Thoughts on an election that wasn't

Lest there be any doubt, the first story about the election last week was how few folks showed up at the polls. Low turnout in off-year elections is pretty normal, but all the talk about the historic turnout of the presidential election leading to some new era in voter participation pretty much went out the door. Here and elsewhere, some of the highest voter turnout ratios in recent decades have been followed by some of the lowest. Last fall in the City of Pittsburgh over 159 thousand people voted. Last Tuesday the number was around 46K; down by more than two thirds. Last Tuesday’s election may have had one of the lowest turnout percentages ever for a contested election in the City of Pittsburgh. Ever! And turnout in the city ran well ahead of turnout in the rest of the county where turnout was down more than 70%. There were hundreds of other races for a bunch of local mayors, municipal councils and the boards of school districts. These offices matter.

For those few who showed up there was an election. I always find the period after elections awfully confusing. It’s almost as bad as election season itself. People fight over silly things (apology anyone?) and recriminations make any and all progress that much harder in the future. People get caught up in a lot of things that may not matter as much as they think they do. Endorsed or unendorsed? Machine politicians or outsiders whatever either of those terms mean? East End, West End, North Side vs. South? Guess what? Most of those divisions within city politics have existed since before the city itself existed. Fw pols, past winners included, have ever united all those groups.

Nobody seems to want to look at it this way, but it is clear to me how simple this election was. Pat D. needed a couple years of work to repair his reputation in the African American community before he had any business running for a city-wide office. You can’t win a Democratic primary if you have absolutely no support from what is the largest, and often the most cohesive, block of votes in the city. African Americans at this point likely make up just about 30% of the city’s population which translates to maybe 40% of Democratic households. Pat got virtually zero votes from the African American community in town. It's mathematically possible to win without any African American support, but would anyone want to be in that position given how racially divisive such an election would have to be. So I am not trying to get into the history of why it is the way it is with Pat, but everyone who has followed local politics in recent years will know most of it. I believe time could have helped heal certain wounds, but time during an election campaign does not count. Why he chose to run without having a cadre of local African American leaders (or any one of them) standing side by side with him is a mystery.

The accusations that spring up after an election like this are that the results were pre-ordained by the mythical ‘machine’. The debate is always there no matter how many challengers or unendorsed candidates win office. Honestly it’s almost insulting because it has a corollary that voters are not thinking about their votes. Just to focus on the African American electorate in town, you would be hard pressed to say they voted as they were ‘told’ to by anyone. Carmen Robinson got what I think may be historically high support across African American districts (I estimate she pulled 40% of the city’s Black vote) is a sign that the results were not necessarily as pro-Ravenstahl as they were at best Dowd neutral.

Yet the mythos of machine politics in Pittsburgh thrives. It clearly is possible to sway voters no matter how the party apparchniki have decided, especially in the African American community. Remember that every elected official of note supported Clinton this time last year. Even some African American leaders (Payne comes to mind but there were others) were publicly in the Clinton camp yet none of that impeded the virtually 100% support for Obama. It goes beyond the race of the candidate. In the last Murphy/O’Connor race for mayor the African American community split as nearly 50-50 as is mathematically discernable. No evidence in that of people voting blindly because of an endorsement or any ‘machine’. You can even go back to the backlash against then County Commissioner Mike Dawida whose perceived disrespect of the African American electorate wrecked his rapidly advancing political career within the local Democratic party. It is all the more evidence that folks are making a deliberative decision.

Compared to any point in the past the power of anything remotely labeled as a Democratic Party machine in town is pretty trivial. Endorsements do matter, mostly in races that people pay the least attention which is something… but that’s a different issue. Both historically and recently plenty of folks have been elected mayor without the support, or against the active opposition, of the Democratic Committee in town. Pete Flaherty himself became mayor without party endorsement at a time when choosing to run without the endorsement was tantamount to sacrilege. In fact even when Flaherty was running and winning re-election in his second term it was Dick Caliguiri who was the candidate endorsed by the Democratic Committee. As is well known Caliguiri himself would later on win office running as an independent against the endorsed and nominated Democrat Tom Foerster. In 1989 Tom Flaherty would come in 4th out of 5 candidates even though he was the endorsed Democrat running for mayor in a large field. Didn’t do him much good at the time.

