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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Harris and Acklin Square Off (with video!)

Posted By on Wed, Aug 26, 2009 at 10:32 AM

I've been a little remiss in keeping up with the doings of our two third-party candidates for mayor: Franco "Dok" Harris and Kevin Acklin. It's not for lack of trying on their part: Acklin, for example, recently toured Beechview to bemoan the lack of progress in the long-neglected South Hills neighborhood. Harris' campaign, meanwhile, has been opportunistic about firing off press releases grousing about the mayor's various failures in leadership. 

But until last week, there really hasn't been a chance to see the two candidates on the same stage. Harris participated in only a couple of mayoral debates during the spring -- even though neither candidate was on the primary ballot -- and Acklin wasn't even an official candidate. 

But the two men finally faced off on Aug. 20 -- not in a debate, but in a stand-up comedy routine. The decision? Acklin wins on points, but Harris gets the Congeniality award. 

Their appearances were part of a "Candidates Comedy Night," in which politicians seeking office try their hand at stand-up comedy for charitable purposes. This is the second year of the event, and unlike the inaugural installment last year, most of the comedians were in judicial races. The event was widely covered, especially Arlen Specter's performance. But our very own Chris Young was one of the few journos to stay until the end, when Harris, Acklin, and County Executive Dan Onorato took the stage. 

Onorato was surprisingly good last year, and he acquitted himself pretty well this time around too. (This video seems to be loading pretty slow -- we're working on it.) He launched in with a merciless dig at Melissa Hart's dismal performance last year ... but his notable joke came at the expense of City Council President Doug Shields. I feel a little guilty repeating it ... though as you'll see, I have no qualms posting video of it. 

Acklin's routine began with some digs at Ravenstahl, some of which were fairly obvious, if well crafted. He also did a nice job of defusing his previous support for unltraconservative Republicans

"I gave a campaign contribution to Rick Santorum," he told the staunchly Democratic audience. "The good news is, Rick never cashed the check, because I actually mailed it to that vacant house in Penn Hills."

But perhaps the most surprising moment in his set came toward the end, when he began taking digs at Harris. Acklin took special umbrage at an interview Harris gave to the Pittsburgh Comet, in which Harris said, "Growing up, it was very tough." Harris, of course, is the son of Steelers legend Franco Harris, and he grew up in Sewickley. 

"Dok actually said that times were tough growing up in Sewickley. In Sewickley?" Acklin asked. "I was so poor growing up that we were eating cat food ... What was tough about it? Like the time when the cafeteria at Sewickley Academy ran out of silver sporks?"

Harris' own routine followed, and he largely declined to take the bait, except to joke that if Ravenstahl won re-election, "I can go back to selling donuts [and] Kevin go back to being a fact-checker for FOX News." He also jested that he was "the only candidate who did not actually play high school football. I was a mathlete."

This appears to be the context in which he spoke of "tough times" growing up, incidentally: that he was bookish and unable to live up to any expectations of athletic greatness people might have had. 

Harris' set was half the length of Acklin's: To me, it was less funny on balance, but also gentler and more self-effacing. 

All this raises an question both campaigns will have to wrestle with: As they challenge Luke Ravenstahl, to what extent should they take on each other? Obviously, the incumbent is the guy to beat, but inevitably the two independents are competing for some of the same neighborhoods. 

The conventional wisdom is that this is a moot argument. When Ravenstahl ran in November 2007 against a single candidate, Mark DeSantis, he crushed the Republican by a nearly two-to-one margin. Assuming that the overall dynamics of this year's race are similar, you'd expect Ravenstahl's margin to be even more comfortable this time around, since Harris and Acklin will likely split much of the vote DeSantis got. 

But inside every reporter is a frustrated Meet the Press panelist, so this is the advice I'd give each campaign. Don't waste time or energy attacking each other, because then you just end up competing for a pool of "anyone but Luke" votes which -- as DeSantis proved -- isn't big enough anyway. You need to EXPAND the anti-Luke vote, and you won't do that by picking away at some OTHER guy the voters have never heard of. The odds are stacked against you no matter what you do, so you may as well tilt at the biggest damn windmill you can find. You'll feel better about yourself after Election Day.

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