Council president Harris backs Wagner in Pittsburgh mayoral race


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With a sharp shot at mayoral candidate Bill Peduto, city council President Darlene Harris joined the leaders of five building trades unions Thursday in endorsing former state Auditor General Jack Wagner for the Democratic nomination for mayor.

The Wagner event, at the South Side headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, came as one new survey showed Mr. Wagner overtaking city Councilman Peduto in the slimmed-down competition for the Democratic nomination. Separately, a group of African-American leaders offered a series of benchmarks to evaluate the contenders and said they planned to endorse one of them.

In her prepared remarks, Mrs. Harris offered a thinly veiled criticism of her colleague, Mr. Peduto. Mrs. Harris said she was supporting Mr. Wagner because the city does not need a mayor "who doesn't work well with others" and holds "petty grudges" for years.

In response to a question, she made her criticism explicit as she said that Mr. Peduto had sought her endorsement for mayor two years ago but made his support for her bid to be council president conditional on her support in the pending mayor's race.

"I don't cut deals," said Ms. Harris, who was herself a candidate for mayor until last week.

The North Side councilwoman said Mr. Peduto had rarely spoken with her since her latest election as president of council. She added that there had been no quid pro quo for support for Mr. Wagner.

A spokeswoman for the Peduto campaign declined to comment on Mrs. Harris' remarks.

The former auditor general appeared with his new supporters at the South Side event, where he was introduced by Mike Dunleavy, business manager of IBEW Local 5.

Also there to support his candidacy were officials of the Greater Pittsburgh Council of Carpenters, Steamfitters Local 449, Plumbers Local 27 and the Painters District Council 57.

Mr. Wagner's appearance came as a new survey showed the former auditor general overtaking Mr. Peduto.

The poll of 400 likely Democratic voters was conducted Tuesday and Wednesday for Keystone Analytics, a Harrisburg marketing firm. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent. The survey showed Mr. Wagner at 38 percent; Mr. Peduto at 31 percent; state Rep. Jake Wheatley, 4 percent; and A.J. Richardson, 1 percent. Another 26 percent were undecided or refused to answer.

The new results showed a big advance for Mr. Wagner compared to a survey released by the same firm in the first week of March. Mr. Peduto's support remained fairly constant over a tumultuous month in the competition for the Democratic nomination, with 31 percent this month, and 30 percent in early March. But Mr Wagner, jumped up from 20 percent to 38 percent over the same period. Since then, three candidates have dropped from the race, with the bulk of their support appearing to have migrated to Mr. Wagner. In the early March survey, city Controller Michael Lamb, who dropped out of the race Monday, had 13 percent; state Sen. Jim Ferlo had 7 percent; and Ms. Harris had 5 percent.

The survey found that a plurality of the Democratic voters, 49 percent, approved of the city's general direction, while 29 percent said it was on the wrong track. When asked to choose the most important issue in the race, from a list supplied by the pollster, there was a virtual tie among jobs and economic development, 27 percent; investing in schools, 27 percent; and investigating government corruption, 25 percent.

The poll showed that the leaders enjoyed almost universal name recognition and similarly strong approval ratings.

Three in five voters said they held a favorable view of Mr. Wagner and the same was true of Mr. Peduto.

Sonya M. Toler, spokeswoman for Mr. Peduto, questioned the demographic makeup of the poll's respondents.

"What strikes us most about this poll is the age of the sample -- only 7 percent of the respondents are 18-34," she said. "We maintain that this is the only campaign that has been in every neighborhood and we continue to be encouraged by our interactions with voters."

In addition to that group, 17 percent of the sample was between ages 35 and 49, 37 percent between 50 and 64, and 39 percent were 65 or older.

Mr. Peduto, meanwhile, received another endorsement Thursday from the gun control group CeaseFirePa. It said in a statement that while the other three candidates in the Democratic race supported cracking down on illegal guns, Mr. Peduto did so most forcefully. "Councilman Peduto has proven himself to be a leader in Pittsburgh City Council on efforts to reduce gun violence. He introduced and supported the adoption of a lost or stolen ordinance in Pittsburgh, and it was his leadership that resulted in the city's enactment of this ordinance," the group said.

Seeking to amplify the voice of African-American voters in the Democratic competition, a group of community leaders announced Thursday that it would hold a convention of registered black city voters in two weeks to endorse the mayoral candidate they judge will fight hardest for their interests.

Former city Councilman Sala Udin announced the Pittsburgh Black Political Convention at a City-County Building news conference surrounded by more than 20 other leaders, including Black Political Empowerment Project leader Tim Stevens.

All Pittsburgh mayoral candidates will be issued a "Black Agenda" today listing issues of importance to the black community -- including crime, education, employment and naming black officials to important mayoral positions -- to which interested candidates will have to respond by April 17. They will address voters at a forum April 19 at Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Larimer and the endorsement vote will happen a day later.

"Although African-Americans make up over a quarter of the population, too many black Pittsburghers live in conditions that are unacceptable to us and they should be unacceptable to the mayor of the city of Pittsburgh," Mr. Udin said.

Two of the four Democrats vying for the party's nomination in the May 21 primary are black: state Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District and political newcomer A.J. Richardson of Sheraden. Mr. Peduto of Point Breeze and Mr. Wagner of Beechview are white.

Any candidate should be able to get the group's backing, Mr. Udin said, as long as the person convincingly addresses the group's issues.

"A white candidate with a solid endorsement of the black agenda can very easily win the endorsement of the black convention. We've been waiting for white candidates to speak up for black people for a long time," he said.

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Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. Timothy McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. First Published April 5, 2013 4:00 AM


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