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Pittsburgh Voters Weigh Real-life Concerns in ’08 Nominating Choices

April 22, 2008 at 6:35 PM EST
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Voters in Pennsylvania took to the polls Tuesday to have their say in the tight Democratic primary contest. In a new Big Picture report, a panel of Pittsburgh voters discusses how their real-life concerns are impacting their vote choices.
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GWEN IFILL: We decided to take advantage of our visit to Pennsylvania this week to hold another in our series of Big Picture conversations with voters who are applying their real-time concerns to their presidential decisions.

Last night, Jeffrey Brown gathered a group of them here at WQED in Pittsburgh.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we’ve gathered a group of local citizens to talk about their hopes and concerns for their city and what’s at stake in the election.

We have supporters of all three remaining major party candidates.

Backing Barack Obama, Khari Mosley, national political director of the League of Young Voters, and chairman of Pittsburgh’s 22nd ward; Abby Wilson, co-founder of Great Lakes Urban Exchange, a project dedicated to the revitalization of Rust Belt cities; and Dr. Alan Russell, director of the McGowan Institute at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Supporting Hillary Clinton, Sylvia Wilson, an elementary school teacher currently working for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers Union; Bill Donnelly, a retired steelworker, he worked for 32 years for the Continental Can Company; and Heather Arnet, executive director of the Women and Girls Foundation, which works on women’s issues in local government and business.

And backing John McCain, Justin Lokay, a city councilman for East McKeesport, a suburb of Pittsburgh, and chairman of the Allegheny County Young Republicans; Barbara Bower, an immigration lawyer; and Glen Meakem, a former U.S. Army Reserve captain who has founded several technology companies.

And welcome to all of you.

Abby Wilson, I’ll start with you. You grew up here. You went away. You came back with a mission. What did you find when you came back? And what did you want to do?

ABBY WILSON, Great Lakes Urban Exchange: I was very pleased to discover when I returned to Pittsburgh that the city I left in 1998 had made a lot of very positive progress.

I still think there’s a lot of work to be done here and other cities like Pittsburgh across what we will hopefully no longer call the Rust Belt or the Great Lakes region.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bill Donnelly, you’ve probably seen more changes here than anybody on our panel.

BILL DONNELLY, Retired Steelworker: I think I have.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what have you seen?

BILL DONNELLY: It’s all going downhill. We used to be a manufacturing area. I’m not only talking about Pittsburgh. I’ll go as far away as Uniontown. And it’s just a trickle-down society.

And once the steel mills and the manufacturing went out of Pittsburgh, then everything went out. And we have to get back into manufacturing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Glen Meakem, how would you assess the strengths and weaknesses of Pittsburgh today?

GLEN MEAKEM, Venture Capitalist: Well, Pittsburgh is a terrific community to raise a family. It’s a very friendly place. It’s a blend of eastern sophistication and Midwestern values and family.

We have great universities and great strengths, but we don’t grow. And the reason we don’t grow is we have taxes that are just too high and government that’s too big.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sylvia Wilson, you grew up here, stayed here. If I’m a candidate coming from outside to Pittsburgh, what should I know?

SYLVIA WILSON, Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers: We have a lot of caring people here, but we also have a very changing population because of a lot of needs that aren’t currently being addressed as properly as they should be, in terms of housing, rebuilding neighborhoods, hospitalization, even though we have wonderful hospital and medical facilities here.

Unfortunately, a lot of people who are citizens in Pittsburgh can’t really afford it, don’t have medical coverage. That’s very key.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Alan Russell, you’re a transplant to this country and to this city and now working for the city’s largest employer. What do you see, in terms of strengths and weaknesses?

ALAN RUSSELL, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center: Well, I think the vibrancy of the city is evident to anyone that visits. I think a strength is actually also a weakness, to some degree, and that is that we’re living a few years ahead of the rest of the country.

We have an aging population; so does the country. We’re facing some very difficult times from the loss of manufacturing and how to replace that with a different kind of economy; so does the rest of the country.

