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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Election Day Thoughts

Posted By on Tue, Nov 3, 2009 at 5:29 PM

Bloggers have been all aflutter over the fact that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl had his endorsement written by his mother, while challenger Kevin Acklin's endorsement was penned by his uncle, retired fire captain Danny Acklin. (The Dok Harris endorsement was written by Shadow Lounge owner Justin Strong.) Even the P-G's own Reg Henry seemed shamefaced.

But I'm a contrarian. And while we have some time before election results start coming in, I'm going to argue -- in a particularly long-winded fashion -- that the choice of endorsement writers makes perfect sense. More than that, they were inevitable given the kind of campaign this was, and the kind of city this is.

Let's start with this observation: Kevin Acklin almost certainly could have gotten an endorsement from someone who wasn't his uncle. He could, for example, have recruited Mark DeSantis, who supports Acklin and who ran his own failed campaign as a Republican back in 2007. Nobody would have jeered at Acklin's op-ed then: DeSantis is a smart guy, with experience in politics and business. He's contributed op-eds before.

There's just one drawback to using DeSantis: If he were capable of garnering a bunch of votes, he'd have done so in 2007. Danny Acklin's endorsement, though, might actually reach people who don't already intend on voting against Ravenstahl.

What makes me say so? I spent an afternoon door-knocking with Acklin. In that time, there were a handful of voters who knew and admired his uncle. It was a connection for them, in a much more tangible way than his position on redirecting URA funds ever could be. By contrast, I'm guessing the name "Mark DeSantis" wouldn't have opened many doors.

In a lot of ways, Acklin and Harris have run the "anti-DeSantis campaign." DeSantis seemed to think that it would be enough to make policy suggestions and score debating points. But his disconnection from neighborhoods -- the guy lived Downtown, for God's sake -- and air of dweebiness was fatal. 

Acklin and Harris aren't making that mistake. Here's what Harris told me about his own campaign strategy in a feature story I wrote about the election:

[The Harris] campaign is targeting "figures of neighborhood respect" -- people like Al Vento, whose pizzeria was the site of Harris' campaign kick-off. The goal is to have these individuals "buy into [the campaign] to the point of becoming a node" -- someone who will talk up the campaign in circles where their opinion matters.

You could call it a Facebook approach to campaigning: building person-to-person networks, with each contact becoming a "hub" for his or her own set of relationships, radiating out like spokes. No doubt Harris' strategy helps explain why the Harris op-ed was written by Justin Strong. Strong's not an expert on city pensions, tax matters, or any of that stuff. But in addition to being a successful businessman (and a good guy), he's got cache with a demographic that the Harris campaign is all about reflecting and catering to. 

Acklin's approach to the campaign was a bit more old-school, but also highly oriented toward face-to-face retail activity. Over and over again, when Acklin talked to residents, I'd hear him name-drop a local landmark, like a church or Sip 'n' Spin, the only-in-Beechview combination laundromat/coffee shop. The message was clear: I know the terrain, and I know you. It was all about proving hometown bona fides.

To op-ed writers and bloggers, the fact that Ravenstahl and Acklin used family members to write their editorials is embarassing. It smacks of desperation, or a predisposition to nepotism. But there are many Pittsburghers for whom a family member appeal works. And if the idea of an endorsement is to attract votes -- rather than to satisfy Reg Henry's exacting standards -- than having them written by a family member is actually pretty smart.

News flash: If you love Pittsburgh's "small-town feel," you've got to take the good with the bad -- and a strong emphasis on family and traditional ties is characteristic of small towns. Having a family connection can add to the message, rather than subtracting from it. (An aside: How much do you think Mark DeSantis and Bill Peduto's mayoral ambitions were hurt by the fact that they're both still single?)

Ravenstahl clearly believes these connections work, anyway. The dude's already got the Post-Gazette endorsement. If that's not good enough for the blogosphere or the 14th Ward -- and it isn't -- well, those folks aren't voting for him anyway. So why not reinforce those familial, community ties that resonate a little better with other voters? 

And while Harris didn't use a family member for his P-G endorsement, he doesn't have to. He's got the most famous father in all of Pittsburgh. With that pedigree established, he didn't need to worry about proving his bloodline in a P-G piece. (Come to that, I'm not sure Strong was the best choice to author Harris' endorsement. Which isn't a criticism of Strong at all: It's just that, based on what I'm hearing, Harris already has much of the young-and-hip demographic locked up. Of course, if Harris wins, well, I guess it'll prove how dumb I am.)

