History of incumbency is on mayor's side

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Incumbent mayors don't lose the Democratic primary in Pittsburgh. They just don't.

Sometimes it's close. Mayor Tom Murphy won by an eyelash -- or, more accurately, hundreds of firefighters' eyelashes -- in 2001. After winning their support through a favorable four-year contract just before the May primary, Mr. Murphy beat Bob O'Connor by a margin smaller than the number of city firefighters and their spouses.

Coincidence, that was not.

Other times, a big field helps the sitting mayor. Mayor Sophie Masloff -- who, like Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, inherited the job by being City Council president when the incumbent died -- survived the 1989 primary with a whopping 28 percent of the vote. That was enough in a five-person race.

A big field may be Mayor Ravenstahl's best friend as well. He's flying through heavy political turbulence, but though he has trouble accounting for his bodyguards' debit card records, he can still count to three.

That should be the fewest number of candidates who will compete in the May 21 primary. Councilman Bill Peduto and city Controller Michael Lamb already are running, and neither shows any sign of pulling out. This would in some way be a replay of the 2005 primary, when then-Councilman O'Connor beat Mr. Peduto and Mr. Lamb.

With a little more than 48 percent of the vote, Mr. O'Connor was only a percentage point better than he was in his narrow defeat to Mr. Murphy four years before -- yet he ran away with the race. Mr. Peduto (24 percent) and Mr. Lamb (22 percent) split most of the other votes.

So even if Mr. Ravenstahl continues to have trouble tracking the flow of money in and around his police department, he could survive the primary while winning little more than a third of the electorate.

That won't be his last hurdle. There's a general election in November. They generally don't count in this one-party town because Allegheny County Republicans' three-pronged position on Pittsburgh affairs -- you're all idiots; I'd never live there; why don't you let us run it? -- has for some reason failed to catch fire.

But Jack Wagner, the former Democratic state senator and auditor general from Beechview, is considering running as an independent in November.

He'd have to ditch his registration as a Democrat by April 22 and gather 895 city voters' signatures by Aug. 1, but that's easy enough. Mr. Wagner seems ready. When he called me back Tuesday, it was from his new office in Banksville, which my phone identified as "Friends of Jack Wagner."

Mr. Wagner, 65, has been in politics for 30 years, having first been elected councilman in a citywide race in 1983 with the rallying cry "Stop the Circus.'' He ran against Mr. Murphy for mayor in 1993 when Mrs. Masloff chose not to seek re-election, and got only 28 percent of the vote. But Mr. Wagner had his revenge the following year when he defeated Mr. Murphy's North Side ally Dan Onorato for a state Senate seat. Mr. Wagner served in the Senate 10 years before winning statewide races for auditor general in 2004 and 2008.

He recalled that when he joined council in January 1984, the regional economy was on the skids. The private sector has adapted and rebounded, and these days Pittsburgh is doing better than most places on the national map.

"What's not evolved is government,'' Mr. Wagner said. "Government is holding this region back. It seems as if no one's in control. The left arm doesn't know what the right arm is doing.''

Bypassing the primary may be the smart play as rival candidates burn through money and each other. Mayor Richard Caliguiri (another City Council president who replaced a sitting mayor) sat out the 1977 primary and, as an independent, defeated Democrat Tom Foerster in the general election.

That said, incumbent mayors are tough to topple in any circumstance. It has been 80 years since one lost an election in Pittsburgh. Republican Mayor John Herron (yet another City Council president who snatched a vacant mayoral position) lost badly to Democrat William McNair in 1933. Democrats have held the mayor's seat ever since. You could attach an asterisk due to Mr. Caliguiri's first election as an independent, but he was re-elected twice as a Democrat.

Whatever happens next, if you're a political junkie, this should be a fun year.


Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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