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Street-Wise 

If you were going to film a political ad that said "old-school Pittsburgh," it would look like this: 

A Bloomfield dining room, with furnishings straight out of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Shop on Liberty Avenue. Seated at the table: the widow who lives here, mayoral candidate Franco "Dok" Harris, and his father, the legendary Steelers running back. 

That's where I find myself on a clear Saturday afternoon -- and sure enough, a member of Harris' team is filming the action. But we're not talking much politics. The woman tells us her daughter is a radio personality: "I listen to her so I can tell her what she's doing wrong."

"That's what parents are for," says Franco Harris, smiling. 

If Dok Harris can't get a vote here, it's all over.

click to enlarge Mayoral candidate Franco "Dok" Harris
  • Mayoral candidate Franco "Dok" Harris

The Harrises have been doorknocking in the heart of Pittsburgh's Little Italy all afternoon. It has the air of a father/son outing, with the two putting up campaign signs and the younger Harris occasionally checking football scores on his PDA. ("Padre!" he calls out. "Penn State is up by 31!") 

The younger Harris gives a rapid-fire presentation whenever a door opens. He is trying to build a "City of Yes," he tells them, his plan for more transparent, responsive government.

"If our ideas resonate with you," Harris tells voters, "I hope you'll support me." 

The elder Harris, meanwhile, jokes with residents about rejoining the Steelers line-up, and hums a ditty as he walks between houses. Franco Harris has long been a Democratic stalwart, and he says he likes meeting people, but ask if he's ever thought of running himself, and he says, "No, no. Never had an interest." 

But field work like this "is competition," says his son. "He's trying to outmaneuver the opponent."

Pittsburghers aren't overwhelmed by star power, and most have seen Franco before. ("I shook your hand once 20 years ago -- you probably don't remember," one tells him.) Earlier that day, the two Harrises rode in the Columbus Day parade, right alongside Al Vento -- owner of a famed East Liberty pizzeria, and founder of Franco's Italian Army. Judging by the onlookers shouting "Go, Al, gooooo!!!!!" Vento was the biggest celebrity in the car.

This is the sort of thing that makes Pittsburgh Pittsburgh. We treat our celebrities like neighbors, and our neighbors like celebrities. And for good or ill, we vote for the name we recognize. 

It would be easy to accuse Harris of running on his father's name. It wouldn't even be wrong, exactly. The name, Harris admits, "gets us in the door." The other independent candidate for mayor, Squirrel Hill lawyer Kevin Acklin, certainly isn't out canvassing with his father. But Acklin too is running on his family legacy -- a far darker one. And the incumbent, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, comes from a family that includes a state representative and a district justice.

Family dynasties have always been around. So have traditions like shilling for votes at Columbus Day parades. But watching this campaign, I can't shake the feeling that what I love about Pittsburgh's culture -- its throwback approach to urban life -- is also what makes me despair over its politics. 

 

Being the son of a Hall of Fame football player isn't quite as easy as you might think. Dok Harris -- his middle name is Dokmanovich, his mother's maiden name -- spent his childhood in the Mexican War Streets before his family moved to Sewickley. But, he stresses, "People don't realize -- my father wasn't rich. He played before all those big contracts." And growing up in the shadow of a legend can be daunting -- especially if you're a chunky kid better at math than athletics. 

Harris, 30, went to Princeton, and later took a joint business/law program at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. He's garrulous, fast-talking, and laces his speech with business-school lingo and references to films like Cannonball Run. He now works for the Harris family business, Super Bakery, which specializes in vitamin-fortified baked goods. 

But even if he became mayor, Harris says, the best reaction he could hope for would be, "You eradicated crime and poverty, but you ain't got one of these!" -- and he waggles his hand in a way suggesting a bulky ring on each finger.

click to enlarge Mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin
  • Mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin

Still, he says, "It wouldn't be an issue if my father wasn't such a great guy." And such mildly Freudian conflict is nothing compared to what Kevin Acklin  went through.

If Harris' childhood was a Pittsburgh kid's dream, the Acklin family is the darker side of the blue-collar myth. It's the story of the dad who works hard every day -- and takes out his resentments on the family every night.

