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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Op-ed: When politicians wrap themselves up in the Black and Gold

Posted By on Tue, Apr 24, 2012 at 1:38 PM

When fascism comes to western Pennsylvania, it will be wrapped in a Terrible Towel.

Sinclair Lewis didn't actually say that, though he probably could have. And as we wait for tonight's primary-night festivities, I've been stewing over how elected officials dumb down our politics by bringing up football. Or, what may be worse, how they dumb down football by dragging it into politics.

We all know how this works, right? When Jason Altmire re-introduces himself to voters in the newly-redrawn 12th district, for example, he naturally lets us know that he used to play football back in high school.

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In western Pennsylvania, obviously, playing football is one way to demonstrate character and local roots. And it allows us to gloss over parts of our resume that may be, well, a little harder for voters to relate to. You'll note that Altmire's ad boasts that his "work ethic followed Jason [from] the football field and later to Congress" ... with no mention of what he might have done in between. Namely working as a lobbyist for UPMC.

Of course, if you're gonna use football fandom to reach voters here, you better do it right. Back in 2010, state Sen. Anthony Williams was an also-ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. The Philadelphia-based Senator, casting about for a way to relate to the western half of the state, ran an ad featuring an alleged voter in a Steelers jersey. The problem? The jersey was that of Santonio Holmes, who had left the team in disgrace not long before.

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(In fairness to the Williams camp, they recovered the fumble nicely. After I wrote a blog post mocking the campaign's gaffe, I got a good-natured message from the guy who'd put the ad together. He jokingly insisted the ad was an attempt to honor Roy Gerela.)

But this year's biggest practitioner of wrapping himself up in the Black and Gold is Republican Evan Feinberg, who is running a Tea Party challenge against Republican Congressman Tim Murphy. Feinberg has been running a radio spot -- on sports-talk station 93.7 FM, no less -- that is either the dumbest or the most brilliant ad of the spring, depending on who you ask.

The ad's transcript:

Liberal congressman Tim Murphy didn't grow up in Pittsburgh. In fact, he grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, probably rooting for the Browns and Indians. No wonder he votes for Obama priorities like 'cash for clunkers.' Fortunately, there is a conservative, lifelong Steelers fan in this race. Evan Feinberg is a Steelers season ticket holder who bleeds black and gold. He grew up idolizing Mario Lemieux and has always remained a diehard Pirates fan -- a true sign of character.

In addition to standing by Pittsburgh sports, Evan Feinberg supports the conservative values of Western Pennsylvania. He is pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, and a fiscal conservative. On April 24, don't side with the Mistake by the Lake. Vote for the true conservative, and native Pittsburgher Evan Feinberg.

When I tweeted that I thought this was the most idiotic ad of the political season, the Feinberg camp retorted "Some people have no sense of humor." Feinberg has, in fact, doubled down on the pandering to Steelers Nation, running a TV spot which features his kid gratuitously dressed up in a Polamalu jersey to illustrate something about the national debt.

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Sy Snyder, whose Politicspa.com site is a fixture in state politics, also tweeted in defense of the radio spot. Feinberg is running an uphill campaign against an entrenched incumbent, he noted, and had little choice but to try unconventional tactics on unconventional platforms. And Murphy, Snyder pointed out, has tried to characterize Feinberg as a carpetbagger. Touting one's season tickets isn't a bad way of meeting that accusation head on.

Fair points, all. But here's the thing: Those of us who live and work in the Realm of Steelerstahl know that Steelers fandom, like any form of patriotism, can be the last refuge of the scoundrel. (And it's not just the politicians: We can't get through a playoff run without every media outlet in town throwing news judgment out the window to stoke "Steelers Fever," and the resulting ratings.) In that context, Feinberg's radio ad -- especially in conjunction with his Steelers-swaddled toddler -- comes across like a politician who really does think the depth of his fandom might be a reason you'd vote for him. Worst of all, in some cases such a politician might actually be right.

And in Feinberg's case, invoking Steelers fandom is part and parcel of a trumped-up populism that is the special province of the Tea Party. We're talking a movement which affects a grassroots appeal while being backed by groups like FreedomWorks, whose funders include tobacco companies, and whose leaders include such men of the people as Dick freakin' Armey, a former Republican Congressman and lobbyist. (FreedomWorks is, not coincidentally, backing Feinberg with an endorsement and lawn signs.) Really, what better face for such populism to wear than the black-and-gold mask of a Steelers fan? In both politics and football, after all, you and I pay through the nose while rich guys beat the shit out of each other.

One wonders, in fact, what the Steelers make of all this. After all, those season tickets that Feinberg holds? They buy him access to seating in a stadium built with public tax dollars. The Steelers rely on government subsidy for their very existence: Do they really want to be associated with a Tea Party apostle who opposes any sort of government intervention in the marketplace? And if the answer is "no," what can they do about it?

I asked Mike Madison, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who is the city's resident expert on trademark and copyright law. "I imagine that the Steelers and the NFL might think that they have bigger fish to fry," he said. (And indeed, the Steelers apparently have better things to do than to return my phone call about this.)

"The fact that this is a political ad means that it should get a pretty wide berth under the First Amendment," says Madison. "The question would be whether consumers would think that the Steelers or the NFL have endorsed or sponsored or are otherwise affiliated with Mr. Feinberg ... Professional football likely wants to avoid the possible implication that the team and the league are partisan in a political campaign."

Still, Madison added, "It is possible that consumers would simply think that Mr. Feinberg is using the Steelers jersey to signal that he's a true Pittsburgher. The jersey could be seen by consumers as a 'he's one of us' kind of statement" -- in which case the usage would probably be OK.

OK under the law, perhaps. But is it OK with Steelers fans to have their beloved franchise co-opted by some Tea Party candidate who supports going back to the gold standard, peddles zombie lies about fictitious taxpayer-funded abortions, and has the backing of loons like Rand Paul?

We'll find out tonight, I guess.

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