Simmering for years, Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto's mayoral aspirations received a huge boost Thursday when Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald became the first person to donate to the Democrat's new campaign.
The symbolism of Mr. Fitzgerald's donation is worth exponentially more than the $8,000 contribution itself. It gives credibility to Mr. Peduto's campaign, encourages other donors and potentially discourages others who may be considering a challenge to Democratic Mayor Luke Ravenstahl next year.
"Although he has not officially announced that he will run, I am honored to be the first to donate the maximum amount allowed by law to his campaign," Mr. Fitzgerald, a Democrat, said in an email sent to thousands of his and Mr. Peduto's supporters. The donation came from Mr. Fitzgerald's campaign committee.
In interviews, Mr. Peduto and Mr. Fitzgerald downplayed the significance of the donation, which came shortly after Mr. Peduto filed paperwork creating his campaign committee. Mr. Peduto will not announce his candidacy until after the presidential election, and Mr. Fitzgerald stopped short of giving Mr. Peduto an endorsement.
Yet there are other harbingers of a Fitzgerald-Peduto alliance.
Mr. Peduto and Mr. Fitzgerald have been making appearances together for months. On Thursday, both appeared at a Regional Asset District board meeting to promote Mr. Fitzgerald's funding proposal for the Port Authority -- a proposal that Mr. Ravenstahl has opposed.
In addition, Mr. Peduto's finance director, Eric Hagarty, worked for Mr. Fitzgerald's campaign and briefly served as an assistant in the executive's office. Asked whether he also intended to donate to Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign, Mr. Fitzgerald was noncommittal.
Mr. Peduto, a three-term councilman, said he will open a campaign office Monday in the Strip District. He said the campaign will be chaired by Cecile Springer, former president of the Westinghouse Foundation.
Mr. Peduto was an early supporter of Mr. Fitzgerald's campaign for executive last year, and the two have a long professional association. "I enjoy working with him," Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Interviewed at a South Side celebration for the Pittsburgh Promise, a college scholarship program he co-founded months after becoming mayor in 2006, Mr. Ravenstahl said Mr. Fitzgerald's support for Mr. Peduto "has been expected for some time." As for his own campaign, he said, "We think our story is strong and we look forward to telling it."
Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Fitzgerald said they will continue working together for the good of the region -- the executive's position on the mayoral race notwithstanding -- but the two have had an uneasy relationship. The disagreement over using RAD money for a transit bailout is the most recent point of contention.
While the mayor said he had not supported either Democratic candidate for county executive in the May 2011 primary, many politicos believed that he really backed then-county Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty, Mr. Fitzgerald's opponent.
Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Ravenstahl squabbled publicly the day after the former's general election victory last year. Mr. Fitzgerald criticized the mayor's work habits, and Mr. Ravenstahl complained about the executive's temper. Mr. Fitzgerald said he and the mayor soon made up and marched together in the Veterans Day parade.
This would be Mr. Peduto's third run for mayor. In 2005, he finished a distant second behind Bob O'Connor, whose death in office propelled Mr. Ravenstahl, then 26, from city council president to mayor. In 2007, Mr. Peduto entered the race but dropped out two months before the primary.
Mr. Peduto well knows the executive's importance in a mayoral race. In 2007, then-Executive Dan Onorato's alliance with Mr. Ravenstahl shut down Mr. Peduto's fundraising ability and dampened his appeal.
Other candidates may experience Mr. Peduto's pain next year. Still, city Controller Michael Lamb and state Auditor General Jack Wagner said they're strongly considering mayoral campaigns and wouldn't be influenced by Mr. Fitzgerald's involvement in the race.
Mr. Lamb and Mr. Wagner said they're focused on the presidential race and other fall elections.
"Which, I think, we all should be focused on. We've got big some races here," Mr. Lamb said, citing the re-election campaign of Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and the bid by state Rep. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, for state senator.
Timing wasn't Mr. Lamb's only criticism. He said the $8,000 contribution violated the city's campaign finance law, which Mr. Peduto wrote. Mr. Lamb said a campaign committee may give a mayoral candidate that sum over two elections -- $4,000 for the primary and $4,000 for the general. Mr. Peduto disputed that interpretation of his finance law.
After announcing the formation of his committee and Mr. Fitzgerald's contribution, Mr. Peduto said, he received hundreds of emails from prospective donors. Many, he said, have been Ravenstahl supporters.
"They're disappointed, and they expected more," Mr. Peduto said.
Mr. Ravenstahl has touted the city's economic growth, including a spate of development Downtown and in the neighborhoods, during his administration. However, he has been criticized for his handling of the 2010 blizzard; for being a no-show at major events, such as last year's fatal flood on Washington Boulevard; and for battling council over issues such as his proposed lease of city parking garages and meters.
Len Barcousky and Moriah Balingit contributed. First Published September 28, 2012 4:00 AM