After he launched his bid for mayor in a Brookline rally in January, Michael Lamb's next stop was a low-key walking tour of Homewood businesses. His scheduling pointed to the potentially pivotal role of black voters in choosing the Democratic nominee for mayor.
At that point, the mayoral competition was shaping up as a three-way race among white candidates. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's surprise exit from the race quickly expanded the field and created the possibility that Pittsburgh Democrats for the first time could cast their ballots for an African-American candidate with at least a plausible chance of winning the nomination.
With Mr. Ravenstahl's exit, former state Auditor General Jack Wagner and two black candidates -- state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, and A.J. Richardson, a community activist -- made late entries in the race.
Mr. Richardson, a political newcomer, insists he's in the race to win. And it's within the realm of possibility that his underfunded campaign could catch fire. But Mr. Wheatley is the more established figure. For more than a decade, he has represented a legislative district that includes a substantial portion of the city.
"If Jake was coming out of nowhere as an unknown, that would be one thing," said Darren Barringer, an experienced political strategist who's part of a campaign that's still in the process of staffing up. "Because of the qualifications, [it] puts him on the same level as some of the other candidates running ... he's got some substance."
The black contenders face significant logistical challenges in organizing and fundraising compared to Mr. Lamb and city Councilman Bill Peduto, both of whom had been gearing up for the campaign long before the mayor left it. That's true of Mr. Wagner as well, but he brings a long, statewide political track record and a campaign war chest collected along the way. And they face of history of Pittsburgh mayoral politics that has not been kind to African-American candidates.
The most prominent African-American figure to seek the nomination was the late Byrd Brown. The Yale University-educated lawyer and son of a well-known judge had forged reputations as a civil rights leader and successful litigator before he entered the crowded 1989 primary in which Mayor Sophie Masloff was running as an un-elected incumbent. Mr. Brown was a charismatic figure and a strong presence in campaign debates, but he was rebuffed by the city's voters.
He finished fourth in a five-person field behind Ms. Masloff, then-state Rep. Tom Murphy (who would go on to succeed her) and Frank Lucchino, the best-funded candidate in the race, who would go on to be a judge on Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. The civil rights leader did finish in front of one of the era's established political figures, then-city Controller Tom Flaherty, now a county judge as well.
1989 race offers parallel
1989's was the last mayoral primary with as many contenders as this one. Much has changed in politics and Pittsburgh since then -- a time when the suggestion that an African-American could win the White House would have taxed the most liberal imaginations. But the 1989 race offers several lessons that remain applicable to this one.
Beyond race, the size of the field created opportunities and problems for Mr. Brown. The five-way arithmetic lowered the number of votes needed to win. Ms. Masloff prevailed with a plurality of less than a third of the votes cast. But the size of the field also diluted the amount of attention available to any one candidate, compounding Mr. Brown's ability to break through to the voters.
African-American candidates in Pittsburgh haven't fared much better since. In 2009, Carmen Robinson, a former police officer, finished third, with roughly 13 percent of the vote, in a three-person race behind Mr. Ravenstahl and Councilman Patrick Dowd. In the 2005 primary, Louis "Hop" Kendrick trailed far behind Mayor Bob O'Connor, Mr. Peduto and Mr. Lamb. In 2001, Leroy Hodge, a lawyer and activist, was an also-ran behind Mayor Murphy and Mr. O'Connor. Chaston Roston failed in a challenge to Mr. Murphy in the 1997 primary and again in a run as an independent in the 2001 general election.
Duane Darkins, a colorful former member of city council, ran as an independent in the 1993 general election and finished far behind Mr. Murphy, though ahead of that year's Republican nominee, Kathy Matta. Franco "Dok" Harris, whose heritage is partially African-American, finished second behind Mr. Ravenstahl in the 2009 general election, running as an independent. (Mr. Harris is running for a city council seat in May's primary.)
One obvious factor in the historic lack of African-American success at the top of Pittsburgh politics is that the city's percentage of black population, at roughly 27 percent, is smaller than most other Northern cites that have elected black mayors. African-Americans represent more than 40 percent of the population of Philadelphia, for example, and more than half the population of Cleveland.
One of the rationales for the city's switch from a council-at-large system to a by-district council in 1989 was concern for a lack of representation for blacks in city government. Mr. Wheatley and Mr. Richardson are wagering that the city is ready to expand that representation from council chambers to the office at the other side of the City-County Building's fifth floor.
But their rivals in the race would argue that black voters can have a pivotal voice in the race without backing a black candidate.
"We always felt the African-American community would be a critical key in a race against Luke Ravenstahl," said Mr. Peduto, who said that his internal polling showed him leading among black Democrats. "Our strategy hasn't changed with the different field."
The fact that the city's black community is not monolithic was underscored this week as Mr. Wheatley's colleague from a neighboring district, Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington, endorsed his longtime ally, Mr. Peduto.
Mr. Gainey suggested that long-term political trends, nationally and in Pittsburgh, suggested that the black voters were, one way or another, destined to have a relatively stronger voice in local politics.
"The election of Barack Obama has changed a lot of things; the community is more active than they have been in the past," he said. "What's happened at the federal level has given has the idea that we can make a difference; we shall make a difference and we have to.
"We can increase the vote in the minority community considerably, hopefully we can get it up close to where the Obama vote was," he continued. "It's great that you come out for the presidential election, but we have the opportunity to make our voices heard in every election."
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published March 31, 2013 4:00 AM