TOPICS > Politics

Close Primary Reveals Split Among Pittsburgh Elected Officials

April 21, 2008 at 6:25 PM EST
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Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama made a final push to court Pennsylvania voters Monday, a day before the state's primary contest. Two Pittsburgh city council members, who are split in their endorsements, discuss the city's political leanings.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Presidential candidates may come and go, but cities like Pittsburgh are looking at the long view. We’re joined now in the studios of WQED Pittsburgh by two members of the City Council, both actively involved in the Democratic presidential primary, but on opposite sides.

Councilwoman Tonya Payne has endorsed Hillary Clinton, while Councilman Patrick Dowd is supporting Barack Obama.

I guess I can ask you to pick whichever one of you wants to start.

Explain to us, Tonya Payne, why you’re supporting Hillary Clinton.

TONYA PAYNE, Pittsburgh City Council: Well, actually, Gwen, I think we have two superb candidates running in the Democratic Party for the nomination, but I just feel that Hillary Clinton is the strongest to win in the general.

And people can have whatever feelings that they want to have, but winning a primary is one thing. The ultimate objective here is to win the general, to win that general election and thereby you become the president of the United States.

And it’s ultimately — that’s the greatest prize here, is to become the president. And the Democrats need to be in the White House in 2009.

GWEN IFILL: Patrick Dowd, your council colleague just said that your candidate can’t win in the fall.

PATRICK DOWD, Pittsburgh City Council: Well, I think Councilman Payne is correct. This is about a choice for a Democratic candidate and winning the White House. We have two great choices.

I think if we look at Senator Obama, we see that he has, like Senator Clinton, he’s picked many good positions on the important issues that face people in southwestern Pennsylvania and in the United States. He has an amazing ability to communicate across a wide breadth of constituencies.

And I think I’m also supporting Senator Obama because I believe he’s running essentially a grassroots campaign at the national level. And that’s something that is more akin to the kind of politics that I like; I think he’s building a sort of national community for us.

Challenging McCain in November

Patrick Dowd
Councilmember
I think that we have the opportunity here to elect either one of these wonderful candidates. Of course, I think Senator Obama is the better candidate, but I think that, come November, we're going to elect a Democrat for the White House.

GWEN IFILL: You know, when I read about the demographics of Pennsylvania and southwestern Pennsylvania, in particular, I realize you two seem to be going kind of against type. Do you get any grief from your supporters, from you're your constituents, that you, an African-American woman, are not supporting the black candidate?

TONYA PAYNE: I took some heat behind that, Gwen, to be honest, but this is a personal choice that I've made. In 2004, in that presidential election, I was for Howard Dean and I was out in Iowa. And I can remember riding back from Iowa to Pennsylvania thinking, "This is a formidable candidate, John Kerry, because he had actually won in Iowa."

But I can see him running around the country and getting the nomination, but he looks like he's beatable. And that's exactly what happened. He was this formidable candidate, ran around the country, sewed up the nomination, in a matter of months, and he was ultimately beat by George Bush.

And I'm just concerned that we may be seeing another 2004, and I just absolutely don't want that to happen.

GWEN IFILL: Another 2004, Patrick Dowd?

PATRICK DOWD: No, I think that we have the opportunity here to elect either one of these wonderful candidates. Of course, I think Senator Obama is the better candidate, but I think that, come November, we're going to elect a Democrat for the White House.

Economy, trade playing key roles

Tonya Payne
Councilmember
It's a major issue in the African-American community, with the loss of jobs, where our streets being so unsafe. And they're looking for that candidate that can address that, who has the experience to address it.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk to your constituents, two things, first of all, what are the issues that they bring up? You heard what Ray Suarez said about the economy in Pittsburgh, its challenges in the past, its problems for the future. Do people say that these candidates have anything to do with their needs?

TONYA PAYNE: Well, people talk about the economy, what they feel that Senator Clinton can do. They look at what the former President Clinton has done, when we lived in a time of peace and prosperity, and not just peace around the country, but peace on our streets.

It's a major issue in the African-American community, with the loss of jobs, where our streets being so unsafe. And they're looking for that candidate that can address that, who has the experience to address it. And people absolutely knew what happened when the Clintons were in the White House.

GWEN IFILL: How do you push back against that argument?

PATRICK DOWD: I'd say a couple of things. I think, first of all, as far as this region, NAFTA is an important issue. It's been an important issue during the election. It's certainly very important. Trade here is important.

And I think that Senator Obama really has the right approach to not only bringing open trade, but fair trade, and taking the opportunity to negotiate firmly with countries like China and Mexico.

I believe, also, you know, talking about -- Councilwoman Payne is right -- about guns. And I think Senator Obama is going to be able to help us find a mediated position between those who uphold the tradition of the Second Amendment and those of us who want safer streets in our urban core. And I think he's going to be able to help us find that.

