Peduto wins Democratic nod for Pittsburgh mayoral race

City councilman defeats Wagner in mayoral primary, becomes odds-on favorite to succeed rival Ravenstahl


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This story was written by James O'Toole based on his reporting and that of Post-Gazette staff writers Rich Lord, Joe Smydo, Alex Zimmerman, and Tim McNulty.

With a convincing win for the Democratic nomination for mayor of Pittsburgh Tuesday, Bill Peduto was on the threshold of capturing the office he's sought in three campaigns and one that he pledged to use to replace the city's "machine" with a new, more progressive coalition.

"Tonight we stand at the dawn of a new Pittsburgh, one that builds from our past with a vision for the future," the exultant winner told a packed house at the headquarters of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers headquarters.

"We are one Pittsburgh, and we will fight for a new Pittsburgh -- and we did it," he said.

Squirrel Hill's Josh Wander was unopposed for the Republican nomination for mayor, but the city's political demographics represent a daunting hurdle to him or any other Republican candidate. Barring the emergence of a strong independent challenger, the result made Mr. Peduto the overwhelming favorite to take over the grand corner office on the fifth floor of the City-County Building.

Former Auditor General Jack Wagner called Mr. Peduto to concede shortly before 10 p.m. His defeat could mean the end of a long public career that began when the city's sluggish response to contaminated water supplies led him to community organizing and a successful run for city council. It was his second defeat in a Democratic mayoral primary, echoing his loss to former Mayor Tom Murphy two decades ago.

"I lost an election tonight, but worse things have happened in life," the Vietnam veteran said, while emphasizing his pride in his family and his supporters. "Worse things have happened in my life. Worse things have happened in many people's lives. But we're still together."

State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, returns to his legislative career in Harrisburg, after a bid that never allowed him to break through to the top tier of candidates in what remained effectively a Wagner-Peduto contest throughout the spring. The fourth Democratic hopeful, Sheraden's A.J.Richardson, received just a smattering of votes.

Mr. Peduto, at 48 the longest serving member of council, promises a new approach to governing and development in which the initiatives of establishment forces would be balanced by grass-roots assessments of community needs. After winning more votes than his three rivals combined, he promised to shake up and modernize a government he's characterized as being in thrall to special interests and old ideas.

Pittsburgh has a strong mayor form of government, and Mr. Peduto's victory, coupled with the results of the three contested council races, suggested the opportunity for the new mayor to forge a working majority on council. His longtime aide, Daniel Gilman, was crushing his two opponents in the race for the East End seat that Mr. Peduto is relinquishing. His ally, Natalia Rudiak, won a closer race to retain her council seat against a challenge from Johnny Lee in Mr. Wagner's South Hills base. Her successful defense was further evidence of a waning of the Wagner family's traditional clout in the city's southern neighborhoods.

Mr. Peduto may have a more problematic relationship with Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle, the winner of the other contested council race. The two have been at odds on a variety of issues on council. And Mr. Peduto can expect still more difficult relations with two council members who were not on the ballot, Council President Darlene Harris and Ricky Burgess, both of whom endorsed Mr. Wagner.

One of the larger questions on the new administration is whether it continues to be constrained by the state fiscal supervision imposed by Act 47. Mr. Peduto was one of the early advocates for the state oversight, and, in contrast to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, argues that the city's finances, while much improved, still don't warrant lifting the state oversight.

Another question mark for a Peduto administration would be over his relationship with some of the city's prominent Downtown business and development figures. While the East End councilman touted his role in development progress in his district, several influential figures in the city's business elite were conspicuous supporters first of Mr. Ravenstahl, then of Mr. Wagner in opposition to Mr. Peduto and his calls for a more robust voice for community members in development decisions.

The result was also a vindication for county Executive Rich Fitzgerald, who, midway through his first term, had staked his political and financial capital on the success of Mr. Peduto, with whom he'd formed a strong political alliance in recent years. Mr. Fitzgerald's donation to his campaign committee was the among first official signs that Mr. Peduto would pursue his long-held ambition to lead the city. When a judge struck down the contribution limits in this race, Mr. Fitzgerald raised his own bet on his East End ally with a donation of $50,000, to go along with the energetic campaign and fund-raising assistance he'd lent for the last year.

"Did we change the city tonight or what?" the enthusiastic county official said as the dimensions of his ally's win became clear.

While he opposes a formal city-county consolidation, Mr. Peduto said one of his first initiatives in tandem with Mr. Fitzgerald, would be to more closely coordinate the operations of the large city and county parks supported by revenue from the county's regional asset tax.

