5 seek Pittsburgh city council seat vacated by Dowd

Special election winner will serve until end of 2015

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In a special election in 15 days, voters in a sliver of Pittsburgh will again go through the head-scratching yet regular process of picking a short-time City Council member.

Of the nine council districts, all but one have hosted an election to fill a midterm vacancy over the years. On Nov. 5, voters in eastern city neighborhoods will choose among five candidates to replace Patrick Dowd, who left his District 7 position this summer to head an education nonprofit. The same district hosted a special election 10 years ago with similarities to next month's contest.

In 2003, Democratic nominee Len Bodack was the victor -- by 53 votes -- in a six-candidate race to replace Jim Ferlo after he left to join the state Senate. Next month Deb Gross, a Highland Park consultant, has the party's backing for the seat in a race that includes a former Democratic ward chairman, a former Ferlo aide, a political newcomer and the chairman of Allegheny County's Libertarian Party.

Turnout is typically low for the under-the-radar elections and only once has the Democratic nominee -- who is chosen in a secret ballot by the district's Democratic committee members -- lost a council special election. Ms. Gross has also piled up backing from mayoral nominee Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and nearly every city union, so the other candidates have lately been going all-out to drag her down.

Her chief rival is Tony Ceoffe Jr. of Lawrenceville, 29, a former Housing Authority client placement specialist and son of the neighborhood's district judge. Mr. Ceoffe, the former 6th Ward Democratic chairman, lost the party's nod to Ms. Gross by four votes in July and whittled it down to two in a losing court battle.

He has led the criticism of the Highland Park woman, saying among other things that she is too close to Mr. Peduto and other leaders. She shares the same chief political strategist with the likely mayor and the campaigns have coordinated volunteer work.

"When you have that much backing from an administration, how can you possibly sit at the [council] table and expect to be independent?" Mr. Ceoffe asked last week.

As a former board member of the neighborhood group Lawrenceville United, Mr. Ceoffe has campaigned on bringing the same attention to police and housing issues he learned there to the district's other communities -- Bloomfield, Friendship, Highland Park, Morningside, Polish Hill, Stanton Heights and the Strip District. He wants to write distinct public safety plans for each neighborhood and support affordable housing for longtime residents of gentrified communities like Lawrenceville who fear they'll be priced out of their homes.

Tom Fallon, 51, of Morningside is a former aide to Mr. Ferlo who runs a company called Urban Green Development that rebuilds dilapidated homes and makes them more energy efficient. His bid leans on his housing experience but also his time working in the Ferlo council and Senate offices.

"We cannot have people that are yes-people on council, and we cannot have people that will get there and learn on the job," Mr. Fallon said at a Highland Park debate Thursday. He said he would bring "the tutelage of Sen. Ferlo and his dedication and advocacy for the people of this city" to the position.

Both Mr. Ceoffe and Mr. Fallon have run for the District 7 seat in the past. This is the first political run for Ms. Gross, 47, who came back to the city 15 years ago and has consulted on urban revitalization, smart growth, environmental and women's issues. She was the first director of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Alliance and is a board member of the Landmarks Development Corp. (the for-profit subsidiary of the Pit7tsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation).

The mother of two, who recently moved to Highland Park after 12 years in Bloomfield, said she is proud of the support from Mr. Peduto and others, saying it was something she has earned.

"I have a strong relationship with leadership -- people who are policymakers by profession, people in the philanthropic community, people who are elected officials -- having worked on projects with them," she said last week in a meeting with the Post-Gazette editorial board. "I feel that I can maybe be a resource person for these neighborhoods. This is a fabulous city council district. These are wonderful neighborhoods with resources spread around them."

Ms. Gross said a top priority will be "traffic calming" in the district to make streets safer for children, seniors and bicyclists. That provoked a jab about "nepotism and patronage" from Mr. Fallon at Thursday's debate, when he noted Ms. Gross's husband helps run a transportation lab at Carnegie Mellon University.

"I don't believe that is a conflict of interest because my husband is also interested in public policy and transportation," she responded.

Jim Wudarczyk, 61, of Lawrenceville is a customer service worker at a Strip District packaging company. He is concerned about public safety in the district and overgrown city parks and property -- he says city government "has literally become a slumlord" in many neighborhoods. Like Mr. Ceoffe and Mr. Fallon, the Democrat had to switch his registration to Independent to run in the election.

"I don't have a price tag on my back, I don't owe any allegiance to any political party," he said. "My boss will be the taxpayers of the city of Pittsburgh."

Dave Powell, 42, of Morningside is a systems administrator at Pitt and a local Libertarian Party leader. He is against red-light cameras and the recording of license plate numbers, favors moving back to a property tax rate weighing land more than buildings, and wants police to lighten up on nonviolent drug offenses. When Libertarians seek to run for statewide offices they often face financially crippling legal battles, he said, so the council race is a "unique opportunity for us to get our socially liberal and fiscally conservative message out there, which I think often doesn't get much of a shake."

Mr. Powell favors keeping the city under Act 47 distressed status, which will have its 10th anniversary in December, as does Ms. Gross. The other three candidates want the state fiscal oversight lifted.

All the candidates favor requirements that police be city residents, though that is currently in arbitration. When Ms. Gross won the backing last week of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, which is pushing for the requirement to be lifted, she said she told them she would keep "an open mind" about residency, even though she currently favors it.

Opinions differ on the district's major redevelopment proposal -- a $450 million office and residential project from the Buncher Co. that includes partial demolition of the Strip District's historic produce terminal. Mr. Fallon and Mr. Wudarczyk are against it, Mr. Powell "cautiously" in favor and Mr. Ceoffe leaning in favor, too.

Mr. Ceoffe described the terminal as "structurally very scary" and said something has to be done with Buncher's 55 acres of riverfront property. "Would I like to see the whole [terminal building] stay? Absolutely. But if it's not feasible, we need a viable plan. We can't continue to stall progress."

Ms. Gross said she would not "say I'm positively for it or positively against it outright," adding that behind the scenes discussions are ongoing, including those by Mr. Peduto, that could result in different redevelopment plans.

Winner of the special election will serve through the end of 2015.

Going back to 1995, when Sala Udin won a special election to fill the District 6 seat left vacant by the deceased Christopher Smith, all of the nine council districts have held the midterm elections except for District 8, currently held by Mr. Peduto. The Democratic nominee has won all of the special contests except for in February 2001, when independent Jim Motznik won a five-way contest for the vacant District 4 seat.

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Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at www.post-gazette.com/earlyreturns or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns. First Published October 20, 2013 8:00 PM


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