With candid realism, Matt Shorraw, Mayor of Monessen, Pittsburg USA, reveals the fear he felt in his home as he fought a pension corruption scandal amid an increasingly embittered American political system.
Two years on from effusing his ‘love’ in representing the ‘city and people’ of Monessen, America’s youngest Mayor, Matt Shorraw has been beleaguered by political conspiracy and division. Talk of mending old divides and providing economic prosperity to a town left behind in the deindustrialisation of the rust-belt, has been subsumed by a pension fraud scandal that has left Shorraw and a fellow council member refraining from attending local government meetings.
It began ‘to fall apart between Council and I’, he tells me, ‘in early April 2018 when the Auditor General of Pennsylvania had a meeting with my city council and found potential pension fraud’. Matt Shorraw spoke at length, describing how he became entangled in attempting to uncover this fraud from as early ‘as two weeks before I took office’, when he noticed an ‘odd’ appointment of a new ‘pension fund administrator. However, his role in uncovering such alleged fraud meant he was met with a furore of ire from the accused council members: ‘my Council started screaming at me, telling me how dare I go to the state with this information’.
As a result of this political divide, Shorraw has been refusing to attend local council meetings, believing that it is more ‘productive for me to go out into the public and raise these concerns directly to the people’ because ‘my council’ keeps trying to shut it down. When challenged over why he hadn’t resigned and whether this refusal to serve was subverting local democracy, Shorraw spoke of how his lack of attendance had not stopped Council from ‘taking care of regular business’ and was quick to respond when asked whether walking away from a problem was part of his character: ‘If I had walked away, I wouldn’t be sending information to the state and federal Government every month’.
Shorraw’s passionate commitment to uncovering the corruption is motivated by a firm family belief in a form of moral justice. ‘If I saw something wrong I should try to fix it, or I should try and draw attention to it. I feel it needs to be taken care of … there is just blatant corruption going on’.
‘I didn’t feel safe in my house’
It was clear though, how the effects of this scandal have marred his time in office. When I first interviewed Matt Shorraw, soon after his election, he spoke of wide-ranging policy issues and was filled with hope and optimism. Now the cynicism of politics, in part, has visibly overwhelmed him. After facing a no-confidence motion last year, Shorraw spoke frustratingly of not being kept ‘in the loop with any information that’s going on’ from the Council — ‘they don’t send us emails’. He adopted a more mournful tone when I asked him about the effects such increased discourse and anger has had on him personally, such as the reported quote from one council member saying the public should go to his house with ‘torches and pitchforks’.
‘It was a really difficult time for me. I didn’t feel safe in my house … you have mentally unstable people that just need some word to justify them going out and doing something to someone. Its really frightening … I was pretty shaken up by it. You never know what someone’s gonna do’.
Despite the ‘few moments’ when Shorraw has questioned whether this has all ‘been worth it’, he spoke of a firm commitment to the case and refused the suggestion that he may feel regret at his involvement. ‘Why would I have made it this far and put myself through so much and then just throw in the towel’. Although feeling some success at drawing attention to the case by ‘making people ask the question: “why is Matt still missing the meetings?” ‘, it is clear this tormented part of his political career will only end with the closure of the investigation. ‘I feel that I need to see it through in the long term, until these investigations conclude and the findings become public … then we [can] figure out a way to move forward’.
It was not lost on Shorraw, the parallels between portraying himself as rising up against a corrupt set of politicians in Monessen and the promises of the President in draining the swamp in Washington — ‘its funny because other people have said that to me’. However, a clear distinction between himself and the man ruling the country 230 miles away, was apparent in the candid realism with which he spoke of current American politics.
‘We are really bad at meeting people at what they are talking about’
Shorraw spoke of the mistakes his Democratic Party has made in elevating the significance of the Mueller report, and therefore allowing its findings to be seen as a relative triumph for the White House. Also, he criticised the party for not speaking about the issues voters care about: ‘we are really bad in some regards at meeting people at what they are talking about … and we need to be able to do that for the 2020 election’. He favours Pete Buttigieg or Joe Biden to be the next Democrat presidential candidate, and albeit accepting that the latter could be seen as another establishment party figure (or ‘Obama 2.0’), he said how in places ‘like Monesen these are kind of familiar and they [voters] know what to expect from him’.
Something he was very concerned with when we last spoke were the divisions in society. He told me how ‘divisions have got worse locally and nationally’, and challenged the idea of Trump having been successful economically. ‘We haven’t really been feeling anything … there’s so much noise in Washington and while statistically we’re doing fairly well, there are a lot of people that are not feeling that because wages have stagnated. In Monessen things don’t feel any different’.
Transcending his views of both local and national politics, was Matt Shorraw’s belief in justice. He spoke angrily of the way President Trump ‘doesn’t care what the courts have to say’, accusing him of a failure to uphold the law. Interestingly, he brushed aside Democratic electoral concerns about launching an impeachment inquiry, asking the party; ‘Are you going to do what’s convenient politically or are you going to strive to uphold the constitution?’
It is Shorraw’s passionate belief in legality and a sense of moral justice that is providing the impetus for his views towards Trump and the local pension scandal. However, simultaneously, he may be falling into the same trap of the Democratic Party, nationally. Speaking of the need for the party to focus on the big ‘social issues’ and how we have forgotten to ‘reach out to people’, his very commitment to these ideas may appear contradictory now, given his entanglement in a mesh of local pension politics and abstention from council meetings.
Perhaps the question for voters in Monessen and for Shorraw is the same — as for America as a whole:
Is sacrificing political expediency and the need to resolve key social and economic issues worth the fight for upholding justice and legality?