Wednesday, April 26, 2006

An Interview with Valerie McDonald Roberts

Valerie McDonald Roberts, the Allegheny County Recorder of Deed, is one of the Democratic candidates for Lieutenant Governor. Prior to that she served on the Pittsburgh City Council and the Pittsburgh School Board. Recently she answered some email questions about herself, her background, and the lt. gov. race. My favorite answer is the one on her background in the sciences and how that reconciles with her religious beliefs. Keystone Politics posted an in-depth interview earlier this year, that I would encourage you to read as well. My thanks to Valerie for taking the time to do the interview.

In contrast to some other county row officers, you are on record as saying you do not allow tickets for campaign events to be sold in your office. How did you come to that decision and did it cause problems with your fellow row officers? (Source: “Officials: Don’t Give at the Office,” by David Conti and Jason Cato Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Dec. 15, 2005.)

I have prided myself on bringing professionalism to my row office and improving the way we do the people's business. It is clear to me that uncomfortable situations could result from this type of solicitation, which could have a negative effect on our work. I never sought to publicize this position but was happy to spell it out publicly when asked. I feel that each row officer has the right to determine policy for his or her office, and believe I have made the right decision for my employees and the public function we serve.

County row offices have been targeted as places where patronage jobs were frequently handed out. One study in 2000 found that some offices had no Republican employees. Did you take party into account when hiring or give hiring preference to party faithful? (Source: “County Row Changes on Back Burner,” by Glenn May Pittsburgh Tribune-Review August 29, 2005)

While I have been aware of the character and abilities of a few of my employees from interaction with them in political circles, I have never hired anyone who I did not believe to be completely qualified and dedicated to the public function my office serves. I am unaware of the political affiliation of the vast majority of my employees.

I have always been a firm believer in merit hiring practices. Under my administration the Recorder of Deeds office does not determine employment based on any factors other than competency. In fact, when I entered this office in 2001, my top priority was reforming the office and bringing it into the 21st Century with a state of the art digital land record management system. This required training and assessments of then current employees and their skill sets, many of whom had never used a typewriter, let alone a computer. Many of the employees had received their position precisely through the kinds of patronage and cronyism that you and the article are addressing. Many of these employees balked at my reform measures and did not attempt to gain the skills necessary, and subsequently some were let go. While it is never pleasant to let someone go I have always believed it is right to insist on competent employees—especially when they are being paid out of the taxpayer’s dollar.

Gov. Rendell rather unceremoniously shoved Joe Hoeffel out of the race. You say he has not discouraged you from running. He and his spokespeople say he intends to run with Catherine Baker Knoll. Is there an inconsistency there?

As women and as Western Pennsylvanians, the incumbent and I have characteristics in common that I believe would lend strength and balance to the eventual Democratic ticket. But though I share the widely held and deserved admiration of Catherine's long service, I feel that ensuring that the advancement of a progressive Democratic agenda over the next four years outweighs old loyalties. I am the best candidate to engage disparate elements of the Democratic Party that must be energized and mobilized in the general election. I will be the most effective running mate for Gov. Rendell, and am the candidate best able to articulate and advocate for the public policy priorities we all believe in.

It is not unusual for incumbents to support other incumbents; especially in an election year such as this where in Pennsylvania many face opposition in the primary for the first time in a long while. When I spoke to Governor Rendell in August of 2005 regarding my candidacy, he indicated that he had no issue with my seeking the office, though he would prefer that I didn’t formally announce until after the General Election in November 2005. A lot has happened since then, but I have still not received a call and he has not made any public statements that either endorse or discourage my campaign efforts.

You have said you want to use the office of Lt. Gov. as an advocacy post. What happens if you are elected and you and the governor disagree on something or he makes a pragmatic decision and reverses course after you have begun an advocacy effort?

I believe strongly in Gov. Rendell’s first term agenda and the goals he has articulated for the next four years. I am confident that we would be able to present a united front on most issues. I believe that I would owe him the courtesy, as Governor, of consulting with him on any issue I plan to take a public position on. However, I would not betray my principles or the public trust placed in me by remaining silent on any issue I feel to be of importance, even if it means disagreeing publicly with him.

Your current position is slated to be eliminated in 2007. If you do not become Lt. Gov. what are your plans? You’ve been in public office for around 17 years. What would be next for you?

There have been many misconceptions regarding the referendum for Row Office reform that passed in May of 2005. The result of the referendum was to eliminate the offices as elected positions, not to eliminate them completely. After January of 2008, they become appointed positions through the County Executive’s office. The position has not been eliminated, only changed from an elected office to an appointed one. I have spoken with Dan Onoroto, the Allegheny County Chief Executive, and he has informed me that he values continuity and that the position is mine if I want it. So I am not running for Lieutenant Governor because I need a job. I am running because I think I can be of service to the people of this state. And while I haven’t ruled out taking the position should my campaign for Lieutenant Governor not be successful, my preference is toward elected office.

Each time I have sought public office, it has been because I believed my service was needed and could make a positive impact on those I would serve. Regardless of the eventual result this year, if I were to feel that call to duty again I would be forced to give it strong consideration.

The Lt. Gov. chairs the state’s Board of Pardons. What criteria do you think should be taken into account when granting pardons?

I don’t believe there is a zero-sum principle when it comes to this particular duty, and I would certainly look at each case separately on its own merits and regardless of either public or personal familiarity. Aside from any overwhelming proof of wrongful conviction, I do believe that active attempts at rehabilitation would be an important factor in determining the process by which someone is granted a pardon. Good people sometimes make terrible mistakes. I would make sure to consider past contributions to the community and the potential for future good works, whether the subject expresses clear remorse for his or her crime, and make sure there is not a pattern of harmful activity.

