Voters tune out skirmish for mayor

A big field and some overwhelming city problems are just the start.

Posted: March 18, 2007

With less than two months to go before the May 15 Democratic primary, the Philadelphia mayor's race is still lacking a few things.

Such as a final list of candidates. A definitive set of campaign-finance rules. A clear pecking order. And an engaged electorate.

The last of those missing elements is partially a result of the other three. The overall sense of disarray provides voters ample cause to tune out for now.

Adding to the chaos - beyond the court challenge to the candidacy of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and the continuing rise of Tom Knox - is the question of whether the courts will block the casino referendum approved by City Council last week.

"The uncertainty on these big-picture items makes it a very odd, very placid race," said Dan Fee, a political consultant not working for any candidate.

Of course, there's no inherent reason for the public to be hanging on the candidates' every word at this stage. But campaign strategists say the level of disengagement this year feels greater than usual.

J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the local NAACP and an adviser to the mayoral campaign of State Rep. Dwight Evans, pointed to the attitudes candidates encountered in collecting signatures for their nominating petitions.

"People didn't want to be bothered; we heard that from all the campaigns," Mondesire said. "It was harder than normal."

Campaign aides cite a number of factors beyond the various uncertainties - having to do with the candidates, fund-raising difficulties, and the seriousness of the problems facing the city - as contributing to the overall lack of excitement.

One is the nature of the field. Five viable candidates are a lot for voters to handle, especially when two recent polls put all five in double digits.

Four of these men have solid political resumes, while Knox has a record of success in business. None has been depicted as a villain, the kind of candidate that some people would feel driven to vote against.

There's no incumbent running about whom voters might have strong feelings pro and con. Plus, no one comes into the race carrying heavy personal baggage or embodying a political movement.

A second factor is the new campaign-finance system, a verdict on which could come at any time in a case argued earlier this month before Commonwealth Court.

The limits on political contributions - $5,000 per individual and $20,000 for a political action committee in this race - have restricted the ability of the candidates to raise the funds needed to put campaign commercials on television.

As a result, the paid-media phase of the political season, which generally gets the attention of voters, has moved forward in fits and starts.

Knox, who's financing his own campaign, has been on TV for months. Brady and Evans have been on and off. Neither U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah nor former City Councilman Michael A. Nutter has televised a single commercial yet.

"What we know is that when candidates go on TV, their [poll] numbers go up," said Terry Gillen, a ward leader who's part of Nutter's team. "In the end, TV will make a big difference in this race, and we will have a major presence."

Paid media also are the vehicle candidates use to draw contrasts with opponents or to drive home contrasts drawn on the trail. At this point, few contrasts are being drawn in any setting.

"Everyone's being coy, calculated, almost skittish because they're not ready to back it up with paid media," said Ken Smukler, an adviser to Brady. "Nobody with the exception of Knox has really been able to deliver a media message."

Said Rebecca Kirszner, a senior adviser to Fattah: "Since we haven't spent one dollar on media, we view much of whatever's happening as artificial. We know we have a strong base, a very well-known candidate, and a tested field operation that can get out the vote."

Another factor is the mood of the electorate. Numerous polls in recent months have shown that Philadelphians think the city is headed in the wrong direction.

Now the homicide rate, which has helped fuel such pessimism, has gotten appreciably worse, while reports of attacks against teachers in the schools add to the sense of a situation spiraling out of control.

"The problems look so intractable, I don't know if people think any candidate can make a difference in their lives," Mondesire said.

All of these factors contribute to the sense that the real campaign has barely started. Sometimes, the candidates' own actions send out that message.

At a forum last week, for instance, Nutter tried to pick a policy fight with Fattah.

The exchange began when Fattah mentioned his plan to eliminate the gross-receipts portion of the city's business-privilege tax immediately in a "revenue-neutral" way.

For this to happen, Nutter replied, other business taxes would have to rise. He talked about how much Fattah would have to raise one particular tax and challenged his rival to dispute the calculation.

But Fattah - widely viewed as the front-runner before polls last week, from SurveyUSA and Susquehanna Polling, put him in a statistical tie with Knox or slightly behind - refused to engage, saying this was not the time to discuss such differences.

Much about the shape of the campaign remains in the courts' hands.

On Tuesday, a judge from Luzerne County will hear the argument that Brady should be knocked off the ballot for failing to list his $8,500-a-year city pension on a financial-disclosure form. Knox is underwriting the effort; Evans supports it.

The case and its appeals could drag on for as much as a month.

Still pending is a court decision that might wipe out the contribution limits under which several campaigns seem to be struggling. A legal challenge also may be forthcoming against the casino referendum, which, if held, might boost voter turnout.

Eventually, the courts will make all of their rulings, the candidates' debates will begin, lots more ads will appear, and the battle will be fully joined.

"Events will move quickly at the end when the candidates start spending real money," said Smukler. "It may be dull now, but it'll be a wild last four weeks."

For all the latest coverage of the mayor's race, including profiles of the candidates, go to

Contact senior writer Larry Eichel

at 215-854-2415 or

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