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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

District 2: What does it mean for the rest of the city?

Posted By on Wed, Feb 4, 2009 at 10:31 AM

As you already know, Theresa Smith won yesterday's special election in District 2. Turnout was an anemic 10 percent, which was unsurprising. I was actually more surprised to see that Smith, the endorsed candidate, didn't get a majority of the vote, finishing with 48 percent while her three rivals split the balance between them.  

There's good election analysis out on the interwebs already. Matt Hogue, while an avowed partisan for Smith, provides a useful look at the ward-by-ward breakdown. And as always, Internet Philosopher-King Chris Briem crunches some of the same data and presents it in handy map form here

Briem also observes that Smith's support came despite the fact that "Blotzer seemed to have a lot of support on the web. News accounts say she did well at fundraising and had some notable endorsements." And yet it was all in vain. 

Actually, the Web was a mixed bag in the race. The aforementioned Hogue backed Smith, as did The Huddler. And I'm not sure there's anyone who really thinks the internet represents the vox populi

Anyway, I'm not one of those people who thinks the "Democratic machine" is some all-powerful juggernaut. (I mean, have you seen some of these committeepeople?) But in a special election like this, the endorsement is the shooting match. And whereas Bram of the Pittsburgh Comet suggests that this run is just an "audition" for the real action in the May primary, history suggests it's pretty tough to reverse a result like this in a couple months.

So what does this mean for the main event -- the municipal primary coming up in May?

Well, I'm not sure it's any sort of bellwether. It's pretty tough to deduce any kind of mandate from a race in which only one-tenth of the voters in one-ninth of the city show up. And reformers can nurse a bit of hope for Smith's independence. Some people seem to be reading much into the fact that Ravenstahl henchman Yarone Zober showed up at Smith fundraiser ... but that the fundraiser happened after the party endorsement. Smith's victory was assured at that point -- it would have been astounding had Zober not been there.

But I guess there is a larger lesson to be had from this race: All politics really is local. Local politics especially.

Blotzer was popular in some circles because of her principled stand on campaign-finance reform. And she earned the Post-Gazette's endorsement, it seems, because of her position on financial oversight. But those issues are pretty remote for many voters -- indeed for most voters outside of a fairly small group of good-government reformers.  Smith didn't just have the party endorsement: As Matt H. suggests, she also had more credibility with a larger swath of the district.

The reformers are making a valiant effort to connect issues of governance with stuff like, say, plowing roads. But even that stuff doesn't translate as well in a council race, since road maintenance is an executive-branch thing.

This is sort of hard to explain, but while we talk about wanting candidates who have a "vision for the city," there are lots of races in which having vision (or at least talking about it) is not particularly helpful. On the council level especially it may even hurt ... if the candidate can't keep one eye on the need for constituent service. 

I've said before that it's possible for reformers to make some real headway even if Ravenstahl coasts to re-election. There's a chance for a genuine sea-change in council. But the candidates themselves would be crazy to talk about that. (With the possible exception of Bill Peduto's district -- where so many good-government types live, and where Ravenstahl's support is radioactive.)

I guess that's an obvious point, and it's one the candidates themselves seem to get. Witness District 4 candidate Natalia Rudiak's avowed willingness to work with anyone who helps the district, and witness the District 2 folks talking about their own desire to maintain Pat Dowd-like independence

So the stakes in this election are high ... but to win the hand, reform-minded candidates would be wise not to call attention to the size of the pot. 

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