2 Pittsburgh mayoral candidates in search of a difference

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The best thing that could have happened to Pittsburgh was calling a mayor's primary election in May.

As long as challenger Bill Peduto keeps offering ideas, and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl keeps stealing them, this city has a chance to make a nice run.

"Stealing" is ordinarily a pejorative, but not in politics. It is a poor politician who attacks a good idea from a rival. A smart politician seizes the idea, tweaks it and claims it for his own.

That's what's been happening in the Ravenstahl-Peduto race, which has frustrated the less known, less moneyed, less telegenic and less politically connected Peduto, but it's hard to see how this take-and-take is bad for the city.

"He has no plan," Councilman Peduto said Tuesday after Mayor Ravenstahl announced a property tax abatement plan remarkably similar to the one Mr. Peduto was poised to offer council. "He had a sound bite and a press release. Luke has finally decided to embrace my ideas for a new Pittsburgh and a progressive agenda. The next obvious step is to support me for mayor."

Mr. Peduto can dream, but the politics are all on the young mayor's side. The populace is not eager to see a fourth mayor in a two-year span; the mood is more "let's give this young guy a chance and see what he can do." Mayor Ravenstahl has maintained that by being nimble and quick in countering every progressive challenge.

A couple of years ago, Councilman Ravenstahl wanted to stop devoting bus shelter advertising revenue to shade trees. This month, Mayor Ravensthal is pledging to slash carbon dioxide pollution and has signed the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

Last fall, Mayor Ravenstahl lobbied to keep a $52 lump sum tax on all workers inside the city limits. Last month, he changed his mind, advocating the same $1-a-week system Peduto has pushed.

Last October, Mayor Ravenstahl nominated the politically toxic Dennis Regan to be public safety director. After that choice went over like a Browns jersey at a Steelers tailgate party, the mayor nominated Fire Chief Mike Huss as director of public safety, the same guy Councilman Peduto suggested in October.

Councilman Peduto's office keeps a full list of such mayoral turnarounds, but the critique is a tough sell. Who can argue that learning from early mistakes is a bad trait in a politician?

Mayor Ravenstahl's deftness was in evidence again this week. Mr. Peduto has a plan to spur development in and around the Golden Triangle by offering 10-year tax abatements in a targeted area that straddles the rivers but never gets beyond two miles of the Point.

The mayor essentially said, I see your Downtown improvement plan and raise you 20 neighborhoods. Mayor Ravenstahl's 10-year abatements also cover Homewood, Hazelwood, much of Lawrenceville and other struggling neighborhoods in the east, west, north and south of the city.

It's designed to appeal to all those city residents, myself among them, who resent mayors who seem to concentrate their energy Downtown at the expense of the neighborhoods. The mayor's proposal is thin compared to Councilman Peduto's plan, which an 18-member working group helped produce after months of study. But the mayor's plan sure has curb appeal.

"This program will make money," Councilman Peduto told council yesterday, arguing that the wage taxes from new Downtown residents would more than offset the tax breaks. "This is created for Downtown ... Using this model for neighborhoods ... is like using a hammer to prune a tree."

City Council President Doug Shields complimented Mr. Peduto's team on the conservatism and specificity of its estimates, something he said was lacking in the overly optimistic Fifth-and-Forbes plan offered by former Mayor Tom Murphy.

I'd like to believe City Council will weigh the rival plans and take the best from each, giving the neighborhoods a more appropriate tool for development if Councilman Peduto is right, but make sure none suffer at the expense of Downtown.

Who should get credit if a hybrid plan succeeds? Who cares? It's clear mayoral elections are important if a city is to move forward, but this could be the one year the outcome doesn't matter so much.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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