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Room for Debate

Outside candidates cloud issues

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"In a city 30% Black," the e-mail announcement charged, "arrogant whites have a debate on community development minus the Black candidate for Mayor!"

 

Such broadsides were circulating late last week at news that a May 2 candidates' forum on neighborhood development would exclude Louis "Hop" Kendrick along with three other Democratic contenders for mayor. The e-mails were not, suffice it to say, the response Mark Fatla of the Community Technical Assistance Center was hoping to get for his function at East Liberty's Kelly-Strayhorn Theater.

 

As an expert in neighborhood development, Fatla hoped the forum would "get the next mayor on the record about what he would do for and with neighborhoods." Some of the Dems running for the job, however, have no chance of winning. And so, Fatla says, debate organizers drew up criteria for judging "who was running an active and viable campaign." The criteria included questions like, "Do they have a campaign committee? Are they raising money? Have they issued policy papers? Do they have yard signs or posters?"

 

Four of seven Democrats -- Kendrick, Les Ludwig, Gary Henderson, and Daniel Repovz -- didn't meet the critieria. "None of them came close," Fatla says.

 

Fatla's criteria will seem unconvincing to many. Campaign contributions and political ads, after all, are things we hate about campaigns.

 

The criteria were especially unsatisfactory in the case of Kendrick, a well-known African-American candidate with a long history in local government. In retrospect, Fatla says, barring Kendrick from a debate was asking for trouble. Barring him from a debate in predominantly black East Liberty was begging for trouble. Protests were threatened, and organizers quickly agreed to invite Kendrick and the others.

 

"It's not about criteria," says Fatla now. "I realized it's about something bigger. It's important to have a diverse panel in that debate."

 

No doubt, but I still have some sympathy for the original decision. Partly it's because I don't think anyone deserves to be elected if they can't: a) attract volunteers and organizers; or b) offer viable policies. (If you can't build a platform or a coaltion as a candidate, how will you do it as a mayor?) And partly it's because of a debate I saw that did include Kendrick, Ludwig and Henderson.

 

When the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project (PUMP) held a March 31 debate at the Kelly-Strayhorn, moderator Tony Norman directed more questions to Kendrick and Ludwig than he did to anyone else -- including the frontrunner, former City Councilor Bob O'Connor. County Prothonotary Michael Lamb and City Councilor Bill Peduto, who have at least some chance of toppling O'Connor, were silent for much of the debate.

 

Kendrick is in many ways the ideal outsider candidate, challenging easy assumptions and giving voice to unpleasant realities. But Kendrick's candidacy is a lot like O'Connor's, minus the chance of success. Both men emphasize who they are (a preacher telling truth to power and a former restaurant manager, respectively) rather than specifics about what they'd do in office. Ludwig and Henderson, meanwhile, had even less to offer. 

 

But the problem isn't that these candidates are emulating O'Connor's campaign: The problem is they're helping it. As the frontrunner, it's O'Connor's job to say as little as possible. Giving non-viable candidates microphone time at debates makes that easier.

 

Of course, the conventional wisdom is that O'Connor will win no matter what, and that if Fatla wants to "get the next mayor on the record," he only needs to invite one guy. Come to think of it, that might be the best idea. This race is all about O'Connor anyway -- or at least about his aura of invincibility. And none of the candidates have challenged that. For an hour or two, it could just be O'Connor up there, answering the tough questions he'll face as mayor. Until he does so, neither he nor his supporters will have to admit that not everyone will be as happy with O'Connor as they feel now.

 

That might be the kind of debate all of us -- black and white -- need most.

 

Finally, a correction: Last week I said that the Tribune-Review hadn't reported on U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum's fund-raising in Florida during the Terri Schiavo debacle. In fact, columnist Eric Heyl had written a piece suggesting Santorum use the trip as a springboard to becoming a Wal-Mart pitchman. I offer my apologies to Heyl -- and my hopes that Santorum has a chance to consider such a career move soon.

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