Ravenstahl's political roots go deep on the city's North Side

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John Heller, Post-GazettePittsburgh City Council President Luke Ravenstahl gets ready to address the media moments after being sworn in as the new mayor of Pittsburgh Friday night.
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The name plate on the desk still reads "Mayor Bob O'Connor." A framed picture of his wife, Judy, is at one corner, along with another labeled "The Gang in Puerto Rico, 2005." At the bottom is a list: names and phone numbers for members of City Council, the last reading, "Luke Ravenstahl."

The successor, sworn in late Friday night, less than two hours after Mr. O'Connor died, has yet to move down the hall from his council office to the one that all but fell on top of him.

What landed with that office is a staff that observers believe Mr. Ravenstahl will likely retain, not only for now but for the foreseeable future. As Mayor O'Connor slipped away in his final hours, Mr. Ravenstahl joined others in a prayer service and, in an act fraught with the symbolism of a new leader quietly taking the reins, walked across town to the City-County Building alongside two O'Connor staff members: spokesman Dick Skrinjar and Public Works Director Guy Costa.

He briefly visited the mayoral side of the office complex, never going near the mayor's office itself, and returned briefly to be sworn in, called back from a North Catholic High School football game where he watched his father, District Judge Robert Ravenstahl, coach his old team.

Wordlessly, the O'Connor team arranged matters, surrounding the new man and quietly dispensing advice on how to make the transition.

Now, the questions along Grant Street will turn on what to expect from a Ravenstahl administration. His personality is more businesslike and less ebullient than Mr. O'Connor's, but initially at least, those who know and work with him expect him to steer the course charted by Mr. O'Connor.

Observers inside local and state government predict Mr. Ravenstahl likely will move cautiously -- holding on to the remainders of the O'Connor administration, then slowly moving in some key players from his own inner circle.

"I would have to assume that during the transition period, you wouldn't see a lot of changes," said Jim Motznik, the council president pro tem, and an established Ravenstahl ally. "At some point, the citizens of Pittsburgh will see a transition from an O'Connor administration to a Ravenstahl administration."

At present, those around Mr. Ravenstahl expect him to retain Dennis Regan, Mr. O'Connor's chief of staff, as well as the department heads currently in place.

"When you're a councilman you have such a small staff, you don't have a lot of people to take with you," observed Tony Pokora, acting city controller. "I don't think he'll change anything right away."

City politics has long been a practice of horse-trading and alliance-building, things Mr. Ravenstahl's fellow North Sider, Tom Murphy, eschewed.

In that respect, Mr. Ravenstahl, despite youth and polish, is expected to more closely adhere to Mr. O'Connor's political style.

"I would say he's tethered to the old school of Pittsburgh politics, even though he's only 26," said Councilman William Peduto, who is viewed as a likely challenger for mayor should Mr. Ravenstahl seek a full, elected term.

The city charter is unclear when that election should take place -- a special election next year or a regular election in 2009, when Mr. O'Connor's term expires.

If tethered to traditional politics, Mr. Raventahl's social and political connections reflect his North Side origins. One likely new face to be seen in and around the mayor's office would be Kevin Quigley, Mr. Ravenstahl's former council aide and now working in the public works department.

"Kevin has a lot of contacts through the Democratic committee," said state Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side, another Ravenstahl confidant.

Along with Mr. Quigley and Mr. Walko, both essential players in party politics, his father is likely to have a role advising from the sidelines.

Mr. Ravenstahl's ascendancy has almost mythological cycles attached to it. There was his grandfather, state Rep. Robert Ravenstahl, banished from public life by a reformist upstart named Tom Murphy in 1976. Mr. Murphy eventually became mayor and served three terms, leaving a city that was in economic disarray to his successor -- and old nemesis -- Mr. O'Connor in January of this year.

At the same time, Robert Ravenstahl's grandson, raised in the blunt-knuckle traditions of North Side politics, became president of City Council as a compromise when competing factions locked.

Under the Pittsburgh City Charter, the president of City Council becomes mayor if the mayor resigns or dies. On a day the ebullient Mr. O'Connor stood in his new office, tirelessly shaking the hand of every person who waited in the long line snaking up the stairs to the fifth floor of the City-County Building, nobody imagined it possible.

Friday, after presiding over a brief council meeting, Mr. Ravenstahl had to speak to that implausible scenario that was soon to come true.

Are you ready to be the next mayor of Pittsburgh, he was asked.

"I am," he said.

By 10:30 that night, his left hand on a Bible, and his wife and mother at his side while his father coached the old high school team, Mr. Ravenstahl recited the oath that would allow him to prove whether he really was ready.

Dennis Roddy can be reached at droddy@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1965.


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