And I think also another important thing not to be forgotten, southwestern Pennsylvania is home to one of the very largest populations of veterans in the United States, and Allegheny County, one of the largest counties, I think the largest in Pennsylvania.

So there's a lot of understanding that Senator Obama has good judgment as far as the war in Iraq. And he also understands what we need to do when our soldiers come home, and that is something that's very important here in Pennsylvania.

Connecting with Pa. voters

Patrick Dowd
Councilmember
Certainly, there will be thousands upon thousands of people tonight at the Peterson, but that's after several days, most recently, and obviously weeks and weeks of hard work. Over the weekend, we were all out door-knocking across the city.

GWEN IFILL: Hillary Clinton was here today in Pittsburgh. You were with her today at her earlier event. How is she being received?

TONYA PAYNE: She was received really well, really well.

GWEN IFILL: Who shows up? What do they ask? What do they demand? Has this whole thing gone on too long?

TONYA PAYNE: No, I don't think it's gone on too long. I think Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh in particular, is very happy, for the first time in many years, actually having a real race in the primary, because usually we don't see candidates until the general election.

PATRICK DOWD: Right.

TONYA PAYNE: So Senator Clinton was very well-received. Of course, the former president was extremely well-perceived. And there really wasn't time for questions today. It was a rally, and people were cheering. And you could hear people screaming, "Hillary, we have your back."

GWEN IFILL: And you're one of those people.

TONYA PAYNE: I'm sorry, I happen to be one of those people.

GWEN IFILL: OK. Patrick Dowd, I know tonight we're going to see Barack Obama here, another big rally at the University of Pittsburgh, I guess?

PATRICK DOWD: Exactly. He'll be at the Peterson Center.

GWEN IFILL: And explain the connection between the big excitement of the rallies and what happens when people actually decide to go to vote tomorrow.

PATRICK DOWD: Well, I think one of the things, again, as I said earlier, is he's running a grassroots campaign. And I think the excitement that you see is actually out on the streets.

Certainly, there will be thousands upon thousands of people tonight at the Peterson, but that's after several days, most recently, and obviously weeks and weeks of hard work. Over the weekend, we were all out door-knocking across the city. And there's a lot of energy. And so tonight is just going to be the culmination of that.

Senator Obama was here also earlier last week on Monday. And he was speaking to members of the United Steelworkers, UAW, a lot of really solid union folks in the crowd. And they were also very excited.

And it was one of those moments that was exciting for all of us, was when a woman stood up and said, "You know, we are, in fact, bitter. We do want somebody who's going to represent us." And the audience was proud to cheer.

And I think that there's this sense that he is going to be able to connect with southwestern Pennsylvania in the White House.

Expectations for voter turnout

Tonya Payne
Councilmember
People are more interested in looking at these candidates who will actually bring good wage jobs, who's going to deal with the crime that's on our streets. That's what people are mainly focused on more so than anything.

GWEN IFILL: So that "bitter" comment that was a big discussion about last week, where Senator Obama said some people are bitter and cling to guns and religion, did that reverberate or is that just something we in Washington paid attention to?

TONYA PAYNE: I think it's more of what you in Washington, D.C., pay attention to. More so if you walk around the city of Pittsburgh, there's not that many people that's actually commenting on that.

People are more interested in looking at these candidates who will actually bring good wage jobs, who's going to deal with the crime that's on our streets. That's what people are mainly focused on more so than anything, and in particular African-Americans.

They want good, sustainable wage jobs. They want to go to work. And that's what we need in our community. And they also want to actually have that safety and security that everyone else across the country enjoys, you know, where we're not seeing actual bodies on the street on a daily basis.

So those are two main issues that people are hoping that either of these candidates will address and they will address it immediately.

GWEN IFILL: Do you expect a big turnout for your candidate tomorrow?

TONYA PAYNE: I actually do. We were talking about this earlier. And Patrick believes like 5 percent that she'll win by; I think it's greater. This feels much like...

PATRICK DOWD: Oh, no, no, no. I actually don't think that's true.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think is going to happen?

PATRICK DOWD: I do think that, in southwestern Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania, across the board, I think Senator Obama can win. And I think that he will win.

GWEN IFILL: And do you think there will be a huge voter turnout...

PATRICK DOWD: I do think so.

GWEN IFILL: ... that will reflect some of this enthusiasm you were talking about?

PATRICK DOWD: There are over 300,000 new Democratic registrants since January. And I think that's reflective, again, of the kind of electoral community and really the party that Senator Obama wants to build, an inclusive, and broader, and far-reaching party.

TONYA PAYNE: And some of those newer voters will be actually Hillary voters, also.

GWEN IFILL: Ah, well, we will see. And, of course...

PATRICK DOWD: It's going to be exciting.

GWEN IFILL: ... local elected officials don't suffer when more people register to vote.

TONYA PAYNE: No.

GWEN IFILL: Patrick Dowd, Tonya Payne, thank you both for joining us.

TONYA PAYNE: Thank you.

PATRICK DOWD: Thank you for having us.