Maybe, like generals fighting the last war, Harris and Acklin have overlearned the lessons of DeSantis' campaign. Harris' campaign was conspicuous for how few press conferences he held until the very end -- I got more e-mails from them in the last two weeks than I did in the previous two months. Acklin, meanwhile, talked so much about Beechview and Brookline that you sometimes felt like he was running for mayor of the South Hills.

If they overcompensated for DeSantis' mistakes, I guess we'll find out today. But I think there's a bigger issue here, which I tried, clumsily, to get across in my pre-election feature story. Which is that this is probably the only campaign they could run.

Mike Madison writes smartly (as always) about how the P-G endorsements "infantilize" the city. But it's not that Pittsburghers are infants. It's that we have a political culture whose growth is stunted. We're a one-party town, and the "loyal opposition" within that one party isn't large enough to mount a winning citywide campaign. Ask Peduto, or Patrick Dowd.

Plus there's what Acklin calls "boogeyman politics": would-be campaign contributors and other supporters who supposedly fear retaliation if they back a challenger.

I've noted the fact that Harris gets a sizable chunk of money from outside the city ... and everyone has noted how much of Acklin's support comes from right-wingers. But presumably they rely on those sources for similar reasons: Most of the guys with big bucks inside Pittsburgh either support Ravenstahl, or don't see any political upside to crossing him.

If Harris built his own Facebook-style network, it's because so few other viable networks exist ... and those that do are largely in the hands of Ravenstahl loyalists. And if Acklin calls on his uncle to write an endorsement, there's a good reason for that too: How many civic paragons who aren't relatives will stick their necks out? Hop Kendrick and ... who else? 

So of course Acklin boasts of the number of doors he's knocked on (to the point that one blogger suggested a drinking game based on the number of times he mentioned it).  And of course Harris has released Youtube videos touting the cool folks in town who support him: As Harris describes it, it's a cutting-edge strategy based on ideas outlined in books like The Influentials. But the other reason they are going directly to the people is that there's nowhere else for them to go. Most of the groups you would otherwise seek out for support are AWOL. 

Harris has gotten some endorsements -- from groups like the Ironworkers, NOW, and the Gertrude Stein Political Club. But hell, DeSantis had the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police back in 2007. (He also had the backing of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, for all the good it did him. ) And the truth is that there are very few endorsements in play. Even the SEIU -- one of the gutsiest unions in town, and among the few willing to take on Ravenstahl directly -- is sitting this election out.

In 2007, it was easy to blame DeSantis for crashing and burning. Smart fellow, nice guy ... but not a born politician. If Harris and Acklin flame out -- and by that I mean that their combined vote totals aren't appreciably larger than DeSantis' -- it won't be so easy to blame them.

Harris has charisma and a famous name; Acklin has pounded the pavement and the podium. If they lose, it will be because our politics lacks a sufficient number of "go-betweens" -- mediating mechanisms that act as "force multipliers" for a candidate's message. 

Back in the old days, that job fell to party committeepeople. Those were the "nodes," to use Harris' term. But that was a different era, when one could really speak of a "Democratic machine" and have it mean something. If the Democratic machine seems powerful today, it's only by default -- there just isn't a cohesive movement to oppose it. 

In truth, for a machine to be powerful, it has to be disciplined. Clearly that's not the case here. Blogger/committeeguy Matt Hogue has come out and endorsed Acklin, after campaigning for a non-endorsed city council candidate this past spring. As far as I know, he hasn't woken up next to a horse's head. 

But as of yet, there just aren't enough Hogues. There aren't enough people with an audience willing to take a chance on a candidate. There haven't been enough unions willing to put themselves on the line with an endorsement. There haven't been enough people willing to sign their name to a check. There aren't enough people reading, let alone writing, the blogs.

What the P-G endorsements -- and in fact everything else in this campaign -- reflect is the lack of an infrastructure, a power base, large enough to amplify a candidate's message effectively. Ravenstahl has the luxury of publishing his mom's endorsement because that rival power base doesn't exist. Acklin HAS to publish his uncle's endorsement for the same reason. 

Groups like Progress Pittsburgh are trying to lay the groundwork -- the group pulled together money and contributed in races earlier this spring. The best example of that is, of course, the Natalia Rudiak campaign in District 4. Rudiak, though, just proves the rule: Without her own longstanding community and family ties, she wouldn't have won that race -- even with the two frontrunners blowing each other up. Rudiak had everything she needed: community roots, progressive credentials, smarts, and party machine that was self-destructing in front of everyone's eyes.

So far, no one's been able to re-create that magic citywide. There's an outside chance that today will be different. But if it's not, you can't blame the two challengers. The P-G endorsements were just symptoms of what they were up against.

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