Pittsburgh's Democratic mayoral hopefuls push to overhaul ideas at debate

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With few policy differences emerging yet among three candidates to be Pittsburgh's next mayor, each continued jockeying for position as overhaul leader Wednesday during the Democratic mayoral debate at the University of Pittsburgh.

The Democratic trio of city Councilman Bill Peduto, former state Auditor General Jack Wagner and state Rep. Jake Wheatley all agreed changes need to be made to the leadership of Pittsburgh government, especially as shown in the way it handled the embattled Pittsburgh police bureau.

Mr. Wheatley said the indictment of former Chief Nate Harper on charges he used private police detail money for personal use has "extremely damaged" police morale, especially among fellow black members of the force.

"Officers in that department feel like they're under attack for something that happened with one individual," the Hill District man said.

Mr. Wagner criticized how the police chief currently reports to the city public safety director rather than directly to the mayor.

"We've heard nothing about that in this controversy. That needs to change," he said. "That begins first and foremost with the mayor."

Each also criticized the related issue of a private account that the mayor can use for his expenses.

"Why the mayor has his own set of rules, I have no idea, but it's wrong," Mr. Peduto said, who seemed to have much of the 150 people in the Pitt crowd on his side.

On his first day in office, he said, "I'll take a pair of scissors and cut that card up."

Mr. Wheatley -- a towering man and former active duty Marine -- joked he wouldn't need a police bodyguard like Mr. Ravenstahl, which Mr. Wagner, another former Marine, seconded.

Getting back to the federal probe of police spending, Mr. Wagner said if he is elected mayor "the police should never be handling that money. That's been going on for years in the city of Pittsburgh. That will change day one."

The three men and Sheraden activist A.J. Richardson are running for the Democratic nomination for mayor in the May 21 primary. Mr. Richardson made a brief apology at the beginning of the debate for an early morning arrest for drunken driving and then left the event.

The men had few policy differences, agreeing on providing prevailing wages for workers on city contracts; that the city should provide benefits to same-sex couples; on providing bike lanes; improving oversight of public transit; and strengthening city building inspection efforts.

While Mr. Peduto and Mr. Wagner said they largely supported the city challenging UPMC's charitable status, Mr. Wheatley was discordant. The Ravenstahl administration should have negotiated with the health provider instead of taking it to court, he said, as "without UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh we would not have weathered the recession as we have."

The candidates tried to make their overhaul messages clear early on.

"The transformation of Pittsburgh has begun. There's one part of it that hasn't caught up: that's city government," Mr. Peduto said.

Mr. Wagner -- as he did early in the day in a court battle over a campaign finance law Mr. Peduto championed -- tacitly painted the councilman as part of the problem.

"Yes, Bill Peduto is right in saying city of Pittsburgh has problems. ... There are many issues in this city that have not been addressed by city government."

Mr. Wheatley, a 10-year state legislator, pitched himself as the outsider.

"Unlike the other gentlemen on this stage, I'm not a historic and institutional politician," he said.

The debate was hosted by WPTS-FM and the Pitt Political Review.

It was the latest in a string of debates among mayoral hopefuls but the first with a field tightened by city council President Darlene Harris dropping out last week and city Controller Michael Lamb bowing out Monday. The next is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Pittsburgh Obama school in East Liberty.

Mr. Wagner is scheduled to announce new endorsements early Thursday afternoon. A coalition of African-American groups called the Pittsburgh Black Political Convention is also set to make an announcement on the race. Mr. Wheatley was once an aide to one of its leaders, former city Councilman Sala Udin.

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Timothy McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. First Published April 4, 2013 4:00 AM


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