"My father has a good heart, and he's a hard-working guy," says Acklin, 33. "But he has a lot of demons, too." When his father, who struggled with substance abuse, was imprisoned for robbery, "I spent my first eight birthdays down at Western Penitentiary."

As for Acklin, his mother and two brothers, "We were on welfare, growing up in South Oakland." A nurse, Candace Acklin "worked her ass off to give us everything. My family was wrecked by drugs and violence, but I [learned] you can overcome that. There's a lot of pride there." 

There's heartache too, though. And Acklin wears it on his sleeve.

During a September press conference, Acklin choked up in front of reporters just by mentioning his younger brother, Dan, a state trooper. And in a phone interview, Dan Acklin choked up when talking to me about Kevin. "We get pretty emotional, I guess," Dan Acklin says. "But we didn't even realize how hard we had it, because our mom did a great job being a single mom."

But at an Aug. 20 charity event -- a standup comedy night for politicians held at The Improv in Homestead -- Acklin made a pointed attack on his rival. Citing a previous interview, Acklin told the crowd "Dok actually said that times were tough growing up in Sewickley. ... 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 says he was caught off-guard by the cat-food barb. "I can't imagine growing up in a situation like Kevin did." But Acklin "has a weird obsession with me.")

Acklin says Harris is a "nice guy," and on many issues, they aren't far apart. Both stress transparency, and want to make city government more responsive to small business. Both have questioned Ravenstahl's handling of the G-20, but make only muted criticism of police behavior, despite ongoing controversy over mass arrests that took place in Oakland. 

Still, there's friction that seems to go beyond the fact that each challenger is competing for the same pool of votes. Ravenstahl and Harris "both benefit greatly from their last name," Acklin says. "I'm the guy who has to overcome it."

To this day Acklin and his father, Timothy, almost never speak. The rest of the family moved from Oakland to Banksville, where Mrs. Acklin later remarried. Little in Acklin's résumé suggests a troubled childhood. From Central Catholic High School he went on to Harvard and Georgetown. He now practices business law at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. 

Despite that pedigree, and his current Squirrel Hill address, Acklin still touts his blue-collar background. He revisits the South Hills constantly, in speeches and on foot. While there, he invariably tells people he "came from a family of police and firefighters, and I disappointed everyone by becoming a lawyer."

From time to time, in fact, people recognize his uncle, a fire captain. Others recognize Acklin himself. "We're all voting for you," one city retiree told him on a door-knocking trip in Beechview. "Ravenstahl's an airhead!" 

Compared to Harris' rapid-fire delivery -- which barely leaves time for residents to ask questions -- Acklin can spend 5 or 10 minutes with a voter. At one point, Acklin runs into an old acquiantance, Bob Mann, who worked in the mailroom at another firm. They catch up a bit, and Mann gives Acklin some advice. 

"You're a smart guy, you work hard," Mann says. "You've just got to go back to your Democratic roots." 

 

Which brings us to the hardest part of Acklin's biography to understand. Despite having been on welfare, despite knowing "family values" aren't all they're cracked up to be, Acklin was a Republican until this year. He ran for Allegheny County Council on the GOP ticket, and he's supported some of the GOP's most divisive candidates. 

Since 1994, for example, Acklin contributed $1,000 to former Sen. Rick Santorum, and $3,000 to former U.S. Rep Melissa Hart. 

Several of Acklin's relatives have worked for the city. As a result, he says, "I saw some of the patronage that was going on. The Democratic Party in Pittsburgh has never been very progressive, and when I came of age in the early 1990s, [the GOP] posited itself as progressive when it came to making government more efficient." 

"Despite my contributions, I've never been a radical right-wing Republican," Acklin says. The contributions were an effort "to work within the party" and push it in a more moderate direction. Acklin has supported more moderate candidates, including Arlen Specter. (He also backed Democrat Natalia Rudiak in her successful bid this year to represent the South Hills on Pittsburgh City Council.) But over time, Acklin says, "I was banging my head against the wall." By using scapegoats like gay marriage, he says, "The party has drawn lines in the sand" in a divide-and-conquer approach.

