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Some question importance of Web presence in Valley elections

| Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009

When he was running for president, the Barack Obama campaign's heavy use of the Internet marshaled millions of volunteers and campaign dollars. It included Web sites and blogs, text-messaging, as well as YouTube and social networking sites such as Facebook.

But at least one local politician, a political blogger and a political expert doubt the Internet can ever play such a large part in local politics, where face-to-face contact is vital.

G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said the rise of the Internet's role in politics and campaigning has been "meteoric" over the past 10 years.

The Obama campaign's use of it has been the high point thus far. Madonna said Obama's campaign could reach 12 million volunteers at any time via e-mail or texting.

"The Internet is a way to engage folks in the campaign process who might otherwise not be reached or be a consideration," he said.

While Madonna said the use of the Internet in political campaigns continues to grow "exponentially," its use in future local elections -- school board and municipal races --- is unclear.

"It's not uncommon, but I don't think at the local level most officials have Web sites," he said.

'Attack sites'

David Regoli, an attorney and Lower Burrell councilman, said he set up a Web site when he first ran for council in 1998.

"I did that to introduce myself, to put myself out there," he said. "It was just more a way to tell more about myself, who I am, and my family."

A veteran campaigner, Regoli has been involved in politics and political campaigns most of his life. That dates back to the Westmoreland County commissioner and state Senate races of his father, John Regoli.

He has worked on the Obama and John Kerry presidential campaigns and was deeply involved in those of former state Rep. Terry Van Horne and judicial candidates, including Westmoreland County judge hopeful Chris Scherer of Lower Burrell.

"I think the Internet is probably going to be more important in local elections as time goes on," Regoli said. "I don't think it is there yet."

A handful of political sites and blogs focusing on local politics and government have sprung up around the Alle-Kiski Valley, but Regoli doesn't see them as true campaign sites.

He characterized them as "attack sites," which focus more on criticizing or demeaning opponents than fostering a lively debate on issues.

Souring the debate

The "Our Town" site sponsored by Ron Misejka, a Highlands School Board member, has generated controversy and attracted attention for its commentaries on politics and situations within the district. During the past 11 years, it has battered political opponents unmercifully while advancing the viewpoint of Misejka and his allies.

Misejka usually puts his name on his postings but other contributors are not identified.

In the last school board election two years ago, "Our Town" had limited success. Only one of the three candidates it supported won re-election while the others were defeated by write-in candidates.

Misejka, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is not running for another term but said his site will remain active.

Two other sites have cropped up and seek to influence the election of supervisors in Harmar and Parks townships.

"Parks Township Good Old Boys" is a Web site operated by self-described "concerned citizens" whose names are not listed. The site clearly states it is not township-affiliated.

It states: "Our goal is to provide the public with reports on the actions (or lack of actions) taken by the supervisors at their public meetings...."

In addition, regular contributors provide editorials on township happenings, giving their opinion of what some have labeled "a good old boys network."

Most of the blog postings are anonymous.

One recent posting titled "The Upcoming Election -- What It Takes To Serve," questions one candidate's ability to serve in office since he filed a lawsuit claiming to have been disabled in an accident.

The Harmar site is sponsored by supervisor candidates Bob Seibert and Jim DiPalma, who did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story.

It has drawn criticism because it gives the appearance of the municipal government's official site.

The site has a disclaimer about any connection to the township government but it appears at the bottom of the home page.

While the site, indeed, gives visitors information on the municipality, it also serves up anonymous blog posts, all of which are critical of what the site calls "stupidvisors."

"It appears misleading," Regoli said. "You think: 'That must be a municipality sanctioned Web site,' but it's not. Someone who unknowingly goes on that site to research a community is only going to get one side of an issue."

The fact that blog postings are anonymous or under aliases troubles Regoli.

"I don't mind anyone who wants to stand up and criticize what I do as a public official," he said, "but I think they should have to put their name on it."

Anonymous criticism "sours the debate" Regoli said. "If you are going to attack, at least let the people know who you are so they can check your credibility."

Spreading the message

Maria Lupinacci is a blogger who has no problem doing that.

A web designer from Pittsburgh's South Side, Lupinacci operates a blog with friend David DeAngelo called "2Political Junkies," which follows Pittsburgh and Allegheny County elections closely as well as state and national races.

"There is certainly good and bad in the blog world," Lupinacci said. "If you follow any for any length of time, you will see the good ones link back to newspapers, news channel Web sites. They will offer up some evidence, some outside verification of what they are saying."

Lupinacci said she and DeAngelo have unabashedly supported campaigns, mainly for progressive candidates.

A big reason she believes the Internet will play a larger role in local elections is the low cost.

She said a candidate can get space on the Web for as little as $5 a month. More space and room for perhaps 1,000 e-mail messages would probably run about $20 monthly, she said.

"The biggest advantage is it is a very cheap way to spread your message," Lupinacci said. "You'll get 'brownie points' from certain people if you have a blog because it shows you are engaged.

"If there is a candidate and they don't have a Web site, personally, I can't take them seriously."

Stuart Shulman, assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, is a former professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the editor of the Journal of Information Technology and Politics. He said the Internet has "a low barrier of entry" in terms of cost and is easy to use to spread messages.

"The most important thing is that the proliferation of this activity is pretty amazing," he said. "The fact that city managers, candidates, people in civil society positions, academics, activists, have all found the medium useful in advancing their goals, says something about the medium."

He refers to it as "voting on ideas" when proposals, suggestions or ideas are put forth in cyberspace then reproduced and forwarded on to others.

"There is a massive distributive effort to vote on ideas," Shulman said. "To the extent that those ideas take root and grow, influence or set policy agendas, that's a powerful force.

"A lot of the ideas circulating around in political discourse may not have originated in a blog, but the blogs become this conveyor belt for ideas," Shulman said.

"Ten minutes of blogging could result in a much wider spread of your viewpoint," he added. "That being said, most people blog in obscurity."

Tried and true

Lupinacci sees an expanded role for cyber-campaigning in local elections, but thinks it will need time to take root.

"Not for a while because of one thing: Pennsylvania has a very large elderly population and there are not as many elderly using the Internet as say young people or middle-aged people," she said. "So they are still going to need your literature."

Madonna and Regoli see use of the Internet growing in local campaigns in the future, but both believe it will be limited.

They agree that it will not replace the traditional, proven means of campaigning such as posting signs, holding rallies and going door to door.

"I don't think it is going to supplant personal appeals, personal contacts in local elections," Madonna said. "You still need to do that. It is not going to replace that; it is going to supplement. it. Especially at the local level where people expect to know the candidates, to know about them."

Regoli said that can be done on the Internet only to a certain point before it becomes too impersonal.

"On a local level, I don't know how you can beat campaigning in the traditional way when it's school board or municipal races," Regoli said. "I still think the best thing to do in a local election is knock on doors and talk to people.

"I don't think there is any substitute for that."

Additional Information:

Political potboilers

There are several sites on the Internet that keep the pot boiling in local politics.

Here are the addresses for a few and the communities on which they focus:

Pittsburgh/Allegheny County


Highlands School District

Oakmont/Verona (A Trib Total Media Web site)

Parks Township, Armstrong County

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