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Politics

Unseating mayor means vilifying status quo

| Sunday, May 6, 2001

One of Bob Young's strategies that led to the first defeat of a sitting mayor in Augusta, Ga., in more than 50 years was a television advertisement featuring the mayor asleep and snoring.

Maybe more effective, however, was Young's use of polling to identify residents' feelings about what qualities make a good mayor.

'Then, we turned the anti-values into the incumbent's negatives,' said Young, now in his third term.

City Council President Bob O'Connor is using a similar tactic in his bid to unseat incumbent Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy in the May 15 primary. His most recent approach: put Murphy's record as mayor on trial.

In particular, O'Connor has focused on controversial financial incentives the Murphy administration has offered to developers, including Lazarus.

'It's 'Politics 101,'' said Bill Hillsman, who devised the political advertising campaign that led Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura to victory in 1998.

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Incumbent Murphy has history on his side Pittsburgh voters haven't tossed a sitting mayor out of office for nearly 70 years - a timespan that underscores the durability of incumbents. While City Council President Bob O'Connor hopes to go against that trend on May 15 by defeating Mayor Tom Murphy in the Democratic primary, some political observers say Murphy's incumbency gives him an edge.
'If you're the challenger, you have to make the case against the status quo,' said Hillsman, who is president of North Woods Advertising, a Minneapolis-based political consulting and marketing firm. 'If you don't do that, it doesn't matter how bad the incumbent is, the challenger is going to lose.'

Challengers must show voters they are equal to the sitting mayor, said political consultant William Green. While O'Connor has accomplished that, he now faces a crucial next step, Green said.

'Then, he has to prove he can do better than the guy who has the job,' he said.

O'Connor's challenge is to find the flaw in Murphy's record that strikes the right chord with city voters, said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University in Lancaster County.

'What you basically attempt to do is find the areas of city management the incumbent's not done well and hope they're issues that voters care about,' he said.

O'Connor has accused Murphy of ignoring the needs of neighborhoods while channeling resources into Downtown. O'Connor uses that theme in a television advertisement.

Polls show Murphy does not have support from more than 50 percent of voters - a good sign for a challenger, said David Hill, director of Hill Research Consultants, in Woodlands, Texas.

'Pollsters look at numbers and, if the incumbent is under 50 percent, that's a warning sign,' he said.

One way to beat an incumbent mayor is to gain the support of his political foes, said Mitchell Moss, a New York University urban policy and planning professor.

O'Connor has gained the support of some Murphy foes, including Councilman Jim Ferlo, state Sen. Jack Wagner and state Rep. Don Walko.

'The secret is getting all the enemies to where they are willing to work together,' Moss said.

Jim Ritchie can be reached at jritchie@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7933

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