Campaigning via celebrities
By Salena Zito
Published: Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 9:26 p.m.
There are times when one needs to look no further than one's backyard to see how out-of-sync politicians are with their constituents.
Last week in Pittsburgh, an aspiring mayoral candidate and city councilman decided to bestow the honor of naming a day after an individual for his contribution to society. The honoree was rapper Wiz Khalifa; the politician was Bill Peduto.
Before you think this column has a race problem, relax: My issue with the honor is not skin color but how much it reflects the sentiment of Pittsburghers to name a day after a guy whose entire career is centered on his love of marijuana.
When he received his proclamation, Khalifa wore a hat that read “DOPE.”
Later, he tweeted to his 8 million-plus followers: “I also wanna thank the city of Pittsburgh for making 12/12 ‘Wiz Khalifa Day' in the burgh. Get stoned :-).”
The stunts politicians do to win voters are nothing short of stunning, even on the most micro-local level.
Peduto wants to be mayor. He's a Democrat who will run against another Democrat — Mayor Luke Ravenstahl — and possibly two other elected Democrats in a city that has elected only Democrats to every city office for nearly a century; his attempt to make himself the more authentic, cool Democrat with a “Wiz Day” was embarrassing.
Forty years ago, when another young politician, Pete Flaherty, was trying to win over voters in his run for mayor, he didn't give Cheech and Chong (the '70s equivalent of Wiz) their own day; he pushed reform and renaissance.
American politicians have a connection problem; they think associating with a celebrity or rock star makes their case to represent voters more “real.” They don't understand that families in Pittsburgh or any city, large or small, are concerned about faulty bridges, neighborhood drug dealers, job creation that keeps their children living nearby, and safe, effective schools.
Which brings the problem up to the national level: When President Barack Obama was still a U.S. senator, much was made of his 2006 Senate office meeting with rapper Ludacris. NBC News called it “a meeting of two star powers.” An entire news cycle was dedicated to it.
Such celebritization of whatever office Obama has held or sought has haunted his seriousness since he hit the national circuit; it continued in this past election cycle, when he opted not to meet with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu but found time to fundraise with Jay-Z and Beyonce at a $40,000-per-plate gala at the tony 40/40 Club.
In September, when the president went to New York City for the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting, he passed up leaders of various countries to interview with the women of ABC's daytime gabfest, “The View.”
What Peduto did was a localized emulation of what the super-popular president has gotten away with for years.
Who knows? Maybe that is what today's voters want — to “like” the person in charge and “feel good” that he or she shares their interests.
Clearly, “Wiz Day” was a reach-out to the city's youth and black voters.
In every exit poll after November's election, voters said “liking” Obama was the most important reason they voted for him — although it should be noted that Obama is the first president who garnered fewer votes for his re-election than he did for his first term.
Modern presidents have been courting celebrities and Hollywood types discreetly (and not so discreetly) for years; John F. Kennedy was a friend to many celebrities, and so was Ronald Reagan, himself a former actor.
Today, politicians glorify celebrities to earn votes.
Using celebrities to win the votes of hipsters, the young or minorities is shallow, but it appears to be becoming our new normal. Which begs the question: Is likability over substance the new litmus test of American politics?
And if that's true, why wasn't it cooler for Peduto to honor a local Navy SEAL who'd lost his life a few days earlier, during a mission to rescue a kidnapped American civilian in Afghanistan, by giving that brave young man his own commemorative day?
Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media. (412-320-7879 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
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