So many of the challenges that we have faced the country now faces. So I feel that that’s a strength, of course, we’re facing those challenges every day.

Challenges facing Pittsburgh

Khari Mosley
League of Young Voters
What we're seeing is that tension of, how much of what has made Pittsburgh great for the last 250 years, how much do we take with that into the future and what do we have to leave behind?

JEFFREY BROWN: You've all described such a kind of churning or economic churning that affects so many parts of life. Are there other tensions that you feel because of this kind of churning that are perhaps generational or class or what have you?

HEATHER ARNET, Women and Girls Foundation: Well, I think racial tension in this city is significant, because last year we were -- there was a magazine that said that Pittsburgh was one of the best places to live in the country. It was also a year where the number-one killer of African-Americans in this city was infant mortality.

So as someone who's especially interested in women and children's health care, it struck me as incredibly criminal to think that I lived in a city where babies were dying and that was the number-one killer of African-Americans in our city. How could we be the best city in the world to live in at that same time?

JEFFREY BROWN: Abby Wilson, what kind of tensions do you see?

ABBY WILSON: I mean, I think there's obviously a major class tension, as well, in Pittsburgh. That is the result of these changing economic circumstances.

But I do think we have to find a way in order to accommodate the manufacturing workforce, find a way to train those people to make a transition, you know, into our shifting economy.

Some portions of that population are at different ages and have already left the workforce. So how can we soften the blows of a highly technical job sector here in western Pennsylvania?

And I think that involves having a very upfront discussion about class tensions that have really been inflamed by the political coverage of this election cycle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me stay with the churning, though, and how this is affecting people, Glen Meakem. What do you do about who's left behind or who's not being brought up at the same time?

GLEN MEAKEM: I think the biggest issue is education today. The big problem that a lot of employers have is finding talented people, and particularly K-12 educated people, for technical manufacturing jobs and other technical jobs. The school systems are not good enough and are not producing students who are really ready to work in the modern workforce.

And I think that's true all over the country, that K-12 education in America is failing us.

JEFFREY BROWN: Justin?

JUSTIN LOKAY, East McKeesport Council Member: Pittsburgh's growing in a different direction right now. We have 30,000 students graduating from 35 universities, but yet we don't have jobs for all these people, and they're moving out of Pittsburgh, and our population is aging.

And what we need to do is stop the aging population by retaining young people. And that's the biggest issue, I think, facing Pittsburgh at this time.

KHARI MOSLEY, League of Young Voters: Yes, I'd say more than anything what we're seeing is a cultural tension, you know, a tension of the old culture of Pittsburgh, which is very provincial, very based upon neighborhoods.

You know, we have 88 neighborhoods in the city. And for 150 years, these neighborhoods are very close-knit, very homogenous ethnically. And what we're seeing is a complete move away from that.

We're seeing the city becoming much more diverse. We're seeing new economies, new industries being birthed in this city. And what we're seeing is that tension of, how much of what has made Pittsburgh great for the last 250 years, how much do we take with that into the future and what do we have to leave behind?

While accepting the fact that we do have to move forward into the 21st century, and it's a global marketplace that we're trying to stay competitive in, and we're not just competing with Cleveland and Baltimore, but we're competing with Osaka, Japan, and we're competing with Birmingham, England, and we're competing with France and Germany.

Candidates' trade, tax policies

Heather Arnet
Women and Girls Foundation
One of the things that's so exciting about Pittsburgh is that our core history, what made this city great was that we were innovators and we created the core that created the energy for this country to run on. And that's where I think we can go.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Barbara Bower, when you think about the kinds of things we're talking about here -- and here we are, in the midst of a political campaign -- what kind of impact does it have on your thinking about politics, about leadership at the national level?

BARBARA BOWER, Immigration Lawyer: What I'm looking for and the candidates is, how can they talk to people, try to bring them together? We have very serious problems here.