There are many dichotomies in your background: How did you go from being a chemist to running for office, and do you have any difficulty reconciling your scientific background with strong religious beliefs?

I ran for office as a school board member, because I was asked. School Board Director is not a paid position, and at the time I was working initially in private industry as a chemist, and later as a co-owner of an electrical construction company. I was asked because my neighbor admired my emphasis on education with my own children, and believed that I would be a strong voice for the community’s children.

And the limitations on what I could do for my community in this position led me to look towards City Council. At the time, my school district was facing severe gun related violence on the streets, and I realized that as a School Board member, I could only protect the students in school and on the school bus, but not on their way home on public streets. That was the domain of the City of Pittsburgh, which decided legislation on public safety. I ran for City Council because more needed to be done in my community and having a seat on Council was one of the only ways to do it. I continue to seek higher office because I believe I can continue to do more.

Regarding my reconciling my scientific background with my religious beliefs, I have always considered myself a disciple and servant of Christ and his teachings which, despite the views of the Fundamentalist Christian sect, do not imply a moral superiority and do not contradict science. My beliefs are neither greater nor lesser than another’s. I also think we often forget that our belief in science, like our belief in the divine, is also in many ways a leap of faith. We cannot see with the naked eye the microcosm of a molecule or atom, but we believe it to be there. There are wonders of science that no act of God can explain and wonders of the Spirit that no scientific theory can explain. I have always sought to appreciate both, and have taught my children the same.

You are from a politically active family. Did your interest in politics arise from being around it as a child or was there a defining event that sparked your imagination? Are your other siblings involved in politics?

Though my father was locally known as an influential political leader, I personally was scantly involved with his work when I was growing up. Truthfully, all I really discerned was that twice a year (during the General and Primary) he would disappear completely, and there were these ‘committee people,’ that would constantly be calling the house and bothering my mother. I believe my experiences as a mother and business owner helped to clarify the impact public policy can have on families and communities.

Some people theorize that men are drawn into politics through business interests and women through family and parenting issues. I noticed that your first elected office was on the Pittsburgh School Board. What issue or event led you to run?

The achievement gap between students of different races and the disadvantages faced by economically depressed school districts were two of the issues that I recognized as a parent and felt compelled to address as a public official.

In 2002, you and District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Jr. planned to ask pastors of African American churches to encourage their members to volunteer for jury duty to help balance inequities in jury pools. Was that effort successful? It struck me as a very innovative way to solve a problem. How do you create efforts like that on a statewide basis? (Source: “Number of black jurors ‘shocking,’” by Mark Houser Pittsburgh Tribune-Review July 23, 2002)

This program did not achieve the results I would have liked as there is still a large inequity in jury pools. However, trying is not failing. I think we have to be open to innovation in all public efforts. And this is not without precedent. The Johnson administration funded community based programs to address inequalities. I think statewide this sort of state-local partnership could be a way to craft innovative community specific solutions on a larger scale.

I’ve been very impressed with the materials you have placed on your website – your positions on 10 years worth of bills before the Pittsburgh City Council. What do you think could be done to bring that kind of transparency to state government?

I hope to set an example by making my record and my positions transparent. I believe citizens should not only expect, but insist upon openness from their candidates and elected officials.

What are three things the state could be doing but isn’t to bring more jobs to Pennsylvania?

Of course the traditional methods of bringing in businesses are tax incentives. Programs like the Keystone Opportunity Zone have a proven record of not only generating job growth but also revitalizing distressed areas which goes to towards strengthening the infrastructure. We should continue to provide such incentives to larger employers and smaller ones as well. However it is crucial that these incentives hold recipients accountable to the communities in which they locate. We want to bring in businesses that will stay long term, provide workers with living wage and benefits are responsible community members.

Finally, we should create fertile ground for employers by focusing on training and education. Employers need more than tax incentives to relocate. They also need skilled workers. By providing job training to unemployed workers and improving access to vocational and technical education at the high school level and beyond will ensure that employers find the qualified employees they need to be successful in Pennsylvania.

Should the state require box stores like Wal-Mart to either provide better benefits to their workers or pay the state if their employees are making a significant impact on the state’s Medicaid funds?

There is no excuse for Pennsylvanians who go to work every day to not have basic health coverage. Employers need to be responsible and be partners in the well-being of their employees.

Why is the office of Lieutenant Governor important?

As elected officials, none of us can afford to rest on our laurels while working families and senior citizens are struggling to get by, funding inequities remain between rich and poor school districts, and many citizens lack access to reliable healthcare and prescription drug coverage. The office of Lieutenant Governor can serve as a powerful platform from which I can advocate and work toward the principles of equality, opportunity, and fairness for which I have always stood. I don't believe that any elected office is ceremonial or trivial, and I believe every elected official has an important role to play in improving the lives of those they have been chosen to serve. As Lieutenant Governor, I will never shrink from this responsibility and will use the powers of my office to work every day to improve the lives of Pennsylvanians.


Casey Roncaglione said...

This Friday at the 69th Street train station between 7am and 9am, Casey Roncaglione and Valerie McGonald Roberts will be greeting voters and holding a joint press conference. If anyone can help out, call me at 610-804-7373.

phillydem said...

A very impressive candidate indeed.

Although, VMR is an underdog and native western Pennsylvanian, one might think voters in eastern PA won't have any idea about her, but that could well be wrong.

I remember in 2002, Allen Kukovich, also a fairly unknown name around here, got a lot of support from the SE. If VMR gets around this area and
can some free publicity (hello Mary Mason, Marty Moss-Cohane), make the news and afford at least one mailer,
she could do very well in this area.