Pittsburgh Democratic mayoral candidates can't stop debating

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It started on a Sunday afternoon in January when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Bill Peduto and Michael Lamb sat down in Squirrel Hill for the first debate of the primary season.

The cast of characters in the mayor's race has changed, but the march of debates has gone on. It gives Pittsburgh voters ample opportunity to assess their candidates in person but exacts a cost on the campaigners' time and patience. J.J. Abbott, the press secretary for Jack Wagner, estimates that his candidate has already participated in 20 debates or forums. And he was a late entry into the race.

Mr. Peduto, a city councilman who has been a declared candidate since last year, noted earlier this week that the Democratic candidates had committed to another 18 encounters in the three weeks remaining before the May 21 primary.

So onerous has the unrelenting schedule become that the candidates began talking this week about the possibility of combining some of the remaining debates to free up some of the precious hours remaining. But that will be difficult to do, since no one really controls the proliferating debate process. In an election without an incumbent, or an overwhelming favorite, no single candidate has the clout to dictate a limit. So far, most of the candidates have appeared seemingly everywhere.

"There's 18 more," Mr. Peduto said Tuesday night as he arrived at the Renaissance Hotel for a forum sponsored by the Pittsburgh Leadership Exchange, a business lobbying group. "It would have been nice to consolidate some of them, but it's not a top-down process."

On Wednesday the candidates met again a few blocks away for an event hosted by the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project at the August Wilson Center.

On Thursday, two separate debates were on the schedule, an afternoon forum before the African-American Chamber of Commerce and then a televised debate at WQED, the second debate at the PBS station in a week.

Just some of the sponsors and groups waiting their turn to host the Democrats are the Alliance for Police Accountability, on Saturday; SEIU on Sunday; the Oakland Community Council; the 16th Ward Block Watch; the Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time; Visit Pittsburgh; B-PEP and the Northside Fair Housing Coalition; the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership. And there's more.

Mr. Peduto, Mr. Wagner and state Rep. Jake Wheatley have shown up for virtually all of the events. A fourth Democratic candidate, Sheraden activist A.J. Richardson, pleading scheduling conflicts and illness, has a more spotty attendance record.

"There is a limitation based on how many days are left in the campaign," Mr. Wagner said. "There is a genuineness to them in that every particular organization, neighborhood group has issue particular to them, consequently they want to hear the candidates opinions and that's justified," he continued.

Some would say that another good thing about the debates is they seem to put the candidates on their best behavior. On Tuesday, answering a reporter's questions before their debate, Mr. Wagner and Mr. Peduto didn't hesitate to criticize one another over issues raised by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's third-party ads assailing his longtime nemesis, Mr. Peduto. But on stage with Mr. Wheatley, they were the models of civility, sticking to higher-toned observations on city policy.

In that respect, according to one veteran debater, Cyril H. Wecht, they are a welcome antidote to the negative ads that typically dominate the airwaves in the late stages of any race.

"On the one hand, one certainly could say that in an election for such an important office there's no such thing as too much discussion," said Dr. Wecht, who met former county Executive Jim Roddey in 13 debates during their 1999 race for executive.

Some of the debates draw sizable crowds. Several hundred showed up for the Leadership Exchange and PUMP events. Many others, however, find audiences that can be counted in the dozens, an infinitesimal fraction of the thousands who will view their television commercials.

Mr. Roddey said that the roster of 13 seemed about the right number for a countywide race. Four years later, as he unsuccessfully defended his office against Dan Onorato, Mr. Roddey recalled that they met for 27 debates.

"I can tell you, 27 is way too many," he said.

"With Onorato and I, it got to the point where I could give his speech and he could give mine," he said. "It became sort of rote rather than something thoughtful."

Some Republicans complained that there had been too many debates during their 2012 presidential primary campaign, increasing the opportunities for intraparty fratricide and giving the Democrats sound bites to store up for the general election. Those debates produced some memorable moments, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry's "oops" moment when he couldn't remember which Cabinet departments he wanted to abolish or Mr. Romney's offer to make a $10,000 bet over a passage in his campaign book.

Mr. Wagner did seem nonplussed at the PUMP debate this week when, perhaps for the first time in any Pittsburgh mayoral campaign, the candidates were asked, "Who are you wearing?" (a question that celebrities answer with the names of high-end clothing designers.)

"A summer suit and comfortable shoes," he ventured.

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Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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