So I look at somebody who can reach across the parties to work together and try to come up with something that's really going to move the economy forward, to move jobs forward, to make it more competitive internationally, because that's going to also provide jobs for U.S. workers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for you, that's John McCain?

BARBARA BOWER: I think McCain has done an awful lot to -- certainly on the immigration side, he can look at the big picture, and he stood up, and he's taken that forward.

He's stood up for reducing deficits, for eliminating pork barrel. I'm very concerned about the huge deficits that we're running. And I think he has a certain conviction that he sticks with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alan Russell, how do the kind of changes we're talking about here affect your thinking about the campaign and politics?

ALAN RUSSELL: Well, I think you can either choose to live in the drudgery and all of the depression that one could choose to focus on, or you can just focus on doing things about it.

I think it comes down to leadership, engendering creativity among young people, and passion. And I think those three things go to the broader case that we're looking at for the country today.

Leadership here in Pittsburgh said, "You know what? We're not going to settle for just being another-ran city. We're going to actually lead in a couple of different areas and we're going to focus on those areas."

Most of all, most importantly, that leadership engendered creativity in young, talented people and drew them into trying to do something quite extraordinary that, without that leadership, they wouldn't have believed was possible.

They did it here. They built it. And then, from then, the rest is history.

I think our country faces a similar challenge right now. We need the kind of leadership that will draw young people into fixing the very deep, very challenging problems that this nation has.

And I think that that's what Barack Obama has brought to this campaign with remarkable success that nobody would have predicted. No one would have predicted we'd have this exciting fight that we have right now.

GLEN MEAKEM: But you also have to do it with competition. I believe in competition. So the business environment, the environment to create new technologies and new businesses, has to be favorable.

If taxes are raised on business, because business is bad, how are you going to create a new future? If taxes on individuals are raised so people don't have an incentive to work hard and make money and create new things, how do you create a future? If you're afraid of global competition, if you want to hide behind trade barriers and not compete, how do you create a new environment?

So I think that a lot of the polices that I hear on the Democratic side, frankly, are anti-growth, anti-competitive, and those are the kind of policies we've had here in Pennsylvania and Ohio and these other states for a long time, anti-growth, anti-competitive, anti-business. It doesn't work here in the Midwest; it won't work for the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me bring Sylvia Wilson.

All right, you stirred everybody up.

Sylvia Wilson, go ahead.

SYLVIA WILSON: You know, you know, you know.

I was sitting here thinking, "Here we go." You know, we want -- we're talking creativity, we're talking about moving to the future, but we go back to the same, old blaming stuff again.

And I'm sitting here listening to this. Taxes were increased because at the national level taxes were cut. Clinton will be able to do some of the fundamental things for the people. Where's the money coming from? That's number one.

Competition. Competition? When you go -- I said, my 7-year-old granddaughter at the time, a few years back, said she was tired of going into stores, finding stuff always made in China. "Why can't I find anything made in the USA?" she said.

It's disgusting that we don't have our own people being given jobs to create things for us. Why do we always have to have it somewhere else? The tax breaks to companies who leave this country, and then here you have all these folks wanting jobs, needing jobs to take care of their families. They can't have it because the jobs are over there.

HEATHER ARNET: One of the things that's so exciting about Pittsburgh is that our core history, what made this city great was that we were innovators and we created the core that created the energy for this country to run on. And that's where I think we can go.

And part of why I'm supporting Senator Clinton is because she's pledged to create 5 million green-collar jobs, because investing in green technology and solar panels and wind technology and businesses like yours that...

GLEN MEAKEM: But how will she create those jobs? How does a president create 5 million jobs? How does a government do that?

HEATHER ARNET: By cutting the tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent, which, you know what, if I was in that 1 percent...

GLEN MEAKEM: That creates 5 million jobs?

HEATHER ARNET: ... I would be proud to give my tax cut back, if it meant investing in jobs back into my community. I mean, Pittsburgh is a city that could create the energy that takes us away from oil reliance.

