You know, maybe we really only need a couple of mayoral debates after all.
I say this after attending a forum held last night at the Rivers Club by the African American Chamber of Commerce. Not that the debate, moderated by Pittsburgh Courier publisher Rod Doss, was a bad one. It's just the candidates have already reached that state of political equilibrium in which each candidate tells you what his rival is going to say before his rival says it. ("My opponent is going to complain that I should have handled this differently, but ...") Things sort of take on a ritualized quality, like a shadow-play.
Still, there were some lively moments. Mayor luke Ravenstahl opined that the city's law requiring residents to report lost or stolen handguns was not enforceable. Which raises familiar questions about how the city is going to enforce it. Conversely, challenger Carmen Robinson is sounding more and more like the NRA candidate in the race, to the point of unloading the hoary old "guns don't kill people ..." line on the crowd.
The debate was also notable for a couple of exchanges where Robinson and city councilor Patrick Dowd tag-teamed the mayor, especially on the question of ethics. I've uploaded some (edited) video of one of these exchanges here. It begins with Robinson faulting Ravenstahl for not listening to his solicitor more often. Strange: I thought the complaint was that the city solicitor only told Ravenstahl what he wanted to hear.
I have to say that I was impressed by Ravenstahl's ability to sit there and take it, and to stay focused on the message. It demonstrates a maturity his critics say he lacks. And Ravenstahl's main line of counterattack here -- Pittsburghers deserve a race focused on issues, not personal attacks -- is OK as far as it goes.
Still, as Dowd rightly notes, an incumbent's record is an issue. So when Ravenstahl is given a chance to respond directly to those allegations -- as Doss gave him last night -- he needs a better response than "I don't even know where I'd begin."
I mean, let's imagine a slightly different context ...
Judge: Mr. Berkowitz, you are accused of being the "Son of Sam," of fatally shooting six people and wounding seven others. You have variously claimed to be a member of a Satanic cult, and to be taking orders from a talking dog. You are further accused of numerous acts of arson, setting potentially dangerous fires throughout New York City.
Mr. Berkowitz, how do you plead?
David R. Berkowitz: Your Honor, I don't even know where I'd begin.
For Ravenstahl's opponents, though, there's a bigger problem, which undermines any debating points they might have scored. There were fewer than 50 people in the room watching this debate -- and many of those were candidates for other offices. Obviously, there's a reason why the mayor has been so cautious about participating in more big debates ... or even debates cosponsored by your lowly old City Paper.
I'll try to post more video sometime in the days ahead, but the Indefatigable Bram was also there with one of those little flip-camera jobbers, and he may beat me to it.