Governing in Crisis

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The University of Pittsburgh Institute of Politics and the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy are proud to announce the launch of Governing in Crisis: Preserving Democracy, the Rule of Law and American Values. The series is intended to help both policymakers and interested citizens, whatever their positions or political leanings, to better understand the important governance issues that seem to be arising all too frequently. It is offered in the hope that we will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis not only with our economy restored and with our basic values intact, but on a committed journey to an even better America.

It is in times of crisis that people most need the support and protection of government. However, it also is in times of crisis that even core values can be sorely tested and that leaders are most likely to try to unilaterally expand their power. Through interviews with scholars, elected officials and other civic leaders, host Mark Nordenberg, Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh, will examine governance, health, and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Preserving Democracy, the Rule of Law and American Values – Pitt Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg

This series features Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg interviewing civic leaders and elected officials about issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Bridging the Divide Between Rural and Urban America - Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation President Jen Giovannitti

One of our polarized country’s most pronounced challenges is the growing divide between rural and urban America. It is a gap that includes significant variations in economic opportunities and what can be debilitating disparities in critical modern infrastructure, such as access to high-speed internet. It is a gap that also includes sometimes stark social and political differences. Understanding and effectively addressing this divide is essential for the wellbeing of our democracy.

Jen Giovannitti is the President of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, a place-based funder dedicated to rural communities. It generally invests two-thirds of its grant dollars in West Virginia and one-third in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Prior to joining the Benedum Foundation, Ms. Giovannitti led community-based initiatives for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, working both regionally and nationally on issues facing low-income communities and advancing strategies for community investment. Earlier in her career, she lived in West Virginia for 11 years and led a succession of important economic development initiatives.

Time for Truth about Pennsylvania’s 2020 Presidential Election - Committee of Seventy President and CEO David Thornburgh

Pennsylvania’s historic election-reform law, which took effect on October 31, 2019, authorized no-excuse, mail-in voting and passed both houses of the legislature with strong bipartisan support.  After the presidential election in 2020, then-President Trump and his allies, including some elected officials from Pennsylvania, unsuccessfully sought to overturn the results of our election in every available forum, including the courts and the Congressional session that was interrupted for several hours by the January 6 riot in the Capitol.  David Thornburgh is the President and CEO of The Committee of Seventy, a non-partisan organization that was founded in Philadelphia in 1904 and is one of the country’s oldest good government groups. Its mission emphasizes strengthening democracy and protecting and improving the voting process in Pennsylvania.  Mr. Thornburgh is considered by many to be Pennsylvania’s leading expert on elections. He will discuss the issues surrounding an election that has been relentlessly attacked as fraudulent by some but that most have concluded was free and fair.

Battling Hunger in our Home Region - Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank President and CEO - Lisa Scales

Among the most troubling images of COVID-19’s impact are those capturing long lines of people, sometimes in cars and sometimes on foot, waiting for the food they need, for themselves and their families, to be provided by their local food bank. As a result of the pandemic, more than 50 million Americans, including one in every four children, are battling hunger. Food banks across the country have faced daunting challenges as demand has grown, food supplies have diminished, and social distancing has reduced volunteers. Lisa Scales, President and CEO of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, which serves eleven counties and is one of the largest in the country, discusses how the Food Bank and its community partners have adapted to meet the needs of the Pittsburgh region though expanded service, innovative programming, and more holistic services. She also offers perspectives on the evolving mission of food banks and policy changes that will be required if current and anticipated challenges to our country’s food safety net are to be effectively met.


Helping our Neighbors in Need - United Way of SWPA President and CEO Bobbi Watt Geer

Since last spring, the United States has faced a series of cascading crises brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. An ongoing health crisis resulting in over 240,000 American deaths has quickly expanded into an economic downturn resulting in food and housing insecurity for millions of Americans. Throughout our communities our neighbors are suffering and organizations like the United Way have stepped up to help meet basic needs during these uniquely challenging times. Bobbi Watt Geer, President and CEO of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, describes how the United Way has worked to address the problems arising from the pandemic within urban, suburban, and rural communities. She explains the importance of early planning and strong regional partnerships between governments, businesses, and nonprofits to overcome crises when they arise.