GLEN MEAKEM: All those people you're raising taxes on are all the small business owners who create all the jobs.

JUSTIN LOKAY: That's right.

HEATHER ARNET: No, that's not true.

GLEN MEAKEM: When you raises the taxes, jobs go down.

HEATHER ARNET: And you know that's not true.

GLEN MEAKEM: It's completely true. It's completely true.

HEATHER ARNET: It's not small business owners. It's investment bankers that make $50 million a year in New York City, saying that guy who makes $50 million a year is paying less of a percentage of his income to taxes every year than teachers who are members...

HEATHER ARNET: ... of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, back to Dr. Russell.

ALAN RUSSELL: It sort of seems like I ignited this.

JEFFREY BROWN: You started it.

ALAN RUSSELL: And maybe I can douse the flames a little.

So I think what's interesting is that in my day job I worry about how to replace organs. It's such a complicated, ridiculous idea, that you have to take a step back and not worry about all the details.

What we're talking about here is petty, little differences between politicians and political issues, very small things that really aren't that important. Whether you believe in this tax or that tax or NAFTA or CAFTA, it doesn't really make too much of a difference.

The country's problems are massive. They are massive problems. And the problems will not be addressed by this generation. They were caused by many generations that came before, certainly Senator McCain's generation and maybe even Senator Clinton's generation.

The problems will be have to addressed by our children. And it's, who can reach into the minds of our children and excite them that they can actually fix these problems? That's the person that should be our president.

What the problems are, what the strategies are we could debate ad infinitum.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Mr. Donnelly, it sounds like you think more is at stake here.

BILL DONNELLY: Well, I worked with the AARP of Pennsylvania. And my job was to go around to all the candidates -- and I was impartial -- and we stressed health care for the senior citizens. And all the speeches that I heard were speeches over and over and over again.

Hillary Clinton -- excuse my French -- but she came down with the only solutions. Everybody had a plan. "I got a plan for this, I got a plan for that." Health care, nobody can afford health care. Give me the health care that the senators have. I'll take that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me let Khari Mosley in.

 What do you look to a president to do to accomplish, any president? How much can he or she do?

KHARI MOSLEY: Well, I don't know how much a president can do by themselves, but I do know that, in leadership, leaders can inspire people to come into the process.

With Barack Obama, he's bringing millions of people who have never participated in this process before, and I think those are the people that are going to be able to bring health care to this country. Those are the people that are going to be able to protect our environment. Those are going to be the people who are going to save our public school system.

Assessing presidential qualities

Justin Lokay
East McKeesport City Council Member
The competition in health care is really what we need. That's what our country was based on. We're capitalists.

JEFFREY BROWN: Justin Lokay, what are you looking for in the president?

JUSTIN LOKAY: Well, let me touch on some things that were said on both ends here. We talked a little bit about taxes, where you said taxes are small issues and it's not a big thing and we're just -- they're not small issues. They're the biggest issues, because they affect us in every way.

You said that we should get rid of the taxes on the rich. Well, let's talk about the taxes...

BILL DONNELLY: Who says that?

HEATHER ARNET: The Bush tax cuts for individuals.

JUSTIN LOKAY: The Bush tax cuts, that's right, for individuals. But let's talk about where the tax policies are of the future candidates.

Barack Obama has said, "I'm going to raise the Social Security tax. I'm going to bring back the capital gains tax." He's also said he has an enormous health care plan. How's that going to be paid for? It's going to be paid on the backs of the middle class through taxes.

Hillary Clinton has a health care plan, a health care plan that will garnish all of our wages. It will be like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. It will take out of our paychecks every day to pay for the health care program, programs like Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, all which are going bankrupt, all which don't work.

HEATHER ARNET: But you know that that's not true, though, Justin.

JUSTIN LOKAY: Health care needs to be competitive. You know, when you want car insurance, you can go to Geico in any state and get it. But here in Pennsylvania, we can only get health care from Pennsylvania. Why can't I buy a health care plan from California, Iowa, Idaho, anywhere?

