Mayor ready to shift gears

State overseers due to receive budget Thursday

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Luke Ravenstahl was a quiet mourner during his first week as Pittsburgh's mayor, and a national pitchman in his second. In his third week, he'll finally have to be a politician.

The city's 2007 budget is due to state overseers on Thursday. Mr. Ravenstahl has said he'll make that deadline and put his stamp on the spending plan while embracing the late Mayor Bob O'Connor's agenda of cleaner, safer streets.

It could be a defining moment for a politician who is a blank slate for most Pittsburghers, and who may face voters as early as next year.

"It is important, and we're prepared to submit that budget on Thursday," said the mayor, who took office Sept. 1. He promised some "wrinkles" that "are important to me" and would differentiate his approach from Mr. O'Connor's.

Mr. Ravenstahl on Friday pledged to cooperate with the state-appointed Act 47 recovery team and Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, both charged with overseeing the city's finances.

He's sparred with the overseers in the past but said Friday that that's over.

"We can all agree to disagree on some of the things that have happened in the past," he said. "I'm confident that the bickering back and forth that we've had is over."

In fact, the first two years of his career were marked by a slalom around the Act 47 recovery plan's cost-cutting and tax-hiking formula, sometimes supporting it, sometimes opposing.

In early 2004, a month into his term on City Council, he sought to reverse a hike in the parking tax by plowing development money into the budget that covers day-to-day operations. The bid passed council but was vetoed by then-Mayor Tom Murphy.

A few months later, he joined three other council members in opposing the Act 47 plan. Only at year's end, when the plan's passage was assured, did he back it.

"We fought [the plan]," said Councilman Jim Motznik, a friend of Mr. Ravenstahl. The reason: The Act 47 team and Mr. Murphy "tried to get into union contracts in ways that had nothing to do with saving money."

"I was a spearhead of those four votes going [from no to yes] to make it a unanimous vote," Mr. Ravenstahl said. He wanted council to present a united front to Harrisburg, where legislators were weighing tax shifts the city needed.

His skepticism with state oversight didn't end. Just weeks after voting for the plan, he backed a resolution calling for an investigation of ICA Executive Director Henry Sciortino.

Mr. Sciortino had just sued his former employer, Fairmont Capital Advisors. Council deadlocked, 4-4, on the request for an investigation, and none was conducted.

In early 2005, Mr. Ravenstahl voted against the closure of six fire stations, after it met intense opposition in Troy Hill, which was in his district.

In November of that year, he said the Act 47 plan "stinks" because it doesn't do much to whittle down the city's debt, pension and health insurance costs.

But in April of this year, he voted against a resolution to shed state oversight. He also engineered a 13 percent cut in council staff costs and new controls over discretionary spending.

His shifts on the issue don't necessarily mean he's wishy-washy, said political observers.

"So he had it both ways, which shows he's sensitive to the [political] winds," said James Burnham, a professor who watches municipal finance at Duquesne University's Donahue Graduate School of Business.

Mr. Ravenstahl's opposition to cuts like fire station and pool closings means he views himself as a "delegate" chosen to reflect his constituents' views, rather than as a "trustee" who feels he knows better than the voters, said Sara Grove, the Hillman Chair in Politics at Chatham College.

His varied votes on the budget match the diverse support his campaign received. Unions were, collectively, big supporters of his council bid, but a top individual backer was Squirrel Hill insurance broker William K. Lieberman, who gave $1,600.

Mr. Lieberman was chairman of the state-appointed ICA, until he resigned a year ago to join a consortium seeking to bring a slots casino to Station Square.

Mr. Ravenstahl has endorsed a competing plan to build a casino in the Hill District, but has said he won't seek to reverse the position of the City Planning Department that Station Square is the best location. In a letter sent Friday to Penguins President Ken Sawyer, Mr. Ravenstahl reiterated his endorsement but asked the team to commit to an alternative arena funding plan that would keep them in Pittsburgh.

He has said little on divisive social issues. In December, he largely sat out a bruising council debate before voting against limits on protests around abortion clinics and healthcare facilities.

"He's pro-life, I think," said Mr. Motznik. "So am I," he added, noting that he did not think the bill was too restrictive to protestors.

"Socially conservative, I would agree" with that characterization, Mr. Ravenstahl said. On economic issues, he said he balanced business and labor concerns.

"I have a good working relationship with the unions, and that's important, because we'll be at the [negotiating] table, and there will have to be some give and take," he said.

A combination of social conservatism and sensitivity to labor puts him in a good spot politically, said Ms. Grove. "Pennsylvania Democrats are definitely more working class, and they're definitely more conservative than Democrats in New York, Massachusetts or California."

Mr. Motznik noted a political resemblance between Mr. Ravenstahl and state Treasurer Bob Casey Jr., currently a U.S. Senate challenger. Both are from political families, respect unions, and skew conservative on social issues.

"I think he'll appeal to the average, ordinary Pittsburgher," Mr. Motznik said.

Mr. Ravenstahl has shown a willingness to back down under public pressure.

In January, he had control over the scheduling of a special election to fill a vacant council seat representing the South Side and part of Oakland. He initially scheduled the vote for March 7, but after students protested that they would be away on spring break, he shifted it to March 14.

"Once he got the information, I think he came to the conclusion that the right thing to do was move it to the 14th," said Khari Mosley, Pittsburgh Regional Director of the League of Young Voters.

Studies show that young voters like young candidates, but Mr. Ravenstahl isn't guaranteed to win that bloc, said Mr. Mosley. "I think they would be more interested in where the candidates stand than in their birthdate."

Councilman William Peduto, a likely challenger in the next mayoral election, has courted the youth vote for years.

It's unclear whether the new mayor will face the voters next year or in 2009. Lawyers disagree on how to interpret language in the city charter on when to hold elections to replace mayors who can't finish their terms.

Mr. Ravenstahl said Friday that the city may have to wait until Allegheny County or some other entity files a court action on the timing of a new election.

For now, there's a budget to contend with, and while it's not make-or-break, it may set the tone for the Ravenstahl administration, said Jerry Shuster, professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh.

"I think he has to put some of Luke Ravenstahl into it, or it's going to look like he's very placid in his leadership," Mr. Shuster said. "He's got to appreciate the fact that people shouldn't expect him to have all the answers, but as a young professional, they believe he should know where to get them."


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


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