By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
In April 2001, then-mayoral candidate Bob O’Connor sat in the cramped conference room with six people who looked more like they worked on a loading dock than a newspaper.
It was four years before he’d become Pittsburgh Mayor Bob O’Connor. He sat in the room with those blue-jeans, no-tie wearing journalists for more than an hour. He answered question after question about city services lacking in economically distressed parts of Pittsburgh. We asked him about Downtown development in the wake of the “Fifth-Forbes” debacle (Google it). We asked him about the use of public funds to build sports arenas.
At the time it didn’t seem remarkable, but he sat there and answered every one of our questions in the ramshackle South Side offices of In Pittsburgh News Weekly. We were all good journalists, we knew our stuff. But we weren’t the mainstream media, not by a longshot. But O’Connor and his opponent, then-Mayor Tom Murphy met with us in an effort to gain our endorsement. Our coverage had been super critical of both men for years but they still met with us. (In case you’re wondering, our editorial board endorsed Murphy by one vote, despite my passionate arguments for O’Connor, a result that still makes my head spin.)
Why did they sit down with us? Because that’s what politicians did then. It would have been extremely out of the ordinary if they didn’t. Somewhere over the past two decades, though, that has changed. Politicians now have social media to get their message out unfettered and unfiltered through a reporter. But the only person that’s actually good for is the politician.
And it’s not just journalists who get the snub. In the past if a community group was having a forum, both candidates showed up to engage with voters and each other. It wasn’t always a debate, but it got the two candidates in a room together to let voters see how they measured up.
But that’s all become a thing of the past, especially in larger races. There was a time that if your opponent didn’t show up at an event, they paid for it in some way. Now? There are no repercussions.
Take a major race like the one for Allegheny County District Attorney. Challenger Turahn Jenkins tells me that he has yet to run into his opponent at any of the candidate forums he’s attended. The same thing happens in city council races, county council races and even more frequently in state-level races, especially for state house and senate seats. Allegheny County Council-at-Large candidate Bethany Hallam hasn’t run into her opponent, John DeFazio, at an event this election season and he’s served for 20 years.
Last year, you’d be hard-pressed not to see candidates like Sara Innamorato, Summer Lee, Daniel Smith and Emily Skopov at local candidate meetings. Their opponents on the other hand were pretty much always no-shows. In the case of Smith, who ran against the vile Daryl Metcalfe, on the rare occasion that they did see each other, Metcalfe refused to shake hands with his openly gay opponent.
For a lot of incumbents, avoiding places where they could be asked about their job performance and record of public service, that’s a campaign strategy. Apparently, they think if people can’t ask you why you’ve made questionable legislative decisions, then they can’t vote against you for said decisions. Hiding out and shutting up has replaced facing the public and defending your record.
And it’s not just candidate events that are getting snubbed. If a politician doesn’t want to talk to a reporter for an election story because they don’t want to be asked tough questions, they just don’t call them back. That leaves the reporter with a tough decision because we want to provide a complete story. How long do we wait for an answer before we just run what we’ve got. And if a candidate won’t take the time to call us back, what’s our level of responsibility to search public records and news accounts to try and figure out where they stand?
You’ll find that in this very issue. Incumbent Darlene Harris refused to speak to the Current’s Justin Vellucci for his city council preview this week. He included information from past coverage, but at the end of the day she declared she just didn’t have time to participate. We’ll have a story on the aforementioned Hallam-Defazio race online later this week because we made every effort to get DeFazio to respond and at the end, just ran out of time.
We need to hold our incumbent officials responsible for the decisions they’ve made. And to be clear, it’s not all of them, but way more than there should be. This culture of ignoring the public has gotten out of hand. Public officials rarely hold townhall meetings because they only want to talk to the constituents who support them.
As you head to the polls in a few weeks, think about how often you’ve seen or heard from your elected officials. Think about whether their name was in a news story about their race with the words, “declined to comment for this story” after it. If they won’t show up for you, they probably don’t deserve your vote.