Acklin says "the straw that broke the camel's back was my support of the county's anti-discrimination bill." At a county council meeting in January, Acklin spoke in favor of the bill, which barred discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and other factors. ("If you can't agree on something as basic as people should not be discriminated against because of what they do in their bedroom," he says, "then where are we?") The measure passed narrowly, largely along party lines. And after his speech, Acklin says, "I was called immoral, an embarrassment to the party" by GOP regulars.

Still, Acklin's supporters today include Jim Roddey, the former county executive and head of the county GOP. Roddey and his wife have contributed $1,500 to Acklin's campaign. Acklin has also garnered $2,500 from FamilyPAC, which typically backs right-wingers. Acklin notes the PAC is the creature of the Donahue family, a conservative clan that runs Federated Investors. 

"I've known them for years," says Acklin. "I have a lot of respect for them. That's one of the more conservative elements of our coalition." But building a movement of people with varying beliefs, he says, "is the only way we're going to win."

And if Acklin must overcome suspicion that he has a right-wing agenda, questions have been raised about whether Harris has a serious agenda at all.  

On Oct. 16, for example, Harris called a press conference to address rumors that he hadn't been a Pittsburgh resident for three years, a necessary qualification for office. The allegation, which began with an investigation by KDKA-TV, was based on Harris' voter registration, which showed him voting at his parents' home in Sewickley between 2005 and 2008.

Harris ascribed the oversight to "laziness," noting that he was in grad school, and that many students retain their parents' address for voting purposes. At his press conference, he produced apartment leases to document his city residence -- and a fake Kenyan birth certificate to laugh off the story. 

Still, the issue allowed his rivals to question his commitment. "The question is [why] you haven't ... voted for me or against me in 2007 if you're so passionate about the city," Ravenstahl told Harris in an Oct. 17 KDKA-TV debate. 

Prior to the G-20 summit, similarly, Harris launched a Web site (costofpghg20.blogspot.com) asking Pittsburghers to sound off about the lost job time and other disruptions the summit caused. But a YouTube video later surfaced alleging that during the summit itself, Harris left the city to vacation at a spa in Bedford, Pa. 

Harris acknowledges taking the trip. Given the way the G-20 dominated the city, "There was no way I was going to be able to interface with anyone." So he used the time away to rest up and do research before the campaign's final surge in October. But, it's hardly the way to go after an incumbent who's been accused of putting aside city business to meet golf pros.  

Harris' election petitions also faced a court challenge by Acklin supporters. Harris won the battle, and the challenge prompted criticism of Acklin's tactics. But scores of petitions were signed by people who didn't even list Pittsburgh as their hometown, making the signatures ineligible on their face. And Harris acknowledges the campaign went through "some early growing pains." 

Ask Harris what separates him from his rivals, and he points to a pledge prominently displayed on his campaign Web site: "I will limit an individual's total contributions to $2,400, and I will limit a household's total to $4,800."

Few people pay attention to such issues, Harris says, "but you've got to honestly believe that somebody isn't out there bullshitting."

Harris has sketched out a campaign platform. Some of those ideas have, like Acklin's, long been in circulation, like taking a more community-oriented approach to policing, with officers out walking a beat. Other ideas are more novel. For example, Harris also wants to create a pool of $10 million to provide early capital to start-up ventures -- enough money to give 100 companies $100,000 each. Most of those start-ups will fail, he says, but enough should succeed to have a "multiplicative effect" on the economy, creating new technologies and jobs. 

But such policy statements have been rare, and short on details. Harris has convened only a couple of press conferences since August. Ask Harris his plan on resolving pension debt, and he says he supports Ravenstahl's plan -- in principle -- to lease city-owned parking garages. Beyond that, though, his answer relies simply on his business-development plan. 

Acklin, by contrast, has held press conferences almost every week, offering plenty of details. For example, Acklin wants to put 200 police officers on the streets, and has recommended some $10 million in budget cuts to help pay for it. 

Some of those cuts seem problematic. (For example, Acklin's budget erases $20,000 budgeted for "advertising" in the city clerk's office ... but most of that money is used to advertise upcoming council meetings, as required by law.) But others, like a recommendation to adopt "outcomes-based budgeting" that allocates money based on performance, are a policy wonk's dream.

