Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Burg Blog: Oh, Harrisburg

A polling station on State Street in Harrisburg.

On Tuesday night, someone texted me a “face palm” emoji.

That’s a little picture of a guy bringing his hand to his face in a gesture of frustration and exasperation.

I knew where he was going with this.

We had just run a couple of stories about a bizarre Election Day scheme, which began with homeless men standing at polling stations handing out raffle tickets that promised a chance to win big prizes for simply casting a vote, and ended, hours later, with a visit by the Dauphin County sheriff to the hastily assembled downtown campaign office of write-in candidate Gloria Martin-Roberts.

As another friend often says, with a sigh, “Oh, Harrisburg …”

Yes, it was another shameful day for Harrisburg’s political class and, by extension, the rest of us. And now the national press has picked it up, with stories today in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune, among other papers, reminding me of the day the big-city press jumped on the story of former Mayor Steve Reed and his house full of museum artifacts.

As of now, details remained a bit sketchy over the plot to round up men from Bethesda Mission and Downtown Daily Bread and dispatch them, armed with campaign flyers and raffle tickets, to polling stations throughout the city. It’s also unclear if the campaign crossed any legal line or if it will be able to maintain a veneer of plausible separation between the pro-Martin-Roberts (and anti-Eric Papenfuse) flyers and the iPhone/cash/gift card raffle drawing.

But this much is clear—the episode is disgraceful, another black eye for the city doled out by some of its own “leaders.” That’s bad enough. But I’m perhaps even more astounded by the profound stupidity of this half-baked enterprise.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been told that Harrisburg is a “different” kind of place. Too big to be a town, too small to be a proper city, it exists in an urban netherworld, sometimes exhibiting the worst (sometimes, the best) traits of each.

So, Harrisburg has big-city problems, but these often reside within a small-town political framework more akin to Mayberry than Manhattan, in which the players know each other well, often detest each other and engage in a battle to be the biggest minnow in the pond.

In cities with a more evolved political class, here’s what happens in a primary election. People lose, and then they call and congratulate the winner. The losers graciously bow out of contention and support the party’s nominee in the general election. Serious-minded candidates who want another shot study what went wrong, how they can do better and plot a long-term strategy on how to come back and fight another day.

In contrast, here’s what happens in Harrisburg. A candidate loses in the primary and then, more often than not, whines, complains and makes accusations and excuses. He or she then plots and schemes how to still win in the general election they’ve just been knocked out of.

So, for instance, maybe a lifelong Democrat cross-files and wins on the Republican side, becoming the standard-bearer for a party he loathes. Or maybe he backdoors his way in, earning enough write-in votes to get a spot on the other side of the ballot. Or, absent any other alternative, he mounts a pointless write-in campaign.

In any case, staying in a race despite a primary loss usually says nothing good about a candidate or his chances. When candidates continue to run, they’re usually doing so from a place of profound personal ego and political weakness. They simply can’t abandon the spotlight or the belief that they should be the next mayor or council member or whatever. It also usually confirms the primary result, as they typically run as bad a campaign the second time around as the first.

But, mostly, it’s a just a big waste of everyone’s time and attention, since primary losers rarely end up winning. In Harrisburg, the Democratic victor in the primary wins in the general election almost every time, barring intervening scandal or death.

Harrisburg’s recent mayoral races offer great examples. Four years ago, one of the losing Democrats continued to run after “winning” the Republican primary through write-in votes. At the time, I wrote that he would lose badly in the general election running as a Republican, and that’s what happened. A whole lot of time and money was spent for nothing.

This year, we were faced with an even odder situation. Of the four losing primary candidates, two mounted write-in campaigns in the general election. Write-in efforts almost never succeed, requiring months of intense voter engagement and education for even the slimmest chance. Instead, these candidates declared just days before the election—“campaigning” mostly through Facebook. They then lost by a 7 to 1 margin.

This was simply was not a serious effort. So then what was the point? Ego? Delusion? Coercion? Pique? Honestly, I have no idea.

But here we are, stuck with the Election Day version of the Keystone Kops, a group who raided the city’s homeless shelters to field a workforce to support a hopelessly desperate and strangely executed write-in campaign. Their bizarre scheme is now being examined by law enforcement, which may not take kindly to partisans running a raffle to encourage “voter turnout.”

But that still leaves us, the people of Harrisburg, saddled with a political class that, too often, proves to be embarrassing, incompetent or even corrupt. We must demand better from those who purport to represent us: more maturity, more professionalism, more care for the whole of the city. And they must be able to accept criticism and even loss gracefully.

In the battle over the question—is Harrisburg more a big town or a small city?—I tend to side with the latter. However, I’m still waiting for politicians, as a whole, to show greater competence and thicker skins: to do battle, accept their lumps, shake hands and move on. I believe this city has had enough of their petty squabbles, lingering vendettas, Facebook feuds and crazy, embarrassing schemes.

Lawrance Binda is editor in chief of TheBurg.

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