New mayor Luke Ravenstahl confident he is ready to lead city

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John Heller, Post-GazettePittsburgh City Council President Luke Ravenstahl, left, is sworn as the new mayor of Pittsburgh by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Robert C. Gallo, right, in a conference room in the mayor's office at the City-County Building last night.
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Pittsburgh's newly sworn in mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, asks the citizens of the city to remember Mayor Bob O'Connor who died this evening, Friday, September, 1, 2006.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell speaks with KDKA's Ken Rice about the death of Pittsburgh Mayor Bob O'Connor.


In the last hours before Mayor Bob O'Connor succumbed to a rare form of brain cancer, the man in line to succeed him declared himself ready to serve.

Council President Luke Ravenstahl, 26, of Summer Hill, became the youngest mayor in city history shortly after Mr. O'Connor passed away last night.

In remarks to news reporters earlier in the day, Mr. Ravenstahl acknowledged that his youth "is an issue that many will raise. But I am here. I have been the president. I have been elected by my district, I have been elected by my colleagues, and I'm more than confident that if and when I'm called upon, I'm here to serve the residents of the city."

Yesterday marked the end of a long, quiet period for Mr. Ravenstahl, who had chosen to say little about his governing priorities since the July 10 start of Mr. O'Connor's ongoing hospitalization with central nervous system lymphoma. His reticence faded after city officials on Thursday began acknowledging that Mr. O'Connor rested precariously on the edge of death.

"We're waiting for the mayor to make his decision," said mayoral spokesman Dick Skrinjar.

The city's charter says that if a mayor isn't able to serve out his term, council's president can accept or decline the post. Mr. Ravenstahl made it clear he wouldn't decline. Though he's young, public service is in his blood.

His grandfather, Robert, was a firefighter, and later a state representative, until ousted by Tom Murphy, later the mayor. His dad, Robert Jr., worked his way to the top of the city's water and sewer authority, then was tapped to be a district judge, a post he still holds.

Mr. Ravenstahl graduated from Pittsburgh's North Catholic High School in 1998, a star baseball player and kicker and quarterback for the football team.

He signed on to play football at Mercyhurst College in Erie, but stayed for just one year. He transferred to Pitt, where he didn't play football. Then he transferred again to Washington & Jefferson College, where he kicked for the football team, and graduated with a bachelor of arts in business administration.

After graduation, he worked as an account manager for a courier service. By 23 -- a year after graduation -- he was running against incumbent Barbara Burns for the Democratic City Council nomination in District 1. Though Mr. Murphy backed Ms. Burns, Mr. Ravenstahl won.

He was inaugurated in January 2004, and married Erin Lynn Feith, a beautician, six months later. They live in a three-bedroom home on Cerise Street, in the northernmost fringe of the city.

Mr. Ravenstahl's early career was marked by opposition to the stringent cost-cutting measures eventually adopted under state Act 47 for financially distressed municipalities. Joining labor unions in opposing the plan for months, he only voted for it at the last possible moment, in December 2004, when all of council united behind it.

In late 2005, he got a freak break. Then-council President Gene Ricciardi, now a district judge, announced that he would resign the presidency some time prior to leaving council at that year's end. That was widely viewed as an effort to pave the way for Councilman Jim Motznik to seize the reins.

Mr. Motznik could not assemble four colleagues willing to vote for him. He and Mr. Ricciardi, however, were able to get just enough votes together for an ally of theirs, Mr. Ravenstahl.

On Dec. 6, 2005, he won council's presidency with the bare minimum number of votes. In January, a unanimous council vote gave him a two-year term.

"The fact that he has positioned himself to become president is encouraging," said Ms. Burns. "That tells me he has good communication skills. ... Sometimes, you're in the right place at the right time, and you seize it and you gain something from it."

No one, at the time, thought he would imminently become mayor, given the inauguration of the apparently vigorous Mr. O'Connor.

In eight months in the post, he worked closely with Mr. O'Connor's administration. He voted against a nonbinding measure to remove state fiscal oversight, bucking the potent firefighters union.

After Councilwoman Twanda Carlisle's spending on consultants was questioned and referred to prosecutors for review, he proposed curbs on council discretionary funds, which were approved, though a few members said they fell short of true reform.

Then the mayor was hospitalized. A month later, he was declared temporarily disabled, and appointed Deputy Mayor Yarone Zober to run the city.

Chemotherapy failed, and after seizures and an infection occurred, focused radiation treatments were put on hold.

Now the focus is on Mr. Ravenstahl.

"He has had experience on City Council, but I think how you gauge somebody is by their intelligence, work ethic and ability," said state Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side, an early backer and adviser to Mr. Ravenstahl. "I think Luke has all of those great characteristics."

With the mayor's passing, there will be not just a generational shift, but a change in tone from the ebullience of Mr. O'Connor to the cautious poise of Mr. Ravenstahl, he added.

"Luke puts a different face on the city."


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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