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Monday, April 20, 2009

Debatable Tactics

Posted By on Mon, Apr 20, 2009 at 2:23 PM

It's with slightly mixed feelings that I announce that City Paper is co-sponsoring a mayoral forum on Wednesday, April 29 at 6 p.m.

On the one hand, I'm pleased that challengers Carmen Robinson and Patrick Dowd will both be on hand for the event, which is being held at Carnegie Mellon University's McConomy Auditorium. But Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's campaign has told us he will not be attending -- citing other committments.

Without going into the whole behind-the-scenes saga, I'll just say that our cosponsors, the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project, did just about everything they could to entice Ravenstahl to come. All to no avail. 

No big surprise -- Ravenstahl has been publicly unenthusiastic about debates from the outset. But it's sad anyway. Ravenstahl has billed himself as a young, fresh-faced mayor. But he can't get out to a debate held on a college campus and co-sponsored by PUMP -- which is all about engaging young people in politics. (Other sponsors include CMU's student government, the Urban League Young Professionals, and the county chapter of the Young Republicans.) There are just two debates scheduled for this race (the first of which is taking place tonight) ... which means there are city council and, hell, school board races that are getting a more thorough airing.

I've heard plenty of suspicion that Ravenstahl is "afraid" to debate Dowd. I don't buy it. I've said this before, but Ravenstahl did quite well at the last debate we hosted with PUMP, a 2007 match-up with Republican challenger Mark DeSantis. Sure, Dowd is more pugnacious than DeSantis, as demonstrated by Dowd's accusation that Ravenstahl was using the Stanton Heights shooting to avoid debates. But I'm pretty sure Ravenstahl could handle himself -- as demonstrated by his response to Dowd's accusation.

So why not meet the challenge head on? 

Avoiding debates is just Politics 101, of course. Any debate inevitably helps the challenger, if only by giving him or her added visibility. So usually, it's in the incumbent's best interests to have as few debates as possible. 

That said, isn't it about time Ravenstahl graduated to the next grade level? To the extent that there are any issues in this campaign -- to the extent that there's a campaign at all -- they often focus on allegations that Ravenstahl goes AWOL, or fails to follow through, on key policy discussions. Which means that, no matter how the debates go, Ravenstahl would be depriving his opponents of a key talking point -- just by showing up. 

Now, though, because of Ravenstahl's reputation, he isn't going to be able to grab a smoke without setting off a chorus of sniping: "He has time for THIS, but not for discussing key issues before the voters?"

Case in point: this post over at Progress Pittsburgh:

Monday, April 13, 2pm - Mayor Ravenstahl is seen in Bloomfield with his campaign manager - looks like they were filming a campaign commercial

Tuesday, April 14 - Mayor Ravenstahl spends 20 mins at the Lawrenceville Block Watch

Actually, attending a block watch doesn't seem inappropriate to me. But reliable sources inform us that Ravenstahl was shooting a TV ad that Monday. An informant stationed at the Pleasure Bar (I have a whole network of these folks, just to keep track of the music editor) tells us that Ravenstahl was on hand long enough for "several costume changes." 

Ordinarily, I wouldn't care. And Ravenstahl did appear at a candidates forum this past Saturday. But according to another of my sources -- this one a CP staffer who (hopefully) hadn't just been sitting in a bar -- the audience was miffed that he came late. Prior to his arrival, moderator Tony Norman pondered whether the mayor should be allowed to speak, and there was some booing.

The mayor got to speak anyway -- with the added bonus that he didn't have to engage in any give-and-take with his rivals. Most likely, none of this will cost Ravenstahl. At least, not this time around.

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