But the government partners will still have two key Wagner allies looking over their fiscal shoulders. The former auditor general's niece, Chelsa Wagner, remains the county controller, a post she's already used to criticize Mr. Fitzgerald. City Controller Michael Lamb, who dropped from the race to endorse Mr. Wagner, is midway though his term as the city's financial watchdog.

Savoring his win, Mr. Peduto said his administration would be an inclusive one that reach out to all parts of the city. Reactions from the leaders of some of the public employee unions that had endorsed Mr. Wagner demonstrated some of the challenges to that outreach.

Alluding to Mr. Peduto's support for the state supervision that curbs the bargaining leverage of city unions, Mike LaPorte, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police said the new nominee "treats the city workers like garbage."

"I'm thinking about retiring," he added.

Standing amid the disappointed Wagner partisans, Darrin Kelly, political action director of the firefighters union, had a more measured reaction.

"Whoever's mayor, we'll work with them," he said. "We can only hope that the newly elected mayor has as his top priority the best interests and safety of the citizens of Pittsburgh."

Mr. Peduto cut his teeth in local politics as an aide to former city Councilman Dan Cohen and as campaign manager for Mr. Cohen's unsuccessful 1996 challenge to former U.S. Rep. William Coyne. He succeeded Mr. Cohen as councilman, and ran for mayor the first time in 2005, running a distant second to the late Bob O'Connor in the Democratic primary. Mr. Peduto launched another bid for mayor in 2007, in the special election that followed Mr. Ravenstahl's succession. But, in what for him was an agonizing decision, he cut the run short acknowledging that he was unlikely to prevail against a new mayor at the height of his popularity

The stage for this primary drama was set by Mr. Ravenstahl's startling decision, amid a scandal battering his police bureau and his office, not to seek re-election to the office. That changed the cast of characters, bringing Mr. Wagner into the Democratic field. After being crushed by former Mayor Tom Murphy in his first shot at the job in 1993, Mr. Wagner had gone on to a successful career in other political arenas, capturing a state senate seat, then after an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor, winning two terms as the state's auditor general. He left that office at the beginning of the year, barred from a third term by the state Constitution.

Mr. Ravenstahl, whose future remains unclear, bowed out as a candidate in the race, but he remained a player, drawing on his ample campaign fund to pay for ads blasting his longtime nemesis, Mr. Peduto. Those attacks, alongside Mr. Wagner's own negative ads, clearly had some effect as polls found that Mr. Peduto's unfavorable ratings rose.

Some Wagner advisors viewed them as a double-edged sword, however, wary of their impact in fueling the perception of ties between the controversial administration and Mr. Wagner.

The first time Mr. Wagner ran for office, he promised to "end the circus" in city hall. His 2013 campaign revisited that same theme as he repeatedly denounced a dysfunctional city government marked by lack of cooperation an communication among the various players. He placed his rival Mr. Peduto at the center of that indictment, criticizing his rocky relationships with the Ravenstahl administration and some of his council colleagues.

But, on the evidence of the results, he failed to make that case, while suffering himself from the Peduto campaign's attacks on his conservative fiscal views, and his years-old votes for legislative pay raises.

Before Mayor Ravenstahl's decision prompted his late entry into the race, Mr. Wagner's name was in the circle of speculation about potential Democratic challengers to Gov. Corbett next year. But this loss damages his chances of renewing any statewide political ambitions.

Obviously, I'm a realist," Mr. Wagner said after his concession speech. "Not many people voted ... twenty thousand votes, and you win? That's really unbelievable."

And he wouldn't rule out another political campaign.

"You never know what the future brings," he said. "I'll analyze those situations as I go forward."

Mr. Wheatley, conceded shortly after it became clear that his single digit pre-election poll numbers were unlikely to improve on election night.

After what he acknowledged was a long-shot campaign, Mr. Wheatley said he would continue to advocate for marginalized communities.

In a cozy basement room of the Strip District's Savoy restaurant, Mr. Wheatley thanked a small gathering of supporters, friends and family, including his 16-month-old son, who donned a "Wheatley for mayor" shirt.

Mr. Wheatley expressed disappointment that so few citizens voted, saying that wealthy interests had a disproportionate influence in the election.

"Had we raised a million dollars like the other two candidates in this race, then it wouldn't even be close. We didn't have the massive war chest to show credibility,''he said.

"We did a lot with very little, but we should all be proud that what we accomplished in this short time frame," he added. "We were under-resourced and not very well known, but I think we ran a race that we can all be proud of."

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First Published May 22, 2013 4:45 AM


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