So what's it mean? Depends who you are. For everyone who came up short, blaming a loss on machine politics is at most a stretch and a pretty counterproductive path to future success. For the winners it's always easy to overinterpret a single victory. For everyone else, Democracy is alive and well.... if you showed up.


18 Responses to "Thoughts on an election that wasn't"

Schultz said... 5/28/2009 3:44 PM

Who is blaming Dowd's loss on machine politics? Dowd's campaign was doomed from the start - and I think he knew that, and accepted it, but made the sacrifice of running a campaign anyways so that the mayor wasn't let off the hook so easy. His campaign helped shine a light on the way the city conducts business, and has helped pressure the mayor into supporting more transparency while allowing people like Bill Peduto to push their reform legislation. A lost election isn't always a bad thing if we're better off because of it and I think Dowd's the kind of optimist who sees it that way.

Now, with regards to the Democratic machine which you still believe is a myth, let's save that debate until after the general election, where we will have a smart, well funded and well liked Independent candidate in Kevin Acklin taking on Luke Ravenstahl. There is a now a micro-machine in town in the progressive movement, which, at Dowd's expensive, was solidly behind both Lavelle and Rudiak. In terms of the mayor's race I do believe the machine could be beaten and all it takes is the candidate with the right background who can pull a Rudiak - which is to get support from both the South Hills and East End. Had someone like a Chelsa Wagner ran instead of Dowd I think the results would have been different.

C. Briem said... 5/28/2009 4:29 PM

that was quick Chris.

Schultz said... 5/28/2009 4:40 PM

Quick response courtesy of Google Reader.

So again, who blamed Dowd's loss / Ravenstahl's win on the machine?

MH said... 5/28/2009 8:38 PM

I blame the machine for everything. I can't really go around blaming entire Democratic party, since basically everyone I know is a Democrat. As near as I can tell, 'the machine' means 'everybody in local office except Peduto' to most people I know.

C. Briem said... 5/28/2009 8:54 PM

Sigh. You know I went out of my way not to mention Desantis even in order to not get you riled up. You sound like you are demanding names and addresses. I sure don’t know any Dowd supporters. (wait, I better not jest, that is a meant to be facetious Chris). I am fascinated that no mention is made of Harris in this Acklin/Ravenstahl race. Curious since I think Harris has been participating in some of the official debates/forums already. Mark was like that to in the election night coverage on TV talking about Acklin's candidacy and then almost under his breath mentioning that franco harris' son might be in the race as well. But you're right. the fall is coming soon enough although it is hard to deny that this whole G-20 thing just gave LR about as much of a political windfall as any candidate could wish for.

The question is who isn’t blaming the party apparatus for Dowd’s defeat, most especially among his supporters. If you are really taking issue that that is the prevalent sentiment out there then we will have to just agree to disagree. Though my main point on the PD campaign was more the complete lack of support within the AA community. I will say that there are some folks out there, some I know well and trust a lot even, who believe that such are only the result of extensive street organizing. I am disagreeing with that argument. I’m not denying the organizing mind you, but whether it gets people to vote against their wishes I think is hard to support in the data.

The bigger point is a general one that I was not only pointing at the PD campaign for sure. Applies to many a race this cycle and in the past. What I don’t get is that you yourself seem to have been the main proponent of this. I don’t want to put any words into your mouth, I really don’t. But if you really are saying that has not been your message then I will speak for myself and say that is not how it has come across. Maybe others can comment on whether I am out in left field on that.

There is a already a revisionism going on to a certain degree. We may be in agreement that the PD campaign was pretty doomed from the start. We probably disagree as to why which isn’t really worth getting into here. Whether the point was merely to enhance the debate is awfully na├»ve if anything. I am pretty sure he went into the race thinking he could win somehow. The clear cold result is that by winning so clearly LR has emerged a whole lot stronger politically than if he had beeen unopposed. You can take issue with me over that if you want, it is essentially the same argument Delano has made of late.

