Wheatley receives African-American support in Pittsburgh's mayoral contest

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Jake Wheatley's longshot campaign for mayor received a modest boost Saturday as he prevailed easily in a straw poll of African-American voters.

The Democratic state representative collected 112 votes from five polling places scattered around the city in the survey sponsored by a new group, the Pittsburgh Black Political Convention. He was followed by city Councilman Bill Peduto, with 72; and former Auditor General Jack Wagner, 29. Josh Wander, who is unopposed for the GOP nomination, received two votes. A.J. Richardson, the only African-American candidates besides Mr. Wheatley, did not receive any votes.

"I'm certainly happy and humbled,'' Mr. Wheatley said as he stood outside the Hill District's Wesley Center AME Zion Church, where the votes were tabulated. "We have a lot of work to do between now and May 21 [the date of the primary]; if they come out in large numbers, they can shake the world.''

It's unclear how reliable the results will be as a gauge of overall African-American results in the primary. Former city Councilman Sala Udin, one of the key organizers of the effort to assess African-American sentiment, said a coalition of black leaders would use the endorsement as a catalyst to seek financial support and volunteers for the Wheatley campaign. Mr. Wheatley once worked for Mr. Udin as a staffer during his tenure on city council

The former councilman called the vote, which followed a three-hour candidates' forum Friday at Mount Ararat Baptist Church, "an innovative process to enlarge and enhance and strengthen the black vote in this city.'

"We held candidates for mayor accountable in a way that I think they have not ever been held accountable before,'' he said at a news conference announcing the results.

Mr. Udin said he was happy with the turnout of more than 200 participants in the first-time effort.

Roughly 26 percent of Pittsburgh's population is black. In a recent post on his blog Nullspace, University of Pittsburgh economist Chris Briem, who has studied black voting patterns in the city, projected that roughly 30 percent of the Democratic primary votes would be cast by African-Americans.

The black endorsement election came as the campaign entered its final month and on a day when Mr. Wagner released a new commercial highlighting his record as a wounded Vietnam war veteran. The commercial recounts his injury and extended convalescence after a tour of duty in which seven of the 12 members of his Marine unit were killed.

"When you survive something like that, you realize how valuable life is,'' Mr. Wagner says in the spot. "It is one of the reasons that I believe I am in public service.''

This was the second ad aired by the Wagner campaign. Mr. Peduto has broadcast one spot. All of them have been positive, concentrating on the candidate's biographies. On the campaign trail, however, the two leading Democrats have begun to trade elbows.

In a clear though implicit shot at Mr. Peduto, Mr. Wagner misses no chance to denounce the lack of communication in a city government that he characterizes as dysfunctional. The Peduto campaign last week seized on an announcement by Mr. Wagner's successor, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, that he had cleared a backlog of state audits since taking office. In a news release, the councilman's spokeswoman said that the backlog suggested questions about Mr. Wagner's record for diligence in the state post.

In response, Mr. Wagner said contended that the press release reflected the "pettiness'' of the Peduto campaign.

"That was part of the normal process of changing from one auditor general to another,'' he said of the fact that Mr. DePasquale's new team had completed roughly 1,500 leftover audits. "There are thousands of audits that are always in process. You don't end your term and end all the audits; they continue. For some reason Councilman Peduto doesn't understand that process of state government.''

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Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com First Published April 21, 2013 4:00 AM


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