The Role of Oversight in our Democracy - U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform Deputy Staff Director and Chief Counsel Susanne Sachsman Grooms

The checks and balances built into our federal system of government deliberately create a level of ongoing tension between its three branches. Among the main checks on executive power are congressional investigations and oversight, designed to ensure that our government is operating effectively and efficiently and in ways that meet the needs of the American people. In recent years, tensions related to congressional oversight have become more pronounced and more public, as investigations have been resisted, subpoenas have been ignored, inspectors general have been removed from office, and the President has been impeached. Susanne Sachsman Grooms, Deputy Staff Director and Chief Counsel for the Democratic Staff of the Committee on Oversight and Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives, discusses the authority of Congress to investigate and the need for oversight of the executive branch. She also discusses how higher levels of partisanship have impacted oversight and the relationship between Congress and the Presidency.

Maintaining Law and Order While Preserving our Democracy - Former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman

In the wake of nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd, armed right-wing extremist groups have responded with counter demonstrations, resulting most recently in the deaths of two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Harry Litman, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania and national syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times, critiques the president’s refusal to condemn right-wing violence and discusses actions taken by the administration that have eroded the rule of law. He also examines the tradition of peaceful transitions of power and the likelihood of election litigation during the 2020 general election.

The Rule of Law and the United State Department of Justice - Former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rosenberg

The separation of politics and criminal law enforcement has long been viewed as a critical feature of our American system of governance. Beginning with the 2016 presidential campaign and its cries of “lock her up” directed at the opposing candidate, there have been questions about the extent to which the current administration would respect that separation or, instead, would move the country away from its fundamental commitment to the rule of law. Those concerns have grown in intensity because of actions by the President and Attorney General in characterizing the Mueller report before its release to the public; seeking the reduction of criminal penalties, supporting the withdrawal of guilty pleas, and exercising pardon and commutation powers to benefit friends and allies of the President; the launching of an investigation with the apparent intent to impact the upcoming election; and the labeling of certain communities as “anarchist cities” as a step toward cutting back on federal financial support. Building on his extraordinary career in federal law enforcement, Chuck Rosenberg, who has held a series of high-ranking positions in the U.S. Department of Justice, including the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, and who is a widely respected legal analyst, offers his perspectives on this important issue.

Ensuring that our Elections are Fair and Safe - Committee of Seventy President and CEO David Thornburgh

On October 31, 2019, Governor Wolf signed into law an historic election reform bill that had moved through the legislature with bipartisan support. Among other reforms, it authorized no-excuse, mail-in voting in Pennsylvania for the first time. That reform faced its first practical test when the pandemic struck, and the volume of mailed ballots cast in the June primary election increased dramatically. Even larger numbers of mailed ballots are expected in the November presidential election, and the intervening months have brought questions about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service, partisan skirmishing in Harrisburg, and a number of election-related lawsuits. David Thornburgh – the President and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, a good governance advocate, and perhaps Pennsylvania’s leading authority on elections and election reform – discusses these issues and offers practical guidance for those who will be voting in November. Sharing perspectives gained from his service as Chair of the Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Commission and as Founder of Draw the Lines, he also looks ahead to offer insights into the redistricting processes that will follow the completion of the 2020 census.

Yes, the Truth Still Matters - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Executive Editor Emeritus David Shribman

As we move through a highly contentious campaign season, David Shribman, the Executive Editor Emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, examines democracy’s need for truthfulness from elected officials and accuracy from the media. Drawing upon his decades of work as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, as well as his extensive experience as an editor, Mr. Shribman reflects on the responsible practices that promote integrity in journalism. As one who has covered both Presidents and presidential campaigns, he also discusses the historical relationship between the press and the President and draws distinctions between various forms of “untruth” that have come from Presidents over time.