Seriously, Pat can take his lumps and defend himself if he feels the need to. There is a bigger point here that I hope I was making. I’ve made the comment to a few upset Dowd supporters that given the vote he got… 27% or so almost entirely from outside AA district.. that if the AA community was solidly behind him he would have won. You would think I was speaking Albanian. It wasn’t Jim Burn, or YZ or pick your own version of party boss. I’m biting my tongue here Chris… must not mention Mark D and all……. but there the same type of delusion going on here as in that race or many others. I’ll flesh this out some in a later post, but basically the center of mass for a city campaign really ought to be the African American community.

Bram Reichbaum said... 5/28/2009 10:33 PM

Points very well taken in regards to the mythos surrounding "the machine" ... but I think Mayoral Incumbency takes on a huge role in elections in strong-mayor governments. I might even say this gang excels at capitalizing upon it. Yes voters think, but they think based on what they are shown, and it's easy for an incumbent mayor to show stuff. I wouldn't be surprised if "Getting It Done" was an internal campaign slogan before they took it on the road externally.

I'll throw in: some in the West End were very disappointed and a little mystified that the mayoral challengers didn't do any visible campaigning in their neck of the woods at all (at least from their perspective).

Romney/Acklin '12! said... 5/29/2009 9:43 AM

It's funny, I didn't see any connection in Briem's original post between Dowd and complaints about the machine. Chalk it up to superior reading comprehension, I guess.

I'm already getting a headache reading blog posts about Acklin. If only bloggers and blog readers comprised more than .25 percent of the electorate, and if only they would spread the good word in person, then maybe their intellectually above-average candidates would have a snowball's chance.

And please. Independent? Acklin forked over $5,600 to Romney, a thousand to Millie Hart, and $500 to Specter in ’07. His wife chipped in another thousand for Romney. This is perhaps the only time that I'll agree with Colin McNick: Acklin's switch to Independent was a ham-handed headline grab, and he's got little political acumen--couldn't even beat an accused felon for county council.

BTW, no mention of Acklin’s candidacy on his wife’s "Acklin’s Army" blog. Maybe he hasn’t told her yet. Or maybe she's got a grain of sense.

Schultz said... 5/29/2009 11:20 AM

I've actually talked to Acklin about the issues you just raised with his campaign contributions. According to Acklin his leaving the Republican party was a result of his disagreement with the direction of the party, which is far right, rather than political expediency. I wasn't sure about this at first but he seemed to have some legit concerns with his former party. Being a green advocate I asked him about his positions on environmental and energy issues and he said that was just one of the areas where he had huge differences with the Republicans (said he and his wife were Sierra Club members). The other issue was the Allegheny County non-discrimination ordinance, which his fellow county Republicans wanted him to oppose (he supported it). This is all from a talk I had with him a short while ago. Acklin seems to be an honest guy from South Oakland who worked his a$$ off to get where he is at today. Past political contributions aside, isn't that who we want in public office?

EdHeath said... 5/29/2009 12:55 PM

Just to weigh in a bit, I suppose one reason why Dowd might have thought he had a chance is in part due to Robinson being in the race. I wonder if he expected her to siphon off enough African American votes to offset his disadvantage there.

When I think of machine politics controlling votes, I'd like to think I am not so much racist as ageist. I think of the senior citizen high rises and the assisted living facilities, and people being bussed to polling places or having helpful volunteers assisting them with absentee ballots. I believe I had already accepted the idea that African Americans vote independently of party pressure, except to say that they support democrats in general as the party that is supposed to be on the side of the working man. I will admit I am disappointed that some African Americans support Ravenstahl (actually disappointed that any voters support Ravenstahl), but I am not surprised.

One interesting thing in the discussion of local politicians that supported Hilary in the Presidential primary is that Dowd was perhaps the highest local politician to support Obama early. Didn’t do him any good that I can see, though.

