Candidates for Pittsburgh mayor face new campaign regulations

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Bill Peduto says he collected in the neighborhood of $250,000 Thursday as he was poised to officially enter the race for the Democratic nomination for mayor.

That one-day haul is as much as he collected in his entire campaign for mayor in 2005.

"If you can't ante up a million dollars, you can't be in the race,'' he said on the day that a mayoral competition that's been under way behind the scenes for many months made its official debut.

The contribution total was good news for the mayoral challenger. The bad news, or at least inconvenient news, is that he can't go back to many of them for still more money. That's because this is the first Pittsburgh mayoral election to operate under new campaign contribution limits -- $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for political action committees, per election (primary and general elections). Although the 2011 city council races were the first to go forward with the contribution limits in place, next year's mayoral competition will be the first true test of whether the legislation changes the character of Pittsburgh elections.

That's just one of the questions surrounding an election still coming into focus. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and city Controller Michael Lamb are expected to make similar announcements in the coming weeks. Both of them held their own big-dollar fundraisers in recent weeks. Mr. Lamb hosted supporters at the Engineers' Club on Wednesday and Mr. Ravenstahl attracted big donations at an event at Heinz Field last month.

Whether they will have more company or whether those three and possibly others will remain on the ballot until May are also among the question marks on this still fluid scene. In warning of the race's likely price tag, Mr. Peduto was not so subtly sending a message to Mr. Lamb, his obvious rival as the destination for anti-Ravenstahl votes, contending that the emergence of other candidates would serve to "make it easier for the incumbent."

Mr. Lamb has rejected that premise, arguing first that his own fundraising will be robust and, secondly, that he could prevail over the mayor and Mr. Peduto in a multicandidate field.

Speaking just after his announcement speech, the East End councilman said the race would demonstrate "a very strong distinction on policy and hopefully the campaign will go in that direction.''

Alliances may be key

But the speeches Thursday night, like the history of Mr. Peduto's relationship with Mr. Ravenstahl, suggested that the mayor's challengers hope to use issues of personality and management style as well to persuade voters to oust the incumbent.

That's something that hasn't happened in the lifetimes of anyone seeking the office. In 2001, Bob O'Connor, a city councilman at the time, came close to defeating then-Mayor Tom Murphy in the Democratic primary, but he fell just short. O'Connor became mayor in the 2005 election and died in September 2006 from cancer.

The first time Mr. Ravenstahl had to defend his seat, in a 2007 special election, he opened his campaign with a show of support from then-county Executive Dan Onorato, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and other leading Democrats. The current county executive, Rich Fitzgerald, is firmly in the camp of Mr. Peduto, his East End colleague.

One of the preliminary competitions in the race until May 21 will be to see what other alliances the contenders can demonstrate. Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign announced earlier this month an endorsement from state Sen. Jim Ferlo, an unsurprising development in that the two politicians have been allies throughout the Ravenstahl administration.

Mr. Peduto predicted that he would unveil a string of other endorsements after the first of the year with other prominent Democrats and labor leaders.

While the veteran Mr. Doyle, whose district is dominated by the city, supported the mayor in the past, he has yet to announce whether he will back anyone in the coming contest.

"I just haven't made any decision,'' Mr. Doyle said in a recent interview. "I know all three, I get along with all three of them. I told all three of them I'm not making any endorsements right now.''

"None of them have to make a decision until sometime in the new year,'' he added, observing that, "All this talk about how much money they raise won't be talk anymore, it'll be numbers on paper.''

Those numbers will be disclosed in reports due at the end of January detailing the campaigns' 2012 fundraising, the first returns in the money primary that precedes and shapes the real primary. At this point, it remains unclear how the new contribution limits will influence that race within the race.

"We got a little bit of a preview of that will the last council races,'' said Matt Merriman-Preston, a strategist with the Peduto campaign and a veteran of local races. "It's beneficial to the candidate who can build the broadest base of support. It did force the candidates to go to a broader base that we saw before.''

Mr. Ravenstahl said in a recent interview that he didn't expect the new rules to have a decisive impact but he made a similar point to that of the Peduto strategist.

"I'm obviously in the fundraising arena right now,'' he said. "We're pleased with our results to date. ... [the contribution limits] have encouraged me to reach out to a broader group of people.''

In addition to higher profile office-holders, the rank-and-file members of the Democratic Party City Committee will have a chance to weigh in on the race on March 10 when they take an endorsement vote. Mr. Ravenstahl is considered the favorite with those party regulars as incumbents usually are, although both Mr. Peduto, with his East End base, and Mr. Lamb, with roots in the South Hills, have supporters on the committee.

Nancy Mills, the Allegheny County Democratic chairwoman, said Mr. Ravenstahl, Mr. Lamb and Mr. Peduto had all indicated to her that they planned to see the party endorsement. She said she hadn't heard from state Auditor General Jack Wagner, who amounts to another question mark in the race. Mr. Wagner has frequently mentioned his interest in the mayor's race but has yet to make any public moves toward a candidacy.

O'Connor came close to wresting the party endorsement from Mr. Murphy in 2001 but came just short, as he did in the overall nomination battle.

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Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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