ShareThis Page

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.

See These Related Stories
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 or (412) 320-7933

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me