The competition in health care is really what we need. That's what our country was based on. We're capitalists.

HEATHER ARNET: Every wealth nation in this world has better health care than we do, lower health care rates, and longer life expectancies, and lower infant mortality.

JUSTIN LOKAY: Well, we provide all the technology and all the...

HEATHER ARNET: The reality is in the facts. The facts are we're the only country, wealth country in the world, that has high infant mortality, shorter life spans, and higher insurance rates for all of us. And it's because we aren't covering our people.

Health care is not a privilege. It's a right. It's a right of the American public. And Senator Clinton is trying to make that right universal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hold on. Abby Wilson wants to jump in.

ABBY WILSON: Well, I mean, I'm not convinced your ideas about tax policy are the one-trick pony to fixing the problems of America. Nor do I think cutting taxes across the board has necessarily passed the test of time, as far as fixing the problems faced by working-class American economies in Pittsburgh or anywhere else in the country.

I do think we all agree that, to some extent, competition is valuable. But I think what we also -- many of us would agree on is that, in order to make competition both valuable and effective, we need to level the playing field.

So how can we do that? If we're talking about international trade policy, one of the reasons why I support Barack Obama is because I think he'll be able to restore our relationships with other countries internationally, including nations that may not have perfect relationships to their workforce.

Weighing the stakes

Bill Donnelly
Retire Steelworker
I think that politicians, from the top all the way down to the bottom, have less contact with the average person. They don't come into our neighborhood.

JEFFREY BROWN: Define the stakes. I mean, what's at stake in this election, Glen Meakem?

GLEN MEAKEM: Well, I think that John McCain has got a set of economic policies which will grow the economy, which will get us out of recession we're in right now, and which will safeguard our future internationally, as well.

You can't say you're going to engage the world and then say you're going to cancel treaties and renegotiate treaties. I mean, the Canadians and the Mexicans are inflamed about what Barack and Hillary are saying right now. That's not a way to engage the world.

So John McCain is talking about engaging the world in a positive way, protecting us from Islamic terrorism, protecting our future in the Middle East, and also growing the American economy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Donnelly, how do you define the stakes?

BILL DONNELLY: I think that politicians, from the top all the way down to the bottom, have less contact with the average person. They don't come into our neighborhood.

I worked in a steel mill. How many guys here worked in a steel mill? How many -- Obama, did he work in a steel mill?

ABBY WILSON: Did Hillary work in a steel mill?

BILL DONNELLY: Did Hillary? Yes, her dad worked in a coal mine. You know, and that's part of industry. But we have to contribute to our national growth product. And you people aren't doing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Alan Russell, how do you define the stakes?

ALAN RUSSELL: I don't think the stakes could be higher. The problems are great; the challenges are great. And the only way out is with a leader that can engender the support of a very large segment of the population.

JEFFREY BROWN: Khari Mosley, what are the stakes?

KHARI MOSLEY: The stakes are huge. And I think, unfortunately, over the last five weeks, in many ways, we've seen a caricature of what Pennsylvania is really about.

You know, we've seen it almost turn into a cartoon, with the beer drinkers and the hunters and the "bitter"-gate and all that. The future of a region is at stake, you know? We're a region in transition. How do we deal with the transitioning economy?

How do these cities make the full turnaround, not just in a couple sectors or industries, but make the entire turnaround and become great like they once were 50 years ago?

SYLVIA WILSON: Can I jump in real quick? Because I heard about politicians -- getting behind politicians to do these things. It's not really that.

It's a matter of all of us making sure that the politicians, the elected people, understand what's going on, understand what Khari has said, because there are a lot of people out here who really cannot get involved politically and don't have the time or the inclination to get in touch with our elected officials.

That's why it's important for us that are involved and speak on behalf of just the regular Joe and Joanne and make sure that those who are in office understand and continue -- you know, and get them to do the right things that's going to benefit all of us.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, well, thank you all so much for sharing your stories and experiences with us. Thanks a lot.