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Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's (D) troubles are but a symptom of a larger disease.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl faces the music today. The Pittsburgh Ethics Commission will hear arguments about whether the Mayor violated ethics regulations when he accepted a $9,000 golf junket from UPMC and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Mayor skipped out on meeting with women's groups—who were enraged by the promotion of police officers with a history of domestic violence—to go on his junket.

I've been around politics and elected officials for 18 years now. I've seen family members and friends run for public office, hold public office, and lose elections. What the Mayor did isn't uncommon, but it's also the problem with our democracy. Everybody has an interest—golf, movies, theater, books, the outdoors, hunting, travel, sports, art, sex, etc. Lobbyists know this. It is their business to know what people are interested in, and curry favor by delivering gifts that will mean something to elected officials.

The gifts aren't designed to be in exchange for the support of a certain issue—that would be illegal, and it would land everyone involved in jail. They're designed to make it more difficult for the politician to say no to a friend. That's sleazy, but legal, and sadly it works all too often.

The Penguins and UPMC were probably thinking five steps ahead. There's something they're interested in—that the Mayor of Pittsburgh will have some say over—and they're greasing the skids ahead of time. Unfortunately, this leaves those without the big cash to spend on sporting tickets, hookers, golf junkets, and fancy meals out of the process (I've seen it all before on the local level). Valid and reasonable objections are not heard because opponents of the big money can't get into the room.

And so policy is set by the well connected few, and the masses are left out of the deliberative process of our government. Real problems aren't addressed, but the moneyed interests remains happy. And the politicians rake in the gifts that interest them. All public officials should agree to this code: the only compensation I accept is my salary; no gifts; no travel; no meals; no golf junkets. It would make for a more democratic—with a small d—society.

Originally posted to The Bagof Health and Politics on Tue Aug 21, 2007 at 06:04 AM PDT.

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