December 22, 2004: Headlines: COS - Paraguay: Politics: City Government: Pittsburgh Post Gazette: Tom Murphy's legacy may be as visionary, not politician

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Paraguay: Special Report: Paraguay RPCV Tom Murphy, Mayor of Pittsburgh: December 22, 2004: Headlines: COS - Paraguay: Politics: City Government: Pittsburgh Post Gazette: Tom Murphy's legacy may be as visionary, not politician

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Tom Murphy's legacy may be as visionary, not politician

Tom Murphy's legacy may be as visionary, not politician

Tom Murphy's legacy may be as visionary, not politician

Murphy's legacy may be as visionary, not politician

Wednesday, December 22, 2004
By James O'Toole, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mayor Tom Murphy brought passion and petulance, civic vision and occasional short-sightedness to the challenges of governing a shrinking city.

Murphy first reached for the big corner office on the fifth floor of the City-County Building in 1989, a time when the region was battered by the collapse of the steel mills and other heavy industries that had sprawled along its river banks.

At a time when many Pittsburgh politicians were focused on restoration of that past, Murphy wanted to reclaim those riverbanks as part of a new forward-looking city. He promised to arrest years of population loss and economic decline by "growing the city."

Murphy presided over hundreds of millions of dollars in investment and development; the building of new stadiums; an acclaimed convention center and new and renewed housing in a number of neighborhoods; and the revitalization of miles of riverfront trails and parks.

But as he entered what would be his 12th and final year in office, the city's population was smaller than when he was sworn in and its badly frayed finances, after years of neglect and temporizing, had been stitched together with a revenue package that included oversight provisions making the city government a partial ward of the state.

While his administration could point to multiple development success stories, conspicuous failures lay just blocks from the mayor's office -- in the tattered storefronts of Fifth and Forbes avenues and the empty Lazarus and Lord & Taylor's department stores that had been the recipients of millions of dollars in public subsidies.

Republicans and some Democrats charged that the Murphy administration would be remembered for failed, overreaching development projects and for mismanaging the city's finances.

Former Allegheny County Chief Executive Jim Roddey, an appointee to one of the overlapping state panels that oversees city finances, has argued that Murphy, over years, had ignored the fiscal realities and dodged the difficult but obvious need for belt-tightening.

Defenders paint a brighter picture, if not one without shadows.

"I really believe that when the dust settles, when history is written, that Tom Murphy will look pretty damn good," said Maxwell King, president of the Heinz Endowments, who has worked with Murphy on several projects.The former North Side legislator was in some ways one of the best-prepared chief executives the city ever had. He studied urban issues in graduate school, dealt with them representing a North Side legislative district, and honed his proposals for addressing them in the 1989 mayoral campaign, when he finished in a surprisingly strong second place in a challenge to incumbent Mayor Sophie Masloff.

In his successful 1993 election, he outlined his platform in "The City Book," a red-bound compilation of proposals for urban transformation. But this civic road map was quickly detoured by events.

A deal to keep the Pittsburgh Pirates solvent had been cobbled together under the administration of Mayor Richard Caliguiri; as Murphy took office, it was falling apart.

Pro sports had never been much of a concern for Murphy, whose outdoor interests were more engaged by the solitary pursuit of distance running. But the city's sports franchises were part of his vision for a vibrant city, so he threw himself into the related tasks of finding a buyer for the Pirates and ultimately in promoting the financing of new stadiums and, across the Allegheny River, a new convention center.

In 1997, as Murphy was seeking his second term, voters in 10 counties soundly rejected one funding proposal in a referendum on a proposed increase in sales taxes throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. Murphy and other civic leaders then turned to what would become known as "Plan B," a combination of state funds and bond financing to be retired with revenue from the existing sales tax in Allegheny County.

No matter how many times Murphy argued that no city tax money had gone to the projects which represented nearly a billion dollars in investment, many voters remained locked in the angry conviction that tax dollars had been squandered to bail out millionaire athletes and owners.

"I hear it every day," Murphy said in a recent interview. " 'You really messed the city up -- you spent all your money on the stadiums.' The fact of the matter is that we didn't spend any money on the stadiums."

Murphy did spend a huge sum in political capital on the project and in doing so illustrated and exacerbated his difficult relations with other politicians.

At one point, Murphy gloated that an obscure measure that had slipped through the Legislature would allow his ambitious investment program to go forward without explicit legislative approval. And fatally, he joked about the lawmakers' penchant for voting on bills they hadn't read.

"He really burned a lot of bridges along the way," said Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, an ally and defender of Murphy's overall record. "His impatience overrode his better political instincts."

Referring to the months of skirmishing over the city's finance package, he said: "He created so many political enemies along the way that people viewed it as an opportunity to get their pound of flesh from him."

As mayor, and in his earlier legislative career, Murphy prided himself for not fitting the go-along-to-get-along political mold. But he belied his maverick image when circumstances demanded it. In his last re-election, he formed unlikely alliances with former state Sen. Leonard Bodack, then the county Democratic chairman, and with Joe King, the head of the firefighters union, with whom his administration had long battled.

The latter accord has attracted legal scrutiny over whether their political agreement entailed any improper quid pro quo.

Murphy acknowledges that he had long recognized the city's dire financial straits.

"We are desperate to expand our tax base; the city can't support itself," he told a campaign audience in 1997. "If we don't expand the tax base, everything else we do is just wishful thinking."

In his first term, Murphy forestalled drastic cuts by selling the city's water system to the city Water and Sewer Authority for $96 million.

During his 2001 re-election campaign, Murphy pledged that the city would not need a tax increase. He frequently boasted that the city had turned a corner, that it was "no longer managing decline."

"He was faced with an infrastructure built for a much larger city," said Morton Coleman, former director of the University of Pittsburgh's Institute of Politics. "He had this growth strategy and he thought he would not have to face some of the painful decisions."

But soon after the new term began, Murphy turned away from the pattern of his and earlier administrations of using chewing gum and baling wire to repair the city's fiscal structure. He proclaimed a budget crisis and turned to his old colleagues in the Legislature for fundamental reform to the city's finances.

The battle over most of two years concluded with some, though by no means all of the reforms and new revenues that Murphy had sought, but took its toll on his image and that of the city itself.

Murphy's defenders argue that Murphy's overall legacy, despite recent bleak poll numbers, would be positive.

"In five years, people are going to look back at the time he served and it's going to be viewed very favorably," said Sen. Jay Costa. "You look at the stadiums, the trails, the convention center. He's really changed the image of the city going forward.

"Was he a better visionary than a politician? No question."

(James O'Toole can be reached at or at 412-263-1562.)

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Pittsburgh Post Gazette

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Paraguay; Politics; City Government



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