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Joseph Sabino Mistick

Joseph Sabino Mistick: Political pendulum swings in the 18th

| Saturday, March 17, 2018, 5:36 p.m.
Conor Lamb greets his supporters following his apparent victory in a special congressional district election at the Hilton Garden Inn at Southpointe in Cecil in the early morning hours of March 14, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Conor Lamb greets his supporters following his apparent victory in a special congressional district election at the Hilton Garden Inn at Southpointe in Cecil in the early morning hours of March 14, 2018.

“Politics is a pendulum whose swings between anarchy and tyranny are fueled by perpetually rejuvenated illusions,” according to Albert Einstein. And while he was right about the pendulum reaching both extremes, most of the time it is somewhere near the middle, where most Americans like their politicians.

In last week's 18th Congressional District special election, Democrats found that sweet spot, away from the extremes, with their candidate, Conor Lamb. A moderate Democrat and a former federal prosecutor and Marine, Lamb is tough on crime and pro-Second Amendment.

Lamb's margin of apparent victory was just a few hundred votes, but the swing of votes required to get there is the real story. No Democrat was supposed to win in a district where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 20 points not long ago. It is a district that had voted Republican so consistently in the past that its former Republican congressman ran unopposed in his last two elections.

Those were lopsided Republican victories — every politician's dream — but the real lessons lie in the close elections. And this race is a good teacher.

We learned, last week, that organized labor still matters. Lamb was supported by the United Steelworkers, United Mine Workers and other unions, and they worked hard for him. This time, union leaders and their rank-and-file stood together. And Lamb embraced their support, declaring organized labor had “been the heart and soul of this campaign.”

Darrin Kelly, Allegheny County Labor Council president and a union firefighter in Pittsburgh, told the Huffington Post, “The best thing about what we have with Conor Lamb is that we know he'll listen. That's all we really want when we help someone get elected — is to make sure that our voices get heard.”

We learned again that political power is rarely transferable. The big politicians always try to build a team of lesser lights, supporting candidates who think like they do. And the Trump administration pulled out the stops in this race, with multiple visits by the president's surrogates and two by the president himself, all to defeat Lamb.

But voters rarely let any politician tell them how to vote in other races. Even if they love the guy who is trying to call the shots, voters protect their right to vote and think for themselves.

We also learned that late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill was on to something decades ago, when he said “all politics is local.” Much has changed since then, with 24-hour cable news stations and social media, and old Tip would hardly recognize much of what passes for politics and government these days. But a few of the basic rules still apply.

On the weekend before the election, Trump filled a hangar at Pittsburgh International Airport with his supporters, rallying his base to vote for Rick Saccone, Lamb's Republican opponent. It was vintage Trump, great political showbiz, and all the national media were there.

But while that was going on, Lamb was quietly walking door-to-door in the district, meeting one voter at a time, listening more than talking. And it worked like Tip said it would.

Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer (joemistick.com).

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