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No Contest

The campaign that almost wasn't

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I'm writing this on the Monday before the primary, so although it seems certain Bob O'Connor will be the next mayor of Pittsburgh, this column could be one of those "Dewey Defeats Truman" moments. But it's too easy to second-guess a campaign after the race is over; and if you second-guess it during the race, meanwhile, someone will accuse you of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about the outcome.

 

O'Connor's victory seemed inevitable to me a few days before the May 17 primary, when I was guest-hosting a local radio talk show with spokespeople for O'Connor's chief rivals: Allegheny County Prothonotary Michael Lamb City Councilor Bill Peduto. The idea was to help voters choose between two very similar candidates running as reform-minded technocrats. (Besides, O'Connor's people blew us off; there was a debate on WQED-TV at the same time.)

 

Toward the end of the show, I asked the question that many voters were asking: Weren't the candidates worried that, by staying in the race, they were each spoiling the chances of the other, and ensuring O'Connor would win?

 

Both spokespeople denied having that concern. Then, they proceeded to argue about who, Peduto or Lamb, was the "legitimate second-place candidate."

 

It's tempting to say that if one challenger dropped out of the race, the other could have beat O'Connor. I'm not sure. Peduto built up a cult of personality -- I mean that in a nice way -- whose activist base probably couldn't translate its fervor to another candidate. Lamb's base in the South Hills, meanwhile, is fortified with police, firefighters and other working-class voters who'd probably roll their eyes at Peduto's New Economy glitz, no matter who else was running.

 

Besides, the problem isn't that O'Connor had two challengers. The problem is that neither man really challenged him at all.

 

Ordinarily, we media types are supposed to wring our hands about "negative campaigning." Ordinarily, such tactics don't just dumb down our democracy; they also dumb down TV advertising. And that ain't easy.

 

But in this race, before anyone could beat O'Connor, a candidate first had to convince voters that O'Connor was beatable. Neither candidate did that: Polling data suggests that support for O'Connor waned. But right up until days before the election he was enjoying a two-to-one advantage over his challengers.

 

To be sure, we media types take some of the blame for O'Connor's cushy ride. The Post-Gazette's editorial board endorsed O'Connor because he "oozes" a love for his city and is "frustrated to see more panhandlers in Pittsburgh than Manhattan." (What next? Endorsing Dan Onorato's re-election bid because he inhales oxygen and exhales carbon dioxide?) With few exceptions -- a KDKA report about O'Connor's coziness with firefighters back in 2001, for example -- the treatment was largely hands-off.

 

But it wasn't for lack of trying. Even as I was interviewing campaign spokesmen on the radio, over on WQED, moderator Chris Moore was pleading with the candidates to "take the gloves off" for their debate. As in the rest of the campaign, they never really did.

 

Lamb did go on the attack occasionally, especially in the campaign's final three weeks. He ran a pair of ads questioning O'Connor's allegiances and policies, and raised concerns about O'Connor's willingness to make expensive contract deals with public-safety workers. In one press conference, Lamb even raised questions about O'Connor's conduct by citing a City Paper article -- a sure sign of a candidate's willingness to descend into the gutter.

 

O'Connor was probably vulnerable to such charges. As Lamb himself told reporters, arguably the frontrunner's support was always "a mile wide but an inch deep." Sometimes, after all, the only reason people support a candidate is because they're sure everyone else will. Even if Lamb was right, however, that still meant O'Connor's support was a mile wide. And neither Lamb nor Peduto did much to change that.

 

To their credit, both men took the "reformer" label seriously. They both ran as the kind of candidate the League of Women Voters would approve of. Indeed, the League praised all the major candidates, Peduto especially, for running mostly clean and honorable races. O'Connor had nothing to lose by running such a campaign: When you're the frontrunner, you can get elected just by pretending it's already happened. But Lamb and Peduto chose the politically dubious strategy of running meaningful, substantive campaigns.

 

And as I write this, it seems as if they're going to pay the price.

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