Looking ahead, having recently been a Republican is going to hobble Acklin, I think. So is having “Doc” Harris in the race. I can imagine Harris running a dynamic and exciting campaign, where he personally knocks on thousands of Pittsburgher’s doors. I can also imagine Acklin or his volunteers knocking on thousands of Pittsburghers door, but I can apply the words dynamic and exciting to his campaign. FWIW.

Schultz said... 5/29/2009 1:11 PM

Ed, I agree with you about the Republican thing hurting Acklin, but just from what I know about the two "I" candidates and their campaigns, not to mention their work ethic, I think the odds are greater that Acklin is the one running the "dynamic and exciting" campaign and personally knocking on thousands of doors. Nothing personal against Dok (spelled with a "k") but I put Acklin in a the same class with Dowd in terms of willingness to pound the pavement and knock on doors in an effort to talk to people.

Mike Madison said... 5/29/2009 1:33 PM

Here is the flip side of Ed's comment:

During the campaign, I heard speculation -- unsupported, unverified, and highly cynical speculation, but not initiated by me -- that Carmen Robinson's campaign was mounted by Luke Ravenstahl's supporters, as a way of drawing potential African-American Dowd supporters away from the "lead" [i.e., white] challenger.

Schultz said... 5/29/2009 1:53 PM


Early on in her campaign it seemed like Carmen Robinson was more critical of Dowd than the mayor, so that is a lot of folks suspected that to be the case. She started hammering the mayor more and more as the campaign went on and even delivered what I thought was the best line of the primary:

"He's young, but he's the youngest 'old boy' I ever saw in my life."

Mark Rauterkus said... 5/29/2009 10:07 PM

Dowd help to oust Dr. John Thompson, PPS Superintendent. There. It is said. BTW, FWIW, Dr. T is black.

I could have understood the non-renewal of a contract. But to FIRE Dr. Thompson was wrong. And, he was fired about 6 months before his contract was to expire. And, he was provided a golden exit too.

Then came the big bonus for the departed Dr. Lynn S., a top aid to Mark Roosevelt, who got axed and wealthy for not working while in the Islands. That was on Dowd's watch.

Then Dowd started to talk about the termination and hush money to Pat Ford.

Give us a break. Empty.

Mark Rauterkus said... 5/30/2009 6:28 PM

Sure. Patrick Dowd didn't get any support nor votes from the African American community. But, Carmen Robinson was in the race.

Could it have been that Carmen's role was to capture the votes from the black Dems? That would have given Patrick a chance vs. Luke Ravenstahl.

I wonder -- did that happen? Could it be an effective strategy?

How many votes from the black community went to Luke?

Sure, there are plenty of loyal Ds in the black community.

If Patrick and Carmen could have worked in tandem -- that could have delivered more energy against Luke. But, the real Q, the next Q is what do the two challengers do for the general -- with one another and against Luke???

Schultz said... 5/31/2009 12:31 AM

They lose, Mark. That is what they do if they both run against Luke Ravenstahl. They lose. One Independent candidate has an outside chance of winning. Two who will split the Republican and anti-LR vote will end up losing 100% of the time.

Mark Rauterkus said... 6/07/2009 2:42 PM

If they (two candidates) act as they have always done -- then the same result will occur. But.... BUT, two opposition candidates could not only split votes from themselves, but they could also beat Luke Ravenstahl so that the sitting mayor gets third.

First bit of teamwork -- both need 'running mates.' Not just each other, but others down the ticket. Without that -- sorry.

Mark DeSantis failed at that team building. He, like Jim Roddey, was a total failure at that.

Time will tell what Dok and Kevin do and don't do.

Loretta Webb said... 6/01/2011 7:58 PM

Facinating, so called progressives can not even bring themselves to say why Patrick Dowd has a problem with Black voters. Because of his key role in the firing of John Thompson. Thank you Mark Rauterkus. When you you so called progressives see that Dowd IS NOT A PROGRESSIVE. Ask Dowd why he lead the charge to fire Thompson, and I guarantee he will lie, because he has to.

Loretta Webb said... 6/01/2011 8:00 PM

Dowd also got socked by the African-American community in his first run for Council. And, again HE IS NOT A PROGRESSIVE, get over it!

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Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

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