Saturday, August 16, 2008

Pittsburgh Tea Leaves

Fester has already started doing a bit of local Kremlinology on the 2009 Mayoral race, and, despite his woeful unfamiliarity with the characters in Mayberry, says about 90% of what I was going to say, had I not been beaten to the punch:

The challenge for any challenger will be how to beat the Pittsburgh machine on a city wide basis. Beating the machine has not been that difficult in favorable demographic neighborhoods such as Shadyside and the 14th Ward. The last round of City Council races saw challengers beat multiple machine backed candidates, but the City Council new blood bloc has been ineffectively theatrical. So how does a challenger assemble an effective electoral and governing coalition within the city?

The Pittsburgh Democratic machine is still the strongest and most powerful political unit in the city despite its trickle of losses over the past few years. The non-Machine candidates have a strong base in the city's East End and other gentrifying neighborhoods while the traditional Democrats do better in areas that are older, and generate less buzz. One of the core machine areas are the African American neighborhoods that run aside the East Busway.

I think the Obama coalition that that won the city by roughly 16 points offers a good example. However, I want to examine the past two large scale city machine runs for some lessons and contrasts.

In the 2005 primary, the late Mayor O'Connor put together a machine coalition against the East End Cupcake Classer Bill Peduto and the earnest wonk who cares about bond repayment reserve funds, Michael Lamb. He won a plurality with approximately 48% of the vote; his two major opponents each received a quarter of the vote and a variety of vanity candidates mopped up the rest. O'Connor won on the basis of the machine, and he won on a multi-racial coalition. Looking at the district level demographics (provided here), he did better in African American districts than he did in white districts.

Now let's fast forward this to the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary. The city and county establishment Democrats on the whole backed Hillary Clinton. She won Allegheny County but lost the city of Pittsburgh by roughly sixteen points. She underperformed Bob O'Connor but this underperformance was not evenly distributed. The easiest breakdown of the difference between the Clinton coalition and the O'Connor coalition was by race; the more black a precinct was, the less likely Clinton would do well, and vice versa. This is in sharp contrast to Bob O'Connor who built his win on the East Busway neighborhoods...

The previous challenges from outside the traditional machine have failed as they can never expand past a limited geographic and demographic base. Right now that limited base is willing to vote for a ham sandwich over the incumbent mayor, Luke Ravenstahl. However winning Shadyside and Squirrel Hill will only allow one to become King of the Mardi Gras bar.
Now, I'm not one to resist the urge to slice open the political entrails of Bill Peduto and Tom Murphy and try to divine some mystical prophecy about May '09. Let me go back to what I said three years ago:
I see five different undercurrents in the Pittsburgh Democratic structure: the Old Guard, the Revolutionaries, the New-Old Guard, the Black Caucus, and the Leftovers.
I still hold by this analysis, more or less.

What is interesting, as Fester alludes to, is that the Revolutionaries have never been able to break out of their East End base (save for outcroppings in the South Side, Mexican War Streets, and Crawford Square)... until they found common cause with the Black Caucus in the Obama campaign. Now, this does not mean that any candidate that has support of these two factions will be able to win the Mayor's Office. Indeed, there are a whole boat load of folks in both the South and the North that feel different than their friends in the East.

So, broadly speaking, what are the current Mayoral threats?

Well, first, let's start with the advantage: since time immemorial (more or less), no incumbent mayor of Pittsburgh has ever lost reelection.* Sure, there havve been people that have resigned, decided to not run, and died. That's the biggest advantage for the incumbent.

Second, while we can talk until we're blue in the face about policies, in Pittsburgh being the Son or Daughter of so-and-so, and going to church/bridge club/bowling with so-and-so, is a huge advantage. I think you'll find that folks 'round these here parts are more likely to vote for someone if "he's such a nice boy" over whether he feels a certain way about the land/value split on property taxes.**

Here's where the threats come in: (1) Internally - a rebellion from the within the Party, (2) A broad candidate - someone who can unite some of these other factions, and (3) a major f-up - bribes, drugs, mistresses, a dead girl or a live boy.

While there have been muttering amongst the rank and file in the local Party, my general sense is that Luke won't have any trouble securing the nomination... as long as another "nice boy" with "good parents" doesn't come in and steal it away from him.***

In such a case, a three, four, or five way race gives the incumbent has an advantage. Should a serious challenger arise, be prepared for a strawman/sock puppet candidate to split the discontent vote.

Fester has already selected a candidate that he feels can appeal to the East End, the Black Caucus, the South Hills, and is a "nice boy" with "good parents." And while I'm unsure how real his proposed candidate's desire is to make a run at the office, (if the half-psychotic ramblings of the Pittsburgh rumor mill are to be believed) supporters of the incumbent Mayor have already taken to trying to squeeze and strong arm this potential candidate out of the race that hasn't happened yet. If true, that should be a good indication that someone feels threatened.

Still, unless you can find a candidate that has loyalty within the party, comes from "a good family" or is at least a "nice boy," can bring together multiple factions and generate voter turn out, *and* can capitalize on any of the incumbent's screw ups and skeletons in his closet, you have four more years of Luke.

* Any Pittsburgh historian who can give me a definitive answer on this one wins a free internet cookie.

** This is why yours truly will never be elected to anything, ever.

*** Doug Shields is not that person; irrespective of his little spasm in Council the other day, Doug doesn't have the broad appeal that would allow him to win outside the East End. Plus, he talks too much.


Mark Rauterkus said...

That ** note is a bit like a ditto for me. But, I don't think it is going to hold 'true' forever.

If the P-G and/or the Trib and/or the folks at KQV+KDKA+BizJ all got onto the same page about some technical policy elements -- things would change for the better in short order.

O said...

Unfortunately Mark, I don't think that anyone ever lost an election by underestimating the intelligence of the average voter.

That said, I really wish someone felt as strongly about the land/building tax split as I do, as my neighbors have threatened to call the cops if I show up at their house again at 11PM.

Bram Reichbaum said...

FWIW, I've always gotten the distinct impression (no inside info!) that the nice girl's desire to run is very real. Thing is she's not ruled by her desires, and is no mood to be embarrassed. So I think she's doing exactly what she's says she's doing: scoping things out wishfully. For her sake, I hope she's scoping out more than the blurghosphere, which has its uses but is also pretty skewed. There's a lot of bluster I don't think will amount to much at the end of the day.

Plus we haven't really kicked it into gear yet because we were hoping for a robust pre-primary primary. It's starting to look like that's totally not going to happen, huh?