by Chris Potter
Kevin Acklin's decision to run for mayor as an independent -- if he runs at all -- may not have much of an impact right off the bat. But Acklin, a former member of the GOP and onetime candidate for county council, has already shaped the election in one sense. His decision means that once again, there won't be a single Republican on the May 19 ballot for a city office.
(EDIT (added): D'oh! I'm an idiot. Last night, it came to me -- as in a dream -- that there actually IS one Republican running: Greg Neugebauer, who is trying to vye with Bill Peduto for City Council District 8. Perhaps Neugebauer, a college student, didn't get the memo. Nevertheless, I humbly abase myself for forgetting his challenge to the Democratic hegemon.)
That's not to say there can't be Republican candidates in November: A Republican could always "win" the party's primary through a write-in effort. That's how Mark DeSantis mounted his mayoral challenge in 2007.
But one might have thought that DeSantis' campaign -- which was a credible if quixotic effort -- would have helped generate some enthusiasm for, and among, potential GOP candidates this time around. Especially because western Pennsylvania was one of the very few places where Republicans avoided utter disaster in 2008.
So what gives with the GOP? The story that I've heard, from people who should know, is this: Party officials have actively discouraged Republican candidates from running. Why? Because the GOP fears that competitive races in Pittsburgh will actually boost Democratic turnout in November ... and that this could translate into more Democratic votes in statewide judicial races.
There are, in fact, a half-dozen seats open in the state judiciary: one Supreme Court seat, two Commonwealth Court posts, and three on the state's Superior Court. And no doubt local party leaders would love to deliver a win for their endorsed Supreme Court candidate, Joan Orie Melvin. Melvin is, of course, a daughter of western Pennsylvania and the sister of a Republican state Senator.
So you can see where the political calculation would make some sense from the lofty heights of county GOP chair Jim Roddey. No one thinks a Republican candidate can win in Pittsburgh anyway, so why risk harming your chances in races where you actually have a shot? And let's face it: A lot of Pittsburgh GOP candidates have been pretty embarrassing. I recall one mayoral challenger back in the 1990s, Harry Frost, who was essentially living on his mom's couch because of financial problems. And this was the guy trying to fault incumbent Tom Murphy's fiscal stewardship.
Still, to me, discouraging candidates from running would be the sign of a party that takes itself too seriously -- and not seriously enough.
I men, no one really thinks rank-and-file Pittsburgh voters will panic about a GOP council candidate, do they? It seems unlikely that on election day, Democrats are going to wake up and say, "There's a Pitt poli sci major taking on my city council candidate! I've got to take action against this dire threat to seven decades of local Democratic hegemony!"
And every once in awhile, having a Republican candidate on the ballot actually boosts Republican turnout too. I can certainly understand if the GOP has forgotten that, after its dismal performance in last year's election. But very few people of any party are inspired by judicial races. Giving GOP voters a bit of action lower on the ticket might just give them some added incentive to come to the polls.
It also tells those voters that their party hasn't forgotten them. This won't be the first year I've heard local Republicans say, "We're just voting for our judicial candidates." And the GOP's record with statewide judicial elections is actually pretty good. But in my experience, the disclosure has almost always been accompanied by a shrug and a sigh. And understandably so: In the 2007 election, for example, Republicans were almost totally absent from the ballot. The only countywide race in which Republicans bothered to compete was for sheriff. The GOP didn't even vie for the county executive seat, which Roddey himself once held.
When bemoaning the state of local politics, it's fashionable to shake your fist at the "Democratic Machine." It's easy to denounce the Democrats for taking voters for granted, for ignoring a grassroots desire for change, and catering to the whims of a handful of party elders. But here's a thought: Perhaps another reason local politics are so farcical is that the local GOP is run exactly the same way.