Panic Street Lawyer: Moonlight mayoral meme

Sunday, 12 May 2013 06:00 AM Written by  Jay Hornack

20130512 pittsburghseal150Brian O’Neill, a full-time columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, wrote last Sunday that the three main actors in the drama of this year’s City of Pittsburgh race for mayor had similarities to characters in “The Godfather” trilogy of movies. Panic Street Lawyer, who has a second job at night writing on the newspaper’s website, believes that certain aspects of this race -- which, for all intents and purposes, ends with the May 21 Democratic Party primary -- has more in common with a different film: “The Hunger.

This “fantasy/horror/romance” cult classic had a famous director (the late Tony Scott, in his very first film) and an amazing cast. Although the leads in this 1983 film were played by Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon, there was also a role labeled “disco group” that was played by a band that broke up, in real life, in 1983.

20130512 mayordebate480Jack Wagner, left, and Bill Peduto listen as Jake Wheatley answers a question during a recent Democratic mayoral debate at the University of Pittsburgh's O'Hara student center in Oakland. Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

“The Hunger” opens in a nightclub in New York City with a live performance from Bauhaus, which is an iconic “gothic rock” band from England formed in 1978. The lead singer for Bauhaus was Peter Murphy, often called the “Godfather of Goth.” Thirty years after the band’s (first) breakup, Murphy’s “Mr. Moonlight Tour” of only Bauhaus material will perform at Mr. Smalls Theatre in Millvale this Sunday night.

What does any of this have to do with the 2013 mayor’s race? I first began thinking about the role 1983 played in my opinion of one of the leading candidates when I read “Pittsburgh’s Doing All Right” by Post-Gazette columnist Sally Kalson and “Soap Opera” by P-G cartoonist Rob Rogers. It made me think of the hunger for power that former councilman/former auditor general/former gubernatorial candidate/former lieutenant gubernatorial candidate/former mayoral candidate Jack Wagner must still experience, thirty years after his first election win (and 32 years after his first race for public office). He has a political resume that is beyond Nixonian (1946-1974) in breadth.

I can still picture in my mind Wagner’s 1981 and 1983 “Stop the Circus” campaign.signs (with “circus” being a reference to Pittsburgh City Council, the body he wanted to join). Around the time of Wagner’s second run for council, one of the more polarizing actions taken by that body was the enactment into law of Ordinance 21 of 1983, better known as the Pittsburgh plant closing notification law. Ordinance 21 required employers with 50 or more employees to give from 90 to 270 days’ notice of any major layoff, closing or relocation. I reviewed my old press clippings from 1982-1983 while researching this piece, but was none of them refreshed my memory as to whether Wagner specifically campaigned against council’s passage of that ordinance.

While Wagner’s name didn’t appear in any of my yellow-colored clippings, another gentleman familiar to Pittsburgh politicos was repeatedly quoted. James Ferlo (who since 2003 has been a state senator) was one of the persons who helped organize a coalition (SNAC) to successfully save a neighborhood Nabisco bakery from closure in 1982, and that effort quickly grew into the effort to create a city-wide law to address more systematically the problem of plant closures and mass layoffs occurring with little or no notice to workers or local government. Ferlo was often sharply critical of then-mayor Richard Caliguiri, an opponent of Ordinance 21. In the midst of this coalition effort, Ferlo also ran for city council in the 1983 Democratic primary (although he lost that election, he was victorious in the 1987 primary). Curiously, Ferlo’s prominence in the Pittsburgh plant closing notification issue is not part of his current official biography.

I consider Ferlo – who I have known as Jimmy since we were in SNAC together – a like-minded politician and friend, which is why I found his endorsement of Wagner in this year’s Pittsburgh race for mayor initially perplexing. As anyone who reads my lawn signs or tweets knows, I support city councilman Bill Peduto for mayor. And I thought Ferlo’s positions on the issues were more in line with Peduto’s than Wagner’s.

But upon reflection, I should not have been perplexed. I should have known by now that bonds formed when Ferlo and Wagner ran and served on city council (strengthened during their years together in Harrisburg) would count for more than agendas when it came time for political endorsements. As I alluded to at the start, I enjoy when a musician returns to town for one night and plays songs that I associate with 30 years ago. But I oppose bringing back now to my city’s highest leadership position, to fill a four-year term, someone who has been in politics since the early 1980s and who seems to be running on a similarly simple theme to the one he ran on 30 years ago (substitute “Stop the Circus” – which by the way did not happen after Wagner got onto council -- with “Grow Up”). To put it in sports and pop culture terms, I think Pittsburgh 2013 is a vibrant city whose leadership should be more associated with hockey and Twitter of the present rather than football and press clippings from the past.

But Pittsburgh also has problems to address, some with a legal twist. The city will once again be electing a mayor with no formal legal education (that is true for all 4 Democratic candidates and one Republican candidate). The last Pittsburgh mayor with a law school degree was Pete Flaherty, who won the 1969 and 1973 elections. Despite that gap in his resume, I support Bill Peduto because he has pledged to ask for the resignation of appointees of current mayor Luke Ravenstahl to the city boards, authorities and commissions that lawyers frequently go before (e.g., Planning, Zoning and Historic Review). He has also pledged to conduct a nationwide search for a new police chief and hire a public-safety director with a “deep understanding of law-enforcement.”

Mayor Peduto’s personnel moves will hopefully be made with the assistance of a transition team that includes lawyers with a deep understanding of the law as well as all the ways that law is made in this country. After his veto of Ordinance 21 of 1983 was overridden, Mayor Caliguiri filed a declaratory judgment action regarding the ordinance and refused to have his Law Department defend it in Common Pleas court. City council was forced to defend the law using private counsel (i.e., me). Mayor Caliguiri ended up winning the legal battle, since both Common Pleas and Commonwealth Court ruled that the city did not have the authority under state law to pass Ordinance 21. But rulings by those judges -- who certainly would have noticed the city government schism – placed a limitation on the power of the city under its home rule charter that is applicable in other contexts. Councilman Peduto found that out the hard way in 2009, when the displaced workers ordinance he supported was struck down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, citing the Pittsburgh plant closing notification ordinance case as legal precedent.


The Panic Street Lawyer is a personal opinion column by attorney Jay Hornack. Contact him right here at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow Jay on Twitter: @panicstlawyer

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