Several ponder running against Mayor Ravenstahl

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Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hasn't gotten a breather from electoral politics since he took office in 2006, and he's unlikely to get one next year.

Attorney Carmen L. Robinson, 40, of the Hill District, has filed papers to form a committee to challenge him in the May 19 Democratic primary. City Council President Doug Shields sounds like a candidate in that race, too. Republican attorney Kevin Acklin, 32, of Squirrel Hill, said he is "definitely considering" a general election bid.

No Pittsburgh mayor has been unseated since the Great Depression, and Mr. Ravenstahl, 28, didn't seem worried when questioned at a recent news conference. "We're focused on what it is we need to focus on, and will continue to do so, and will tell our story regardless of who it is we're telling that story against," he said.

Mr. Ravenstahl's poll numbers were sky high after he ascended from the council presidency upon the Sept. 1, 2006, death of Mayor Bob O'Connor. Last year, Councilman William Peduto launched a Democratic primary challenge in a special election to serve out the late mayor's term, but aborted because he would have to go negative to dent Mr. Ravenstahl's popularity.

A general election challenge by Republican Mark DeSantis fell far short. The mayor pulled in 63 percent of the vote.

Ms. Robinson, though, said that he's beatable.

"I understand he had a major fundraiser with [ex-president] Bill Clinton and a lot of corporate people who donated to his campaign," she said, referring to the mayor's Nov. 26 event that pushed his war chest to about $1 million. "But I don't know that it equals votes. ... It doesn't seem that his popularity is that high."

She has not run for office before, but said that as a former city police officer and daughter of a firefighter, she knows government and politics.

"President-elect Barack Obama pretty much showed everybody that anything can happen," she said Wednesday. "It really motivated me."

She grew up in Stanton Heights, went to Peabody High School, and received a bachelor's degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Her first job out of college was with the police, and she rose to the rank of sergeant.

Her 15-year tenure was punctuated by a 1994 lawsuit alleging multiple instances of sexual harassment by a commander who is no longer with the force.

She lost at trial but appealed and won a new trial, then settled the case.

While the suit was pending and under appeal, she was off work for about three years. In 2004, she decided to leave the force to finish her law degree at Duquesne University. She passed the bar, engaged in some private practice, and became a judicial law clerk for Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Dwayne D. Woodruff in the Family Division.

Why add a campaign to her career and a family life that includes a husband, 10-year-old son and two older stepchildren? Because she doesn't see progress on fixing the city's finances, combating violence and boosting small business, she said.

Mr. Ravenstahl's tenure has seen a remarkable improvement in the city's bank balance, but Ms. Robinson notes that it's still under state fiscal oversight.

This year's 78 murders -- tops since 1993 -- and lagging murder clearance rates have her thinking that the bureau is "top-heavy" and should reduce "upper-echelon" staff in favor of officers and detectives.

She wants to abate the taxes of new small businesses that locate in the city and hire its residents.

"Corporations are cutting jobs," she said. "But we all know that small business has been the cornerstone of America."

She also wants to limit campaign contributions to city candidates, favoring a reform bill Mr. Ravenstahl vetoed in June. "I would have signed it," she said.

A lifelong Democrat, she said she's contacting party committee members to decide whether to seek the endorsement.

Mr. Shields, 55, of Squirrel Hill, is a veteran of Mr. O'Connor's two failed bids to unseat Mayor Tom Murphy, and knows it is hard to dislodge an incumbent. He may try anyway.

Mr. Ravenstahl "was riding high a year ago in the polls. It would be interesting to see how strong and deep that is at this point," Mr. Shields said. "The dissatisfaction I've heard with the administration on the street is significant."

Long a sharp critic of the mayor, he said he keeps "having to show up at events that the mayor was scheduled to go to, and people aren't happy." He substituted at a Dec. 19 presentation of a check to the Tree of Hope group, he said. "A mayor should be out there in the community supporting organizations like that."

He's critical of what he calls "the impression that it's a pay-to-play world" in which political contributors have an inside track on contracts, development help and permits. He voted for campaign contribution caps.

A councilman since 2004, Mr. Shields finished second, with 22 percent of the vote, in last year's Democratic primary for the city controller's job.

"I don't think you need a million dollars to run in this race," he said, acknowledging that he needs some financial commitments before deciding to run. "I think it would take a really good grass-roots campaign."

Candidates have until March 10 to file petitions to appear on the primary ballot.

Mr. Acklin said he'll soon decide whether to seek the Republican nomination. "Pittsburgh deserves a real choice next year," he said.

Will there be debates? That's probably up to the incumbent.

"I'm sure you guys will make your requests," Mr. Ravenstahl said to media members. "We'll take a look at it. It's early. Who knows what's going to happen?"


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


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