For Peduto strategist Matt Merriman-Preston, 'the battle is in his blood'

Peduto strategist has been behind other local winners

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On Pittsburgh's primary night, the name of one winner didn't appear on any ballot.

"When I talked to Matt on election night, he was grinning from ear to ear," city Councilman Bruce Kraus recalled.

That smile was on the face of Matt Merriman-Preston, key strategist for Bill Peduto's mayoral campaign -- and those of a string of other candidates who have emerged victorious in local campaigns in recent election cycles. Sharing Mr. Merriman-Preston's campaign skills and the victory laurels on May 21 were Dan Gilman, the Peduto aide who dominated a three-person field for the council seat left open by Mr. Peduto's run for the top job, and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak, who defended her council seat in the political backyard of Mr. Peduto's chief rival, Jack Wagner.

Mr. Merriman-Preston had worked on Ms. Rudiak's upset victory in the South Hills district the last time around. He was an architect of state Rep. Ed Gainey's 2012 upset over a three-decade incumbent in an East End legislative seat. Mr. Merriman-Preston has also handled successful races for council members Bruce Kraus and Darlene Harris and legislative races for Rep. Erin Molchany and Chelsa Wagner, now county controller. With each of those contests, he's refined his insights and data on the local electorate.

"Matt is an artist; he knows his craft inside and out," said Mr. Kraus. "I personally have never met anyone who does it better inside and out."

The councilman recalled that he lost his first bid for the council seat in a 2006 special election.

"The second time, I brought Matt on. Matt made all the difference in the world: He organized the campaign; he brought skilled field work, and we won by about 12 to 15 points. It was all due to Matt and his understanding of how this stuff works."

The track record isn't perfect. He and his candidate fell short in Lucille Prater-Holliday's 2011 challenge to city Councilman Ricky Burgess. But that's the exception in Mr. Merriman-Preston's record of animating local races with some of the same data-driven principles that have come to dominate national politics.

"I bring more of a quantitative outlook to how I do things," he said last week during an interview in his "office annex" -- a Lawrenceville coffee shop near his home and office. "I always tell the campaign staff, 'If I can't count it, it didn't happen.' "

Mr. Merriman-Preston wasn't the campaign manager for any of the primary races, each of which had its own campaign manager and field director. While he's worked in each of those roles in the past, his focus now is to set overall campaign strategy and structure, working with other senior aides, such as Guy Costa, the political veteran who headed the Peduto operation.

"Guy did a fantastic job of managing day-to-day operations, making sure trains were running on time," he said. "Guy and I would kick a lot of ideas back and forth."

His demand for political metrics is an outgrowth of an unusual background for a political operative. The Florida native and Tulane University graduate came to Pittsburgh as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. He earned his Ph.D. in chemical engineering in 2005. The catchy title of his Ph.D. dissertation was "Electrokinetics of Colloidal Systems of Low Ionic Diffusivity."

"It's not exactly light reading," he conceded.

That milestone surmounted, he promptly cast aside his chemical engineering ambitions and the years of training behind them for the political work that had come to fascinate him.

"My grandmother will still ask if I've found a real job yet," he said.

The catalyst for this unusual career conversion was the 2004 presidential race, when Mr. Merriman-Preston was drawn to the John Kerry campaign and spent hours on voter-registration efforts.

"I hadn't given much thought -- like most 20-somethings -- hadn't given a lot of thought to local government. But I kept running into Bill [Peduto]. We would be at a Venture Outdoors festival; I'd be registering voters and I'd see him there."

Mr. Merriman-Preston took a leave of absence from CMU to work on Mr. Peduto's first mayoral campaign, the 2005 Democratic primary when he came in second to the late Mayor Bob O'Connor in a field that also included city Controller Michael Lamb. He was with him again during the abortive 2007 effort when Mr. Peduto abandoned his bid in the face of the then-overwhelming popularity of the new, young mayor, Luke Ravenstahl.

Mr. Merriman-Preston has never been on Mr. Peduto's council staff, but his political career has been entwined with that of the Democratic nominee. In addition to his work on the Peduto campaigns, his clients have tended to be allies of the East End Democrat. Mr. Peduto and Mrs. Harris became bitterly estranged over the course of the past two years, but when Mr. Merriman-Preston worked with her in 2011, they were allies in fending off a Ravenstahl-backed challenger. He laughed quietly while dodging a question on whether he would work for Mrs. Harris again.

Mr. Merriman-Preston started his firm, Ampersand Consulting, with Lindsay Patross, whom he had met through the John Kerry campaign. He said they eventually split up professionally because he wanted to concentrate on politics while Ms. Patross, who maintains the "I Heart Pittsburgh" blog, wanted to explore the use of social media in broader areas.

"He's without a doubt the best consultant, Republican or Democrat, in Western Pennsylvania," said Mr. Peduto. "It's not just that he had a good cycle this year ... he has a consistent track record of winning progressive campaigns against the machine. He has a very different ways of doing campaigns based on quantitative data; he measures and tests, measures and tests."

"Every three days, he was talking the data from our phone banking and door knocking, telling us how we were doing. He would show us every week where we would need to be on Election Day," he added.

J.J. Abbott worked against Mr. Merriman-Preston as spokesman for the Jack Wagner campaign, but he's another admirer.

"Matt's great. He was really ahead of the curve with some of the data-driven stuff," he said. "His attention to detail is fantastic."

"I came in with the approach of questioning everything," Mr. Merriman-Preston said. "Not to dismiss things but ask why do we do this, how do we engage these people and bring them into a campaign in a way that they haven't before."

While the 34-year-old is at home in the Facebook era of politics, much of his attention is typically devoted to refining and evaluating older persuasive tools.

"As much as we use social media to engage people, we've still found that it's a supplement to the traditional field program of knocking on doors and phoning people," he said. "The Election Day program that we do has a very strong emphasis on contacts on the day itself. A lot of people understand that as the gold standard, but it's surprising how little of it you actually see out there."

But the Peduto nomination wasn't an Election Day phenomenon; it was the fruit of years of preparation.

"We had built a campaign designed to beat Luke Ravenstahl," Mr. Merriman-Preston said, recalling the weeks when the effort morphed from a challenge to an incumbent into an open-seat scramble dominated by Mr. Peduto and political veteran Jack Wagner.

"On the message side, obviously, things changed, but on the ground there wasn't a lot that changed," Mr. Merriman-Preston recalled. "We'd talk to our field staff and say, 'Nothing's changed; it's all the same.' Meanwhile our heads were spinning."

That may be, but Mr. Peduto said it didn't show. He describes his key aide as a quiet, reassuring presence in staff meetings.

"It's good to have someone like that around in some of the crazy moments of a campaign," he said.

Mr. Merriman-Preston lives with his wife, Tiffany, whom he met at Tulane and who later studied creative writing at Pitt, and their two young children, a 3-year-old daughter and 10-month old son, in Lawrenceville.

"We both loved the city and wanted to stay here," he said.

Beyond the observation that, "There's always another election," he's reticent about his plans and potential clients for the next cycle.

Getting a little ahead of himself -- he still has a general election to win -- Mr. Peduto said of his longtime ally, "I'd love to take him away from politics and use him in the administration, but I don't think his heart would be there -- the battle is in his blood."

He added, "The old machine doesn't understand the new Pittsburgh. Matt Merriman-Preston does."

Correction, June 2, 2013: The spelling of Rep. Erin Molchany has been updated. It was misspelled in an earlier version of the story.

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Politics editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562.


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