Standing Pat | Blogh

Friday, January 23, 2009

Standing Pat

Posted By on Fri, Jan 23, 2009 at 4:25 PM

Lately, I've had city councilor Patrick Dowd on my mind a lot. Largely because I've run into a couple true believers who are hoping that Barack Obama's election signals a moment of change -- and that a Dowd mayoral candidacy is perfectly positioned to take advantage of it. 

I'm not entirely convinced. But if you're not interested in warmed-over punditry, this would be a good time to follow this link to Savage Love. Dan really takes the piss out of a husband who feels threatened by a vibrator this week. 

So far, Dowd has only publicly acknowledged thinking about a mayoral run. His campaign Web site makes no mention of a mayoral candidacy, and appears not to have been updated since May of 2007. But I'd be very much surprised if he chooses not to run, and so would allies that I've been talking to. 

He's got a lot going for him. Something like Obama, he's moved quickly through a stint on the school board, and is halfway through his first term on city council. That isn't much time to accomplish a lot, but obviously concerns about experience don't carry much weight when your mayor in his 20s.

Plus, Dowd's a likeable guy with an appealing family and good looks. Like incumbent Luke Ravenstahl, Dowd has youthful energy, but he also has gravitas the mayor lacks. He's Gallant to the mayor's Goofus. 

Dowd also has some passionate supporters, not all of whom are his former high-school students. They point to the fact that he's toppled two sclerotic members of the Democratic Party's old guard -- Darlene Harris in a school board race, and Lenny Bodack to win his current council seat. And they note that Dowd did it from scratch, with plenty of grass-roots support and no help from the party heirarchy.

As for the lack of experience, well ... at least you know he isn't beholden to anyone. He's barely been around long enough.

On the one hand, Dowd seems a less likely champion than, say, Bill Peduto and Doug Shields, two other city councilors upon whom some reformers have pinned their hopes. (Shields too is contemplating a run.) Peduto and Shields both know city government inside and out, and they've got a years-long record of slugging it out for progressive causes. Dowd, by contrast, has aggravated some bloggers and other ideological purists by not being wililng to choose a side and slug it out when the chips are down.

But I'm not sure that would hurt him.

Compare the way you felt about Hillary Clinton this time a year ago to the way you felt about Barack Obama. Clinton was a warrior, a veteran of years' of ideological warfare. But a lot of people didn't want that kind of fighter -- not even one who promised to fight for them. They wanted the fighting to stop. They were, as the saying goes, tired of partisan bickering in Washington. 

Personally, I'm in favor of partisan bickering, especially when the only alternative is rolling over and giving the other party what it wants. But for people who are weary of such sniping, Dowd may seem to offer a similar cessation of hostilities. It can't be an accident that my colleague Charlie Deitch, who is working on a story about the special election in District 2, tells me a couple of the candidates there go out of their way to compare their style to Dowd's.

So what's not to like about Dowd's chances?

Well, in some circles, comparing Dowd and Obama would be highly inappropriate. Dowd carries some baggage from his days on the Pittsburgh school board: In 2005, he voted with the majority to oust the district's first black superintendent, John Thompson. That was not a popular move in some quarters. 

Dowd strenuously objected to allegations about race: "My part has never had anything to do with anyone's skin color," he said in a statement at the time. "Unfortunately, one faction insists on this simplistic reduction." But at the time of Dowd's council victory, one of his closest political advisors made a fatalistic shrug and told me, "Patrick may never get  the black vote." And it's not like there's been a lot of time for those wounds to heal.

I've previously suggested that one way to topple the mayor would be to pull off the Obama-like feat of uniting black voters and white progressives. Dowd would have some some challenges on that score, and it's not clear how much support Dowd has from the progressive side of that equation either: There are Peduto partisans who don't trust Dowd, and if Shields gets into the race, there's always the danger of splitting the East End vote Dowd would need.

But the larger concern for Dowd backers should be this: This isn't a school board race, and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl isn't Lenny Bodack.

Dowd has to run citywide, and I'm not sure you do that credibly with $5,500 in your campaign at the beginning of the year. In a council or school board race, you can make up big funding differences with a lot of doorknocking ... but in the mayor's race, that's a lot of damn doors. 

Moreover, Ravenstahl will work a hell of a lot harder at reelection than Len Bodack did. Ravenstahl is also not the tongue-tied idiot many of his progressive critics wish him to be -- in 2007 he held his own in debates with a credible challenger. As he did in 2007, he can tout positive financial results for the city, while boasting of feel-good innovations on stuff like biking. 

Ravenstahl's big weakness is ethics, but there were plenty of red flags back in 2007 as well. And with the exception of the Club Pittsburgh fiasco, few of his administration's more recent missteps have the same headline-generating potential. Back in 2007, we had incidents like the Tiger Woods party-crashing, the flight to New York on Ron Burkle's jet, Denny Regan, and altercations with police at Heinz Field. In 2008 we had ... something to do with a billboard. 

Of course, these would be problems for any mayoral challenger, including Carmen Robinson, the only officially declared candidate in the race. And God only knows what might happen between now and the May 19 primary. But those expecting the mayor to self-destruct have been waiting a long time.

But don't despair, progressives. Even if Ravenstahl really is invulnerable, there's a chance to make some real gains this year ... at the city council level. More about that in a future post. 

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