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With Republican rhetoric on both sides and a no-mud-slinging pledge, the county exec race is a yawner

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The race for Allegheny County Executive has been a model of how representative democracy is supposed to work. So why is it so godawful boring?

The two candidates, Republican incumbent Jim Roddey and Democratic County Controller Dan Onorato, are meeting at nearly two dozen debates around the county -- far more face-to-face meetings than George Bush and his rival will have in next fall's presidential contest. And so far, at least, there's been a relative dearth of mudslinging, thanks in part to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "positive campaign pledge" both candidates signed in August. The pledge mandates that both campaigns follow "principles of honesty, fairness, respect for my opponent, responsibility and compassion."

Yet I know I speak for many when I say, thanks a lot, Post-Gazette: Now I have no reason at all to pay attention to this dog of a campaign.

How did this happen? A funny thing happened on the way to the November election. We got the candidates. We got the debates. We got the positive, upbeat ads. But somebody forgot to bring the issues.

That's mostly Onorato's fault. Like Democrats on the national level in recent years, local Democrats have given us a candidate that works very hard at appealing to "the middle," usually by trying to act slightly less Republican than the Republican in the race. What we've got here is the homegrown example of the same trend that has brought us Joe Lieberman as a presidential contender. Democrats are trying hard not to give voters anything to vote against -- so hard, in fact, that they've forgotten to give us anything to vote for.

Sometimes, in fact, it seems like the campaign isn't so much between Roddey and Onorato as between Roddey and himself, circa 1999. Onorato is running on a pledge to cut property taxes by 10 percent -- a pledge Roddey made during his first run four years ago. Like Roddey, Onorato claims to favor row office consolidation (a bit less aggressively than Roddey has) and a merger of city/county services (a bit more agressively than Roddey has).

And as Rich Lord writes in his "Political Footballs" column in this issue, Onorato and Roddey both oppose requiring county subcontractors and tax-subsidy recipients to pay their employees a "living wage" several dollars an hour higher than the federal minimum wage. The living-wage has been supported by most other county Democrats, but Onorato's position comes as a surprise to no one familiar with his record on City Council, where he was one of that body's more conservative members -- both fiscally and socially. As a Democrat, Onorato has always made a pretty good Republican. In fact, in a two-party town, that's probably what he would be.

You'd never know that from listening to Roddey's camp, of course. The Republicans have issued a statement faulting Onorato's two-term stint on city council in the 1990s as an orgy of liberal excess. The release's title, "Balancing a Budget Onorato-Style," elevates Onorato to a much higher position than he actually held by implying he was the architect of the city's financial strategy. But in Pittsburgh, the mayor calls the shots on the budget, and council has little leverage to radically alter it. But Onorato shouldn't be surprised he's being tarred with the city's mistakes. The problem with being a conservative Democrat is that the conservatives already have their candidate -- he's called a "Republican." And they won't give you the credit you deserve.

For the most part, both candidates have obeyed the positive-campaign pledge, but it's hard to say we're any better informed as a result. A recent Roddey ad, for example, features the exec sitting in a bucolic setting, boasting that Allegheny County's job creation tops even that of Charlotte, North Carolina. And he claims to have a jobs plan that will create 75,000 jobs in the next five years.

The sensible Onorato response, of course, would be to pledge to create oh, say, 75,000 jobs plus one. Then he can say he's got a plan that would create more jobs than Roddey's. All Onorato needs to do is photocopy Roddey's jobs plan -- much like he photocopied Roddey's 10 percent tax-cut pledge -- and scribble "and then some" in the margins wherever it seems appropriate. What's Roddey going to do: accuse Onorato of making vague promises based on rosy scenarios he knows he won't be held accountable for?

Instead, Onorato has griped about the number of jobs Roddey claims to have created already. Roddey says the county has created 24,000 jobs during his first term, but Onorato counters that such figures "represent the number of Allegheny County residents who are employed, not the number of jobs in the county." What's the difference? Some Allegheny County residents work outside the county, and Onorato contends, understandably, that Roddey shouldn't take credit for those positions.

Truth be told, it's hard to say how much credit -- or blame -- Roddey should take for the job creation in his own county. Larger economic forces like the recession, or US Airways' problems, play a much larger role in determining prosperity than the action of local politicians. But neither side wants to talk about that. So instead a centerpiece of the Roddey/Onorato debates has been about whether job figures from the state Department of Labor are sound measures of prosperity, and whether the city of Pittsburgh's occupation privilege tax collection figures are reliable indicators of Onorato's performance.

Whew. Anyone else for a little mudslinging, just to liven things up?

Ordinarily, negative campaigning hurts the democratic process by substituting personal invective for issues. That's what happened in the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary between Ed Rendell and Auditor General Bob Casey: Serious differences in policy were obscured by Casey's broadsides against Rendell's record, and Rendell's broadsides against Casey's attacks.

This election, personal invective won't distract us from the issues -- not because there's less of it, but because there are so few issues to be distracted from.

My own prediction is that, even if neither candidate releases a negative ad, the end result of this election will be the same as if they'd been mudslinging all along: anemic turnout on Election Day. Already, at some debates attendance has numbered in the dozens, and the candidates themselves joke about being bored.

It shouldn't have turned out this way. Countless public-spirited people scheduled and attended debates. Many of them were volunteers who believe that political campaigns are about issues and experience, and about two competing visions of a region and its future. The problem is the volunteers may believe that more than the candidates do. Perhaps voters do demand more than a series of glib 30-second ads. But what if glib 30-second ads are all the candidates have to offer?

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