A few weeks ago, when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Republican challenger Mark DeSantis both appeared at a Duquesne Club forum, Ravenstahl would only speak after DeSantis left the room.
A lot was made of the incident in the media, but at least DeSantis got to speak eventually. Tony Oliva, a Libertarian running for mayor, would have loved the same opportunity.
But at an Oct. 11 debate sponsored by the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project (and cosponsored by City Paper), Oliva and Socialist Workers Party candidate Ryan Scott were not allowed to share the stage with Ravenstahl and DeSantis. They were instead given three minutes each at the end of the debate.
"[A]t the end they give us some scraps from the table," says Oliva, a 28-year-old University of Pittsburgh graduate student. "I'm glad we were made a part of the evening, but why shouldn't we get the same chance as anyone else to debate the issues?"
(PUMP members were "most interested in hearing from main-party candidates," Executive Director Erin Molchany says, but organizers provided third-party candidates a platform because they "felt giving all candidates an opportunity to be heard was important.")
In a one-party town like Pittsburgh, often the only contested November elections involve third-party candidates. And those candidates, unlike their major-party rivals, have to fight for every bit of attention they get.
"Part of the reason that the public has a hard time seeing us as legitimate candidates is because the media [doesn't treat] us the same as any other candidate," Oliva says.
In some cases, of course, they aren't like every other candidate. Third-party candidates often seem as interested in espousing philosophical beliefs as in offering public-policy suggestions. Scott, for example, has said little about city issues in his political addresses. He began his Oct. 11 remarks by asserting that "Capitalism continues to deepen its crisis" while the "exploiting class's answer is to grind away at the conditions that working people face." His called on supporters to "go down to Jena, Louisiana to demand justice for the Jena 6."
But Scott and Oliva are not alone in their uphill struggle.
Voters will also have a third-party choice in city council District 1, where 911 operator Dave Schuilenburg faces incumbent Darlene Harris in the North Side. Another pitched battle is being fought in District 9, where Dave Adams is taking on Democratic nominee Rev. Ricky Burgess.
Meanwhile, probably the best-known of the city's third party-candidates, Mark Rauterkus, is running for two offices simultaneously: city controller and city council District 3. He gave up his spot in the mayor's race so Oliva could take his place on the ballot.
Rauterkus, a South Side political advocate and vice chair of the Allegheny County Libertarian Party, doesn't deny the third-party curse.
"Conventional wisdom says my chances are not very good," he says, his tie almost completely shielded by a nametag and two large "Elect Rauterkus" pins. "But [Libertarians] have to fight the good fight and not give up. We help to keep the other candidates honest."
For Rauterkus, that means raising questions about corporate tax incentives and other big-dollar development initiatives that have often failed to deliver the promised benefits.
"The first thing you do when you dig yourself a hole is you put the shovel down. You can't keep digging the same hole."
In his council race against endorsed Democrat Bruce Kraus, Rauterkus says he could provide new energy and leadership to council's Citiparks and Youth Policy committee. Boasting his experience as a swim coach, Rauterkus says he is "phenomenally more qualified" to oversee Citiparks from a council seat than any other candidate.
As for the city controller position, Rauterkus says his opponent, Allegheny County Prothonotary Michael Lamb, is a "bureaucrat who won't rock the boat," while Rauterkus calls himself a "tireless, vigilant watchdog."
While he hasn't spent much money campaigning, Rauterkus says he has used his blog, rauterkus.blogspot.com, as an open-source campaign tool.
"My opinions are up there for peer review," he says. "My advisers are everyone. In fact, a lot of my ideas are really just other peoples' ideas."
Oliva, who took Rauterkus' place on the ballot for mayor, also stresses traditional Libertarian issues of shrinking government and taxes. He says the city needs to create not only jobs, but the right kind of jobs. "You can bring in thousands of new fast food jobs, but that's not going to help the student who just graduated from college," he says. He favors eliminating taxes like the parking tax and the $52 annual Emergency Services Tax on those working inside the city. Government needs to be leaner, he says, with overstaffed positions ferreted out and eliminated.
Although he's an independent candidate, Dave Adams has been preparing for his run at the District 9 council seat since May. The president and CEO of a neighborhood think tank, The Conscience Group, announced his candidacy in late April. Since then he has hammered away on the issue of public safety -- a crucial one in the crime-riddled district's East End neighborhoods. Adams foresees using "community investigators" who would act as liaisons between residents and police, and would put an emphasis on job training and placement.
His rival, Democratic nominee Ricky Burgess, swept a crowded field in May, but Adams says voters deserve a choice in November too. "All I've heard is about how Burgess got 50 percent of the vote and his election is a mandate," says Adams. "But he only got 2,400 votes" -- less than one-tenth of the residents eligible to vote in the district.
For his part, Burgess rarely speaks about Adams unless asked directly. "My focus is on the community and its needs," he says
Not all third-party candidates see themselves as outsiders, however. "It's not like we're all a bunch of Mr. Scotts," says Schuilenburg, who was defeated by Harris in the Democratic primary and is now running as an independent. "It's not like we're all fringe candidates.
"People know I'm more of a progressive Democrat. My title is independent just because of county laws that forbid two names with the same label."
Schuilenburg describes himself as a social progressive and a fiscal conservative. He stresses government transparency, especially where spending is concerned, and favors shrinking the size of council until the population stops shrinking. He also aspires to make the city a leader in sustainable, environmentally friendly design and policies.
"I'm being more associated with the Patrick Dowd-type element," he says, citing one of two challengers who beat endorsed Democratic incumbents in city council races this May. "[T]here could be an upset here."
Harris has the party endorsement, incumbency and a campaign war chest more than three times the size. But Schuilenburg says there's room for optimism. Of the 25 committee members he met with, 10 endorsed him. And he says the money he has raised comes from lots of small donations, indicating wide support.
Schuilenburg says Harris' record as a contentious member of the school board works in his favor. "Darlene has done half the work for me," he says.
Does Harris see Schuilenburg as a credible threat?
"The country's free," Harris says. "Anyone can run."