Lou's List

Somewhat informed observations on politics and life from a wayward journalist.

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States

Saturday, January 19, 2008

18th Congressional District Candidates' Forum

Democrats' optimism as we enter 2008 shows in the field of five candidates vying to represent the party in a bid to unseat three-term GOP Congressman Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair. It also illustrates Murphy's perceived vulnerability after allegations of ethical lapses and questionable spending and six years of a staunchly pro-Bush voting record. Past Dem primary fields in the district have drawn no more than two candidates--even despite the party's registration edge of more than 70,000 voters--and those have been mostly lean on experience, name recognition, fundraising ability, and organization. And while there are no household names in this field, there are certainly candidates with a great opportunity distinguish themselves and mount a strong challenge to Murphy in the general election.

The first of three forums to be held featuring all of the candidates, today's event at Large Volunteer Fire Department in Jefferson Hills was organized by the Allegheny County Democratic Committee in advance of its February 10 endorsement vote at Heinz Field. About 80 Committee members and others showed up to hear the candidates. This is a refreshing change of pace for the Committee, as past appeals for endorsement votes would likely have been made through closed-door meeting and personal gifts. And while that type of thing will doubtless still go on for the next three weeks, Committee Chairman Jim Burn--who moderated--improved his mixed record on internal reform by opening things up here. Forums are also to be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, January 22 at the Churchill Municipal Building and 6:30 p.m. Thursday, January 24 at the Regional Council of Carpenters Hall in Robinson.

Perhaps the only surprise of the event was the absence of fish magnate Dan Wholey--perhaps the most highly touted candidate by the media upon his entry into the race--who has apparently dropped out.

The remaining five candidates were each asked to address a range of today's most prominent topics during the two-hour forum, including Iraq, No Child Left Behind, the energy crisis, veterans health care, the mortgage foreclosure crisis, the war on terror, the impending Bush recession, and Social Security. Substantive policy differences between the candidates seemed few and far between, but a great range of styles were on display that will doubtless impact the race.

For instance, we should all be angry, but Penn Hills School Board President Erin Vecchio is really angry. Vecchio--who initiated the effort to question former Senator Rick Santorum's residency in Penn Hills and thus the district's funding of his children's cyber school tuition--laced her criticisms of Murphy and the Bush administration with invective and sarcasm. She stressed her working class background and was right on target with her denunciations of the corporate culture in Washington, even going out on a limb and slamming Hillary Clinton for her reliance on big business-connected contributors. But one has to wonder how well this tack would play in a district rife with swing voters and pro-business moderates.

Insurance executive Brien Wall of Upper St. Clair seemed to assert that he is the most electable candidate in the field, but was the most uncomfortable public speaker in the crowd and offered--for me--the only cringe-worthy policy proposal of the forum, suggesting expanded offshore drilling as a solution to the energy crisis. He also gave a startlingly opaque answer to a question about the course to follow in Afghanistan that I can't even begin to analyze.

The Afghanistan question also tripped up Vecchio, who suggested U.N. forces be responsible for picking up the slack there since the U.S. "does enough favors for the U.N." This despite the reality that the U.S. does not meet its funding obligations to the international body and routinely circumvents its will.

Former real estate developer and social services executive Steve O'Donnell of Monroeville is obviously well-versed in policy with a progressive bent, but comes off as a bit sober and wonkish, which he will need to improve if he is to appeal to many voters. He did make the most innovative policy proposal of the event, suggesting that lenders who refuse to renegotiate variable-rate mortgages be penalized by having their overnight interest rate jacked up. He also got the only applause during a response for advocating the proverbial Social Security "lockbox." All of the candidates said they support raising the cap on earnings subject to Social Security tax.

Iraq vet and former Army legislative and strategic command staffer Wayne Dudding of Robinson brought a decidedly apolitical tone to the forum. He carries himself in the strong but reassuring posture of a military officer, and was non-committal about many of the issues outside his military and business comfort zone. A Carnegie Mellon MBA with executive experience in several local corporations, he stressed business development--especially in the area of alternative energy production--as a cure for economic woes. He struck a noticeable policy difference from many of his cohorts on Iran. While the others seemed to believe that concern about Iran was a right-wing scare tactic, Dudding stressed that he believes the Islamic Republic is "a serious threat." He also exasperated Burn by exceeding the time limit on nearly all of his responses.

Overall, the candidate who most combined passion with a demonstrated understanding of the issues and a measured delivery was Beth Hafer. Hafer, of Mt. Lebanon--a management consultant and former middle school teacher--struck the right notes from her opening statement, in which she stressed that we need representatives concerned with public service, not the "personal privilege" of holding office. Her performance throughout was strong, although it did take the air out of the room a bit when she declined to commit to supporting an outright repeal of NAFTA, though she stressed that environmental and labor standards need to be enforced. This allowed Vecchio to bombastically stake the "repeal it now" position.

Hafer was the only candidate to endure detectable slaps from her opponents due to the fact that her mother, Barbara Hafer, was a longtime local and statewide officeholder as a Republican and the GOP's governor nominee in 1990 before switching parties in 2003. Both Vecchio and Wall took pains to stress that they are "lifelong Democrats." But Barbara Hafer's working class background and moderate stances made her one of the most successful Republicans in the region, and she briefly considered her own challenge to Murphy in 2006. Beth Hafer stressed that she was driven into the current race not by a desire to follow her mother into public office, but by seeing deficiencies in the No Child Left Behind law and government efficiency in her professional life. In her closing statement, Hafer convincingly laid down three planks in her platform that will be vital to winning our national struggle: alternative energy development that will not only improve the environment, stem global warming, and reduce reliance on foreign oil, but also create jobs; instituting universal health care (the only time those words were uttered during the forum); and returning accountability and ethics to Washington.

So hopefully the endorsement vote this year will hinge on more than "who has the nicest nail files," as Burn quipped, and doubtless the eventual nominee will be better prepared to face off against Murphy having honed their messages in these forums.