Councilmen speak on campus
Students and panelists filled the Mudge piano lounge last Wednesday evening for a discussion of politics and civic engagement in Pittsburgh. About a dozen students, including graduate students from the Heinz School of Public Policy, showed up to hear the panelists discuss local politics. The panelists represented a broad range from elected officials to grassroots activists, including city councilmen Doug Shields and Bill Peduto. Also among the contributers were the Associate Director of the Coro Center for Civic Leadership Paul Leger, Gloria Forouzan from Run Baby Run, and Corey Layman from STAY Pittsburgh (Students for A Younger Pittsburgh). The discussion ranged from the importance of young people and artists as a voting demographic to the process of running for political office.
The discussion series, named Local Currents, was started two years ago by alumna Aria Thomasses when she was CA of Mudge House. Located in the Mudge piano lounge, it attempts to bring students from the Pittsburgh community together and raise awareness of important local issues. Robin Hewlett, in her fifth year of a self-defined degree in CFA, is the current organizer of the discussion series and has adopted Local Currents as part of her 5th-year scholar project. Other discussion topics throughout this semester's series have included abortion rights and the contested Hays hilltop mining and gambling development.
Wednesday's discussion began by giving each panelist a few minutes to introduce themselves and describe what their organization did and particularly how it related to students and young people.
Bill Peduto is a first-term councilman, representing District 8 which includes CMU, parts of Squirrel Hill, North Oakland, and Shadyside. Changes that he has brought to the board include the first city government arts committee and adding more representation for artists and young people. Such efforts have not traditionally been included in the political process. Peduto said he has a strong connection to the University.
"I've visited CMU about once a month since I've got elected," he said.
He also pinpointed the spot a few floors above the lounge where he lived as a student in the Mudge dormitory. Peduto explained that whenever he has to make a tough decision, he thinks, "How will it affect us 20 years from now?"
Doug Shields had 11 years of experience in local government before he ran for office. He worked as chief of staff for ex-mayoral candidate and councilman Bob O'Connor, and as an aide to Bill Peduto prior to the election in November. Now he is the councilman for District 5, which includes Greenfield, parts of Squirrel Hill, Hazelwood, Hays, and New Homestead. His philosophy with regard to local government was very straightforward, as he explained: "First you find the money, then you set the policy." Shields also commented on the Democratic Party's complete dominance of local Pittsburgh politics since 1938. Unlike in other cities, however, the voters would find a complete range of candidates from liberal to conservative among the possible Democratic nominees. He thus recommended registering Democratic regardless of traditional affiliation, and then later determine the differences between them.
Paul Leger began by pointing out, "I'm the only one here who is a confirmed bureaucrat." In his career, Leger has worked with two different mayors and even managed the Pittsburgh Zoo. Making a case for the less glamorous side of politics and government, Leger noted the numerous opportunities available within bureaucracy to experience a diversity of positions and responsibilities. This comment followed mention of his work with the Coro Center that works with the Heinz School to train emerging leadership and encourages political involvement. Their program was founded in San Francisco in 1942 and currently trains over 200 people annually.
Representing an activist perspective on civic life, PennFuture is a Pennsylvania political advocacy group that works to protect the environment and support sustainable economic development. It has facilitated the release of an influential report that casts serious doubt on the contested Mon-Fayette Highway proposal. Peduto and PennFuture have worked together on the project ArtVotes that tries to make voting more accessible and exciting by bringing more artists to the polls and by encouraging artists in Pittsburgh to act politically on their own behalf.
Heather Sage, Western Pennsylvania Outreach Coordinator at PennFuture, explained the interest of the company in engaging students in the area, claiming that "not necessarily because we believe students will stay in Pittsburgh, but because we hope they will stay in Pittsburgh." Their enthusiasm for the value and potential of Pittsburgh was mirrored by the other panelists. Doug Shields spoke to the students about their political potential, saying, "In 10, 15 years you guys will set the table. There are very few cities where young people can make this much of a difference."
STAY Pittsburgh, represented by Corey Lehman, is a newer organization that has been assisted by the Coro Center for Civic Leadership, the Ground Zero Action network, and the Sprout Fund. It recently completed an extensive voter registration drive to provide young people with the means to vote. Future events it has planned include a city-wide scavenger hunt on April 3 and preparing a guidebook for new students in the area. STAY Pittsburgh has members from both Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh.
Another organization that was started with the assistance of the Sprout Fund is Run Baby Run, represented at the panel by Gloria Forouzan. Forouzan runs workshops that teach people about the process of running for political office and successfully managing their campaign.
She got involved in political campaigning after helping Patrick Dowd, a young newcomer to the city, run a successful campaign for the school board's ousting the incumbent school board president Darlene Harris. After struggling with an inexperienced staff and candidate, she realized that people needed help and guidance if they were to successfully negotiate the election process. Run Baby Run is non-partisan and open to everyone, although its first workshop this past January was attended primarily by young people in their 20s and 30s, an encouraging sign to those who want to bring new people into politics. She and the other panelists were also concerned about the lack of women involved in politics: "Look at all the mayoral candidates — all men!"
"They say young people don't vote; I say if properly motivated and engaged by other young people they will," said Forouzan. She mentioned studies that if young voters are approached by young activists, they are much more likely to vote. She also noted persistent problems of high voter registration still not resulting in high voter turnout among young people.
All of the panelists were surprised that students weren?t more engaged by the tuition hikes at all Pennsylvania state universities. Gloria cited that Pennsylvania is ranked 44th, "pretty much dead last in funding to Pennsylvania universities." She also mentioned the "pour tax," a law she knew college students would find relevant because it would increase the cost of beer.