Similar questions cloud Acklin's pension proposal. Acklin notes that the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the city's development agency, has $416 million in assets. He supports transferring $225 million of that into the pension fund. The rest of the URA's money would be earmarked for "neighborhood projects."

But Acklin's proposed fund transfer is "just impossible," says URA spokesperson Megan Stearman. "The funds all come with restrictions on the money. It's all committed to projects."

Still, it's smart politics: The URA is widely perceived as ignoring small-scale neighborhood projects. 

"Local government is focused more on big-ticket developments," says Rick Swartz, who runs the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation. Swartz says it's not fair to blame the URA for that: "If you're going to use taxpayer money, you have to make sure the development is viable, so it won't be swallowed up in a swamp." But in general, Swartz says, local pols emphasize retail and other projects: "Sometimes they lose sight of the fact that people have to live in these communities."

That's where the Acklin and Harris campaigns are going to live as well. Or die trying. 

 

There's a reason Harris holds so few press conferences. In a local race, he says, "The number-one thing is personal connections" rather than media exposure. His 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.

Acklin, meanwhile, boasts frequently of his door-knocking, and the weight he's lost while doing it. He is indeed thinner than he appears in his own campaign literature. But at first blush, spending time in the South Hills doesn't make much sense. In the city's sprawling 19th Ward, where Acklin has spent much of his time, 70 percent of voters backed Ravenstahl in this year's primary.

Can a challenger hope to make a dent? "I'm hearing mixed messages," says Natalia Rudiak, the South Hills' councilor-to-be. Despite Ravenstahl's strong showing in May, Rudiak won her seat by arguing that city leaders often overlooked these neighborhoods. People still feel that way, she says: At a recent community meeting, "There was a heated discussion around whether to vote for the incumbent."

Michael Lamb isn't so optimistic. "I didn't think this would be a competitive race," says Lamb, who ran a failed 2005 mayoral campaign before becoming city controller. "But I did think it would generate more debate." Building one-on-one relationships is fine, Lamb says, but "when I ran, we did a press conference every three or four days, because that's the only way we could get any media attention.

"I think Acklin is running more of a campaign as a whole," Lamb says. "He's raising issues and doing press conferences -- which Harris doesn't seem to be doing as much."

But Lamb says the real problem is "it's hard to beat an incumbent without a prevailing mood shift or scandal." Early on in Ravenstahl's tenure, there were eruptions surrounding, say, Ravenstahl's use of a Homeland Security vehicle to attend a concert. But these days, he says, "Nobody is saying, 'Let's hang Luke Ravenstahl.'"

Something in the political landscape will have to change. 

Pittsburgh is, after all, a one-party town, as Ravenstahl proved in 2007 by crushing Republican Mark DeSantis, a well-heeled and well-connected moderate. The dissenting Democratic "progressives" in Squirrel Hill are no threat either, as Ravenstahl proved this May by trouncing city Councilor Patrick Dowd in this year's primary. 

At this point, in fact, Ravenstahl's seeming invincibility may be a self-fulfilling prophecy: People rarely stick their necks out for a cause they think is hopeless. Acklin calls it the "boogeyman politics of fear and complacency.

Civic leaders "know the emperor has no clothes, but publicly they hold fundraisers for him," Acklin says.

So sure, Acklin takes money from Republican stalwarts. For that matter, at least three-quarters of Harris' $105,000 fundraising came from outside the city -- sometimes from as far away as Hawaii. But who else is going to fund a challenger? Ravenstahl has nearly two-and-a-half times as much cash on hand as his rivals combined.

And sure, Harris' campaign relies heavily on his father's name. But who else will introduce him to voters? Media coverage of the race has been scant, and when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette endorsed Ravenstahl, it dismissed his challengers on the somewhat tautological grounds that "it's hard to argue that either has a shot at winning." In the KDKA debate, meanwhile, the first question moderator Ken Rice asked was whether this was a race at all.

All of which helps explain the mixed feelings stirred by watching Harris and Acklin canvass Bloomfield and Beechview. Yes, they're speaking directly to the people, in the best spirit of democracy. But that wouldn't be their only option if the city's democratic institutions -- its political factions, its donors, and its media -- weren't so calcified. 

Harris and Acklin have no choice but to talk "to the people without voices." Because the people with voices aren't saying a word. 

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