Thursday, August 9, 2012

Watering the seeds of grass-roots politics - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Third time's the charm: Ed Gainey is a stone's throw from claiming the 24th Legislative District seat after vying for the spot in 2004 and 2006. He beat out the incumbent, Joseph Preston, in the April primary and the Democrat has no opposition on the horizon for the Nov. 6 general election.

Setting up his campaign headquarters in a refurbished wig store at 6014 Penn Ave. in East Liberty, Mr. Gainey, 42, has been hitting the streets throughout the election season -- going door to door, hosting "thank you" dinners and operating a phone bank -- to learn firsthand what constituents want.

"You can either sit behind a desk and hope the information comes to you, or you can go and get it," the Pittsburgh native said. "Know what's going on in your district; know what's going on in your streets."

Before entering the political race, Mr. Gainey worked as community development specialist for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. He worked on several projects such as business seminars, Minority Media Initiative, diversity education for the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and the 52 Weeks of Peace Initiative.

While he was happy with his job in the mayor's office, he felt he could do more for his community with the legislative seat.

"I wanted access to state things that help revitalize communities," he said. "Politics is a vehicle of community development."

Mr. Gainey's main goals for office include fostering economic development, transportation and education; increasing transparency and communication; and reducing gun violence and crime.

Overturning Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's education and transportation cuts, in particular, are the cornerstones of his platform.

"That's going backwards, that's not going forward," he said of the governor's cuts. "I hear how we cut, cut, cut, cut. But I have not yet heard a plan on how we generate revenue. It's putting a damper on the quality of life that we have."

For Mr. Gainey, putting funds back toward education and transportation will alleviate other problems in the 24th District; improving quality of life and decreased violence will come naturally with an emphasis on education.

District 8 Councilman Bill Peduto is looking forward to the day Mr. Gainey is sworn into office.

The pair met about 20 years ago through Mr. Gainey's mother, who worked in city council. They "hit it off back then," Mr. Peduto said, and the two Democrats have since supported each other's campaigns and projects.

He described Mr. Gainey as part of a new movement in politics: grass-roots thinking.

"Decision making happens Downtown and not where residents live," Mr. Peduto said.

Under the grass-roots model of politics, "The leader becomes not the one creating, but the one empowering ... that's the core of what we both see and what voters expect from us," he explained.

Mr. Gainey plans to disseminate information as a way of giving constituents power. "In order to keep a community in power, we have to keep it knowledgeable. So you have to know what's going on at the state level -- that's one thing I want to make sure I continuously do."

But Mr. Gainey knows his job will be tough because of partisan gridlock, as Republicans currently hold the majority in the state House.

"It's not like you can't make noise," he said of pushing his initiatives. "At the end of the day, it's about how you organize and mobilize. Sometimes it's good to have strength on your side, but when you don't, it doesn't mean you stop."

"He has a forceful personality between the lines of demanding and understanding," Mr. Peduto said, noting that Mr. Gainey has allies to help him complete his goals.

Mr. Gainey also emphasized the need for collaboration. "I'm not saying I have all the answers," he said, "but I'm willing to sit down with the right people to see if we can come up with a solution." It's about defining priorities and what's best for the people, he said.

According to Mr. Gainey's campaign website, he is endorsed by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee, Allegheny County Labor Council, African American Ward Chairs Caucus, Progress Pittsburgh PAC (P2PAC), Gertrude Stein Political Club of Greater Pittsburgh and United Mine Workers of America, among others.

"One of the things that impressed me most about Mr. Gainey was how he was already involved with the community and how passionate he is," said P2PAC board member Megan Block. "He has a strong relationship with the constituents in [the 24th District]."

Johnathan Robison, a member of the Gertrude Stein Political Club, felt similarly when his organization chose to endorse Mr. Gainey over Mr. Preston.

While both candidates matched the club's democratic beliefs, members thought Mr. Gainey brought more to the table.

"Joe was an OK guy, but he was running out of steam," Mr. Robison said. "Ed was more active and promised to be more active ... It was not an easy choice."

Being proactive is not a promise Mr. Gainey takes lightly. For him, accessibility and communication make the difference between an OK politician and a great one.

"You've got to be out there, period," he said of maintaining a close relationship with constituents. "Once you become a public servant, you're saying to your community, 'I'm going to be out there for you.' And I plan to do just that."

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