COVID, Classrooms and Community-Planning for a New School Year - AIU Executive Director Robert Scherrer

This fall more than 56 million students are getting ready to return for the new school year. Normally this is a time of excitement for schools and families, but this school year will be unlike any we have seen as school districts are presented with unique challenges related to fostering a safe and productive education environment during the pandemic. Robert Scherrer, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, discusses the response of the 42 school districts within the boundaries of the intermediate unit as they develop in-person, hybrid, and remote learning opportunities for students and respond to challenges in public health, school funding, and access to technology.

Fostering a Fairer and Less Costly Criminal Justice System - President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique challenges for the criminal justice system. These include the general challenge of maintaining the system in a time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders. They also include the more focused issue of dealing fairly with those confined in jail who would not pose a serious risk to the community if released but who are at a high risk of contracting COVID-19 if they continue to be held in the close quarters of the jail. President Judge Kim Berkeley Clark of Pennsylvania’s Fifth Judicial District will discuss how Allegheny County has responded to those challenges and also will discuss the reform efforts underway to make Allegheny County’s criminal justice system fairer and less costly, without compromising public safety. 

Police Reform and Broader Issues of Systemic Racism – PA State Representative Jake Wheatley

Since the killing of George Floyd by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department, the entire nation has seen protests targeting not only policing practices but broader issues of systemic racism. State and local governments throughout the country have been considering, and in some cases implementing, changes to the policies and practices governing the mission and methods of law enforcement. Pennsylvania State Representative Jake Wheatley is a member of the Working Group on Police Reform in Harrisburg. Rep. Wheatley discusses not only those focused reform efforts but also the broader impact of systemic racism in such critical areas as education, healthcare and economic opportunity.

The Challenges Facing America’s Most Respected Agency – Former Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe

In 1775, at the request of the Continental Congress, Benjamin Franklin organized a postal system for the colonies. Several years later, Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution expressly gave Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and Post Roads,” and a recent study by the Pew Research Center reveals that the U.S. Postal Service is the most respected of all federal agencies. However, the Service, which has been the subject of both unusual financial demands and significant operating constraints, is in a perilous financial condition, warning that it may run out of funds by September. This is occurring at a time when many states are emphasizing vote-by-mail provisions for the November elections, and neither the Administration nor Congress has seemed eager to provide relief. Patrick Donahoe, a Pittsburgh native and University of Pittsburgh graduate, was a lifelong employee of the Postal Service, and served as the United States Postmaster General from 2010 until he retired in 2015. He discusses the proud history of the Postal Service, possible solutions to its current problems and its ability to meet the needs of the country in the November election.

Battling COVID-19 with the Power of Science – Former Senior Vice Chancellor and Pitt Medical School Dean Arthur Levine

Arthur S. Levine recently completed more than 21 years of distinguished service as the Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. He now serves as Executive Director of the University’s Brain Institute and Professor of Medicine, Molecular Genetics and Neurobiology. Before coming to Pitt, Dr. Levine spent more than three decades at the National Institutes of Health, including sixteen years as the scientific director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. He discusses the defining characteristics of the scientific method, the role that science has played in human progress including the enhancement of human health, and the critical impact of the federal government in advancing the health sciences through work done in such agencies as the NIH, CDC and FDA. He also talks about the nature of  the COVID-19 disease and efforts to develop a vaccine.

Perspectives from the Front Lines – Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald

Rich Fitzgerald, the County Executive of Allegheny County, discusses the challenges that counties have faced in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. The interview also touches on the importance of the expertise of public health officials in planning and the need for collaboration between counties, the state, and local governments. The County Executive provides insight into measures that Allegheny County has taken to ease the burdens of voting in the upcoming primary election and managing the county's criminal justice system during the pandemic.

The Constitutional Framework for Decision-making – Duquesne University President Ken Gormley

Ken Gormley, the President of Duquesne University and a respected expert on constitutional law and the American presidency, examines the role and limits of executive power during times of crisis. He provides a unique perspective on the laws and cases that have shaped the powers of presidents and governors over our country's history. These powers and their limits have been tested recently as the president, governors, and federal and state agencies have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic.