Every couple of years, I get myself into trouble.
Well, not trouble exactly, but my office line rings, my cell phone buzzes with texts and angry people stop me on the street (or purposely ignore me).
It’s election season.
Now, TheBurg does not endorse candidates, as I feel it’s not our business to tell people how to vote—one of the most presumptuous things a newspaper can do. So, that’s not the source of consternation.
But I do feel a responsibility to comment on the way campaigns are run, as I often know more about what’s happening behind the scenes than the average voter—and, well, like every editor, I have obnoxious opinions about how candidates should go about their business.
So, four years ago, I heard from mayoral candidate Eric Papenfuse, who didn’t like that I felt his focus on schools, which is beyond the mayor’s purview, was an unnecessary distraction, and from candidate Dan Miller, who really didn’t like that I felt his decision to run as a Republican, after losing the Democratic primary, was opportunistic.
Both, I continue to believe, were important to point out to voters.
This year, my first annoyance of the campaign season came rather early, back in March, when contender Jennie Jenkins asked primary candidates to limit their spending to $50,000 in the mayor’s race.
“Our city is not for sale to the highest donor!!!” said a press release that filtered into my inbox one morning.
Now, this idea isn’t totally without merit. As Jenkins pointed out, Harrisburg is a tiny city, and it probably shouldn’t cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to run a credible race.
My problem, however, was this—it does. Four years ago, mayoral candidates together raised in excess of $500,000 and, even during the more restrained 2009 race, spending reached almost $300,000. The current race, which will be decided on May 16, almost certainly will clock in at half-a-million or more.
In a way, I can’t fault Jenkins for making this suggestion. Her candidacy is considered a long shot, and she almost certainly can’t raise the kind of money that the frontrunners—challenger Gloria Martin-Roberts and incumbent Mayor Papenfuse—can. In addition, she might have figured that she could earn lots of free publicity by calling for spending limits, which turned out to be exactly right.
My reaction, though, was—ugh—here we go again. In almost every election, some candidate “demands” that those who can raise a lot of money stop doing it, unilaterally disarm, which is a ridiculous suggestion unless we change how campaigns are funded in this country. Absent that, it’s a publicity stunt.
Likewise, this cycle, let’s dispense with all the other campaign distractions and clichés: who’s stealing campaign signs, what the county committee thinks, what the so-called power brokers are up to, complaints about “unfair” press coverage and, perhaps worst of all, who’s being endorsed by whom. Outside of the campaign bubble, no one cares.
As media and as voters, let’s stop allowing ourselves to be led around by candidates and their surrogates, and, instead, pay more attention to the things that actually matter. So, what are those things?
Some are obvious: policy stances, debate performances. But one thing that I pay close attention to is this: How well is a campaign run?
Which candidates show the most professionalism? Which demonstrate commitment and energy? Who has a message that is clicking with voters—and why?
Granted, these criteria can be subjective, but, if you’re a reporter or a somewhat engaged citizen in a small city like Harrisburg, you should be able to get a fair sense of who’s working hard and connecting and who’s not.
Four years ago, I thought that Papenfuse ran an excellent campaign, announcing late but then giving it his all so that, in just a couple of months, he lapped both the incumbent mayor and a very strong challenger. Likewise, two years ago, I wrote that newcomer Cornelius Johnson ran the most focused, energetic campaign during the City Council race. And, indeed, he won the most votes in a nine-person field.
So, pay close attention to who’s out there meeting people every day, beating on doors, asking for votes, engaging with residents, campaigning enthusiastically and going outside their comfort zones and core supporters. These are the people who really want to serve, who are motivated, who deserve serious consideration—and who are not just in it for their egos or a paycheck or a narrow, personal cause.
Moreover, I’ve found that the people who work hardest and smartest while running tend to make the best officeholders. A knowledgeable, committed, caring candidate probably will make a knowledgeable, committed, caring representative. Similarly, don’t expect a candidate who thrives on drama and division—or who runs a lazy or gimmicky campaign—to change much in office.
People vote for candidates for different reasons. In a snug city like Harrisburg, many people know candidates personally, so vote for them or otherwise identify with them. There’s little that an opposing candidate can do about that.
However, maybe half of the pool of likely voters is persuadable. They take their vote seriously and base it on things like policy and debates and, I hope, how candidates run their campaigns—how competently, how energetically, how intelligently. These are the people who will decide the makeup of our local government for the next four years.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.