Melissa Murray Bailey and Jim Kenney aren’t the only mayoral candidates on the ballot in this fall’s general election, but so far they’re the only ones scheduled to debate.

According to the office of City Commissioner Al Schmidt, three third-party candidates are on the ballot: independents Jim Foster and Boris Kindij, and socialist Osborne Hart. Republican ward leader Matt Wolfe withdrew a challenge he placed against Foster. The others were not challenged. They’re in the race. Foster, who has unsuccessfully ran for public office twice before in longshot campaigns against congressman Chaka Fattah and Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, said via email he has contacted representatives for Kenney and Murray Bailey.       

“I am just as much a candidate as the others,” Foster said, “and should not have to beg for recognition.”

Staffers from the Murray Bailey and Kenney campaigns said they were open to having third-party candidates in the debates but that the decision would be up to the sponsors. Billy Penn has previously reported Murray Bailey and Kenney had agreed to four debates, though NBC 10 nixed one after complications with the Kenney campaign. According to an email forwarded to Billy Penn by Foster from the Kenney campaign, 6ABC, WHYY and the United Way of Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey have agreed to holding debates. The Daily News and the Chamber of Commerce are talking about hosting another, according to the email.

History is not on the third-party candidates’ side. In 2007, debates previewing the general election involved only Democrat Michael Nutter and Republican Al Taubenberger. Those 2007 debates were classified by the media as being “genteel” and “low-key” with little disagreement on issues.

Supporters of Foster, including some involved or previously involved in city politics, have said his decision to run matters because he can push them to discuss issues that otherwise wouldn’t be covered. Foster has called Nutter a “failure” and the local Republican party “a meaningless appendage of the Democrats.” But few of his views will be aired publicly if he isn’t in the debates.  

David Thornburgh, chair of the the Committee of Seventy, said it’s normal for third-party candidates not to appear in municipal debates. While Democratic and Republican candidates have built-in legitimacy, third-party candidates need to meet a higher threshold: They must prove they have backing, whether that’s thousands of extra signatures on their nomination petitions, a million dollars of funding or endorsements from reputable figures or entities.     

You have to make the case,” Thornburgh said, “that you’ve got some momentum and some broad-based support.”

In 2011, Fox 29 hosted a debate between Nutter and Republican challenger Karen Brown before the general election. It was the only debate between the two, and Brown, who switched from Democrat to Republican shortly before the filing deadline to run for mayor, was derided for being factually inaccurate throughout the debate.

The lone third-party candidate that year, Wali Rahman, stood outside the Fox 29 building protesting his exclusion from the debate.

Of course, it’s a striking difference between the general election and the primary, when six Democratic candidates crowded stages, podiums, gymnasiums, often sharing just minutes of speaking time. And all were invited, even though (for instance) Milton Street eventually won just 2 percent of the vote.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...