The field of Democrats is strong, if last week's candidate forum held at the Carpenter's Union was any indication.
Congressman Tim Murphy is looking formidable and well-financed, but Democrats are energized to get a "block of four" in the region. Meanwhile, the case against Republicanism has never been stronger.
If this were an open seat in a heavily Democratic-leaning district, we might well suggest voting for Brien Wall, and sending Mr. Smith to Washington. He knew how to go after George Bush and the Republicans, perhaps better than any other candidate, and it was with a pained outrage. He points to his long and varied life experience of "ups and downs " as evidence not only of his wisdom, but of his understanding of the struggles of ordinary Americans.
On foreign policy, "Every time a Democrat's been in the White House, we've gotten along with everyone."
Unfortunately, we feel at this time we need a real political athlete, and also we need a detail-oriented master of policy to defend our positions. Wall speaks in pithy Zen koans and he reminds us of Mark Rauterkus. We are honored to have him in the party and he will continue to be useful, but for Congress in the 18th, no.
There is little doubt that Erin Vecchio would be an effective Congresswoman. She reminds us of Jane Orie, only she would be our Jane Orie, and that wouldn't be entirely bad.
Vecchio bragged of "taking out the third biggest Republican" in Penn Hills, and of raising tons of money for Democratic candidates and for the party, of having "a big mouth" and of knowing how to bring the bacon home.
She was exceedingly strong going after the Bush foreign policy. "We need to reach out and strengthen broken alliances throughout the world." Her political rhetoric was dead-on from top to bottom, provided you want to repeal NAFTA.
Our only reservation is that she was all about about raising money and all about bringing it back from Washington, and finding a way to wrangle the votes to do so. Given we were in a room full of Democratic committee people, but when she spoke of fighting to get more lower-income areas money in the form of block grants, it was still in the context of her esteemed Penn Hills. In the age of Barack Obama, it just didn't seem right.
Beth Hafer would be a wall of strength and intelligence in any Democratic majority. From No Child Left Behind to the Iraq War to the situation at Walter Reed, Hafer had a firm hold on the Democratic position and message. She also struck a sensible balance between the needs of the district, the needs of the nation, and the needs of the state.
One concern was in her oral presentation -- it came across as juvenile. We are afraid Tim Murphy would eat Hafer alive.
Hafer did not share enough background on the issues, nor did she put her own twist on them. For example, she raised the possibility of using Homeland Security money in order to fund the Mon-Fayette Expressway, since it would aid in disaster relief. We asked later if she could anticipate some of our concerns.
"Well, I certainly understand about eminent domain," she assured us -- but let that just dangle out there. She clarified that the MFX is essentially a state project, and she was simply demonstrating her support at the federal level for a regional effort.
Beth Hafer is an educator, and she was strongest on education; we would not mind if she got to work overhauling our entire regional approach to public schools. Nor would we mind seeing her run for office in the future. To be the Democratic standard-bearer against Tim Murphy in Washington, at this point in time, no.
Wayne Dudding absolutely impressed us, without reservation. A 27-year Army reservist and combat veteran, he easily demonstrated an understanding over a range of domestic and foreign issues. He reminds us very much of Sen. James Webb, D-Virginia.
On veterans health care, he spoke of the possibilities of outsourcing the overwhelming burden through the DOA and DOD. On education, he spoke of the need for "progressive" reforms like teaching a greater variety of subject matters together, engaging the left and right-brains of students. On constituent services, he spoke of leading large organizations, and the importance of assembling an efficient staff.
He told the audience plainly that he did not work as much for Democrats as some other candidates, but that he's not going to apologize for that. He said he won't always cling to the party line. For example, on national security he sounded tones of serious alarm regarding Iran, and did not seek to temper his alarm with too much fluff about diplomacy.
The Comet thinks Dudding is correct to take his talent into electoral politics, but he still needs to work on his delivery before taking it to Congress. At his best he was improvising with panache; at lesser times he was unfocused and drifted into cul-de-sacs.
It was mentioned by several onlookers that as he spoke, he got "crazy eyes." Personally, we think America is faced with some pretty crazy challenges, and working through solutions should be enough to strain anyone's credulity. However, in a challenging, high-stakes modern campaign, we are less optimistic about Dudding's chances of connecting with average voters than some others, at least this time out.
Which brings us to Steve O'Donnell.
O'Donnell had everything down cold -- from the President's policies as they pertain to flood remediation and community block development grants, to the prospects of giving regional military veterans access to our grand regional health care facilities, to the need to continue balancing free and fair trade. Everything.
O'Donnell came across as cerebral and dispassionate, but not at all pedantic and like Al Gore. He spoke intelligently but normally, as though he assumed everybody in the audience would have no trouble keeping up with him. Everything we understood, we liked -- he even scored the biggest laugh of the evening, when the moderator disappeared and he took the opportunity to wrap an answer up early.
Afterwords, we asked O'Donnell what he thought about the possibility of using Homeland Security dollars to build the Mon-Fayette Expressway. He said he would not favor such a move; the needs to upgrade various water systems, electrical systems, and security countermeasures are priority needs for Homeland Security funding.
He does favor increasing the federal transportation budget, which he says will be easier once Iraq is brought to some sort of acceptable conclusion. This must occur not only to build new roads, but to tend to aging infrastructure.
O'Donnell volunteered that he was just learning about how uncertainty surrounding the MFX project is itself hurting Mon Valley communities -- homeowners are unable to get decent equity for their homes, and development projects are being kept in limbo. However, he would not waver from his position that MFX is a fundamentally worthy public works project -- that it will bring hundreds of millions of dollars into the region, and will produce good, long-term jobs in a variety of fields.
O'Donnell is thoughtful, measured, well-prepared and engaging. Armed with the truth, he cannot fail. Democrats to Pittsburgh's south have an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, but the Pittsburgh Comet endorses Steve O'Donnell as the superior choice in PA District 18.
ACDC Chairman Jim Burn did a masterful job asking the questions, and presumably of putting the whole event together. After the program, he delivered an address defending the honor and necessity of the Committee endorsement -- presumably still a hot-button issue.
It's what makes us strong, it's what makes us special, it's what makes us powerful as Democrats.
Good thing Burn added "as Democrats," but even this was overshadowed by the suggestion that somebody was being made "special." The party endorsement is what makes who strong, special and powerful, and to what point and purpose?
Think about it. These five candidates will square off before Democratic primary voters in April. They could be using the coming months to sharpen their messages and improve their relationships with voters, while the rest of us continue examining them and testing their mettle as campaigners.
Instead, after intensive exposure only to a limited field of gatekeepers, one among them will be awarded precious party resources to deploy against fellow Democrats -- in many cases to smear them. Loyal committee folk will be alienated from candidates of their consciences, and the beneficial process of interparty debate will be short-circuited. We may be left with an endorsed nominee that is estranged from rank and file voters on key issues, that might only have emerged over time.
The Democratic National Committee did not move to "endorse" Clinton, Edwards or Obama in the presidential race; the DNC is simply arranging for open primaries and caucuses across the country. The party will back the eventual nominee ferociously in the general, as will all the other contenders and their backers.
If there are any real advantages to perpetuating our own region's traditional party endorsement process, the Comet does not know of them.