged by republican Kathleen Coder. Mr. Matzie tends to keep a low profile, and according to some sources has displayed the ability to cross the aisle to attempt compromise on certain issues. He sort of reminds me of Bob Casey in the way he conducts himself. 

Ms. Coder is a council member in Bellevue, at the southern end of the district. Aside from her campaign activities, some recent publicity came from her opposition to a controversial ordinance banning grilling within 5 feet of a residence. This ordinance spawned a protest in front of the borough building that drew much public and media attention.

Most recently reported is that Ms. Coder and her husband are paying off a$42,500 tax lien on their home. The federal tax debt relates to Ms. Coder's primary business, a leadership development consulting firm

Foxes Watching The Henhouse

The other statewide offices being contested include the race for State Treasurer, primarily between incumbent Democrat Rob McCord and Republican Diana Irey Vaughan, a long-term Washington County Commissioner.

I've utilized the services of Mr. McCord's office - the unclaimed property website - and found the information easy to understand, the process easy to navigate. Mr. McCord is a Harvard graduate with an MBA from Wharton, and by most accounts has administered his duties competently thus far. 

The major party candidates for the office of Attorney General have waged a campaign fraught with multiple negative outbursts amid controversial advertising by organizations sometimes not affiliated with either campaign. In addition, other controversies have been woven into the race, such as the Jerry Sandusky caseMarcellus Shale drilling, and questionable financial dealings associated with the Milton Hershey School.

The Sandusky connection arises from Governor Tom Corbett's tenure as Attorney General, and any alleged delay in opening an investigation of Mr. Sandusky once allegations of his misconduct first began to surface. This perhaps speaks to the political nature of the office, as it has been used by many (including Mr. Corbett) as a stepping-stone to higher positions. 

That this can be reasonably said about an office with significant enforcement and watchdog responsibilities is perhaps an example of the problems inherent in state government. A vote for Ms. Kane may be one way of sending a message to the Corbett administration and Pennsylvania politics that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

The same can be said of the race for Auditor General, which pits two sitting members of the Legislature who are both pulling a Matt Smith-type "career politician" maneuver by running unopposed for re-election while seeking this position. Democrat Eugene DePasquale (yes, he's related to Jeep) is facing off against Republican John Maher, who is campaigning more on his experience as an accountant than as a politician. Patch's Oren Speigler also had some definitive thoughts about Mr. Maher as well. 

Either way, it looks as if there is too much of a political component to the position and the race, especially when both candidates really don't have anything to lose. 


As the quotation at the beginning of this post indicates, I believe we are at our best in this country when we are resolute without being angry or fearful. We can display kindness without being perceived as weak and vulnerable.

When anger and fear become prevalent in our political discourse, to me that is an indication of uncertainty or subterfuge on the part of those trying to drum up that anger and/or fear. 

Two words being thrown around way too loosely these days - fascism and socialism - got me thinking about what can happen when people get too wrapped up in symbols and sound bites, instead of trying to think and evaluate things for themselves.

This drove me to get a couple of books from the library that speculate, in fictional terms, on this concept. Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here (1935) and Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004) are worth adding to your reading list. 

Abraham Lincoln, who along with Dwight Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt make up the lion's share of GOP presidents worth their salt, is making a comeback as well. Check out Steven Speilberg's new film, as well as a definite departure from historical accuracy that makes for riveting entertainment. 

As Election Day approaches, I hope that everyone who can vote will make it a priority to participate. Luckily, attempts to suppress the vote, disguised as security theater, will not be in force in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.

Best wishes for a hopeful month ahead.