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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Bad signs in mayoral race

Posted By on Wed, Sep 16, 2009 at 4:40 PM

So, I'm a little late getting to the dispute over mayoral candidate Dok Harris' election petitions. Judge Joseph James upheld Harris' candidacy two weeks ago, after his petitions were challenged by supporters of rival candidate Kevin Acklin.

But there's a broader question. What do these petitions say about the candidates -- other than the fact that they'll be on the same ballot? 

I'm glad Harris is still in the running. As Infinonymous recently argued,  Pennsylvania election law seems designed to limit the number of actual elections:

If Albert lives in Dormont but has a Pittsburgh mailing address, and writes "Pittsburgh" on the petition, his signature is susceptible to challenge. If Albert lives in Pittsburgh and writes "Pgh" on the petition ... his signature may be challenged. If Albert lives in Squirrel Hill and writes "Squirrel Hill" as his address, his signature is inadequate.

This is all true, although if Albert lives in Dormont, he shouldn't be signing petitions in Pittsburgh at all. And unfortunately, that's just what Albert did on Harris' petitions. Except many times, he didn't sign "Pittsburgh" -- he signed "Dormont." In a scan of Harris' filings, I found nearly 150 cases in which a signer indicated a municipality other than the city: Bethel Park, Verona, Sewickley, Coraopolis, Cranberry ...

I've looked at a few election petitions in my day, and 150 of these strikes me as a lot. And those are just the self-identified suburbanites, the cases where a mere glance tells you the signature shouldn't count. I'm not counting situations where no municipality was listed, or where a Dormonter did write "Pittsburgh."

The point is, even a casual look at the petitions confirms that they had a lot of problems. During the petition challenge, Harris' campaign reportedly agreed to toss out 1,500 signatures with no argument. That's a big number too.

Of course, mistakes happen. They happened to Acklin, in fact ... though not nearly as often. I found about 15 cases where a self-identified suburbanite signed an Acklin petition. And it's not like Harris had ten times as many signatures. 

What's more, judging by the petition dates, Acklin's signature-gathering efforts were moving along nicely by May. Harris's efforts apparently didn't start until June, and didn't really get rolling until July. Petitions were due the first week of August, and the Harris petitions look hurried.

So what? Just this: To date, Acklin's campaign looks a lot more sophisticated than Harris's.

No surprise there, perhaps. This is Harris's first run, whereas Acklin is a seasoned campaigner (or partisan hack, depending on who you back). And reporters like me can be too easily impressed by things like polished press conferences. We sometimes forget the importance of a strong grassroots campaign.

Which is the real problem with Harris's petitions. If he had a strong grassroots campaign, you might expect the petitions to reflect it.

Consider Natalia Rudiak's campaign in city council district 4 this year. Rudiak's signature totals dwarfed those of her rivals, a fact she boasted about in a press release. Did it "matter"? Not really -- everyone got the signatures they needed. But the boast gave her extra credibility. Much more importantly, getting those signatures helped Rudiak's team establish connections with voters.

Earlier this year, I heard a lot of people say Harris was the one candidate who might give Mayor Ravenstahl a scare. Harris is young, smart, personable -- not to mention being connected to the Steelers in a way you KNOW Ravenstahl dreams about. Acklin is smart and personable too ... but he's a former GOP candidate, and has no name recognition for anyone unfamiliar with Rick Santorum's donor list. 

That was the conventional wisdom, and it may well be true. Signatures notwithstanding, Harris could still outpoll Acklin, just on name recognition alone. But even if you accept the punditry, the petitions raise a vexing problem: How scared should Ravenstahl be, really, if his strongest challenger doesn't have the strongest campaign?

It's not just that Harris and Acklin may divide the vote on Election Day, in other words. It's that they're splitting up the money and expertise that will take them into November.

Things can change in the weeks ahead. Acklin's camp already half-expects Harris to raise more money. That's another form of support, and it could buy Harris a lot of TV airtime. So far, however, the running back's kid hasn't shown much of a ground game.

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