On June 3, Independent mayoral candidate Kevin Acklin kicked off his effort to unseat Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl by decrying politicians who have "gotten by on old tricks and new stadiums." Before an enthusiastic audience of 300, Acklin promised to be "your uplifted voice, your tireless champion."
But Acklin, an attorney and Pittsburgh native, faces numerous challenges between now and November. Among them: explaining some of the other causes he has championed.
Acklin was a Republican until this past spring, when he changed his registration to independent. In 2007, he ran for the Republican at-large seat on Allegheny County Council, a race he lost to Charles McCullough. Prior to that, he backed other Republicans -- including some of Pennsylvania's most conservative.
According to federal election reports, Acklin has contributed $1,000 to former Sen. Rick Santorum since 1994. He made six contributions totaling $3,000 to former Rep. Melissa Hart. He's made smaller donations to current Congressman Tim Murphy, and the Pro-Growth Action Team, a political fund affiliated with former Congressman (and likely candidate for U.S. Senate) Pat Toomey.
"There's no question I played the partisan game," Acklin acknowledges. "[W]hen you're in a party and part of that mechanism, you play the game."
Acklin says he was a Republican mostly because of the party's positions on economics and defense issues. But politicians like Santorum, he says, became increasingly concerned with "drawing lines in the sand [and saying], 'That's us, and that's you.' That's never the person I've been. The politics of division is what drove me out."
Indeed, especially in recent years, Acklin has contributed to more moderate candidates, including Mitt Romney, and Sen. Arlen Specter, who is now a Democrat. Also this year, Acklin contributed $600 to Natalia Rudiak, who ran and won as a reform-minded Democrat in city council District 4. Rudiak "was running for a lot of the same reasons I am," Acklin said.
Acklin is pro-life, but also favors gay marriage, and has taken a public stand in favor of a countywide anti-discrimination bill. At a Jan. 15 county-council hearing on the bill, Acklin noted that he had run for a spot on that legislative body. "[H]ad I been elected," he told councilors, "I would have been ... voting with you in support of this bill."
Acklin also touts his community volunteer work, which includes pro bono legal services for victims of domestic abuse, and participating in Big Brothers/Big Sisters.
Still, his previous support of conservatives will likely be a campaign issue. In 2007, Ravenstahl cited Republican Mark DeSantis' support of Santorum in a campaign mailing. And Acklin, like DeSantis, already faces the challenges of building name recognition.
"I don't know where he's going to get his votes," says Morton Coleman, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Politics. Name recognition will be a problem, adds Coleman, who admits to not knowing much about Acklin himself.
"If someone is identified with a conservative, Republican cause, it's going to be difficult" to win, Coleman says. Acklin has to show that "Nobody owns me."
In fact, Acklin emphasized that very theme at his campaign kickoff. Like Patrick Dowd and Carmen Robinson, who waged losing fights against Ravenstahl for the Democratic nomination, Acklin invoked former mayor Pete Flaherty in his kickoff speech. Flaherty called himself "nobody's boy," and Acklin went even further: While asserting "we could use some of [Flaherty's] defiant, independent spirit," Acklin said, "I promise to be everybody's boy."
And Acklin isn't wasting any time reaching out. Two days after the campaign kickoff, he took a leave of absence from his job, and now says he hopes to open "a number of field offices."
"We're going to be out there, and we've got to meet 40,000 people," Acklin says.
By contrast, Acklin says, Dowd "didn't have the time to really establish himself." Dowd didn't formally enter the race until mid-February; three months later, Ravenstahl won the May primary with nearly three-fifths of the vote. That would seem a daunting margin, but Acklin says, "I think Patrick wasn't able to tell people who he was -- and I think a lot of that had to do with time."
"When we got in, it was late in the cycle," Dowd agrees. "But I'm not sure it would have made that much difference. I'm not sure that race was winnable -- at least not in the spring."