A decade ago, Bill Peduto was a first-term Pittsburgh councilman when he met Kevin Acklin, a Republican lawyer who had just moved back to the city, after a pickup hockey game in Schenley Park. The pair bonded over talks about government reform and Teddy Roosevelt, and now they are in position to apply their populist ideals in live competition.
Mr. Acklin joined the Democratic nominee for mayor last week in an introductory session with lawmakers and aides to Gov. Tom Corbett in Harrisburg and is expected to play a major role in the administration of Mr. Peduto, should he be elected as expected in November. The pairing is notable for what they do not have in common as much as what they do.
To distance himself from outgoing Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and his chief primary opponent, Jack Wagner, Mr. Peduto often said on the campaign trail that he came from an apolitical family. Mr. Acklin is descended from three generations of city workers and registered Republican when he turned 18 after growing up in the world of patronage jobs and the Democratic machine.
"There are very few people who can say their grandfather was a [fire] battalion chief and Democratic Party leader in Pittsburgh and earned a law degree at Georgetown and a degree from Harvard," Mr. Peduto said in an interview. "Kevin defines what I'm looking for: somebody who respects what Pittsburgh was and understands how to build a new Pittsburgh."
Mr. Acklin still has to discuss with his family and his law firm -- Downtown's Saul Ewing, where he is a partner and business attorney -- exactly what his future role will be. It may be as Mr. Peduto's chief of staff. "If you look where [we] are as a city and the opportunity Bill has, and the kind of coalition we built to win this election, it's impossible to step away from that," he said.
Mr. Peduto's Republican challenger, Josh Wander of Squirrel Hill, said he, too, has a number of possible candidates for chief of staff, including Bob Howard, a former PPG executive and North Allegheny school board director with Tea Party ties. He plans to name more players in his administration during the fall.
As for tapping Mr. Acklin, "it is interesting my opponent has chosen a lifelong Republican for the position," Mr. Wander said.
Another thing the Peduto and Acklin team have in common is losing, though that has turned around lately. Mr. Acklin lost a bid for an Allegheny County Council seat in 2007 and an independent mayoral run in 2009, while also supporting Mr. Peduto's failed mayoral bids in 2005 and 2007. His return to the Democratic fold came in a run for a 14th Ward Democratic committee spot in 2010.
"It's the first election I ever won," he said with a laugh last week.
A Pittsburgh mayor's chief of staff is often in charge of long-term strategy for city government, usually with a focus on economic development. That is the role of Mr. Ravenstahl's chief, Yarone Zober, who is chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Tom Cox, the right-hand man for former Mayor Tom Murphy, held the same two positions.
Mr. Murphy, who served three terms, said it the most important job a mayor will fill. The chief of staff "is the traffic cop of all the stuff coming at a mayor. An implementer and a 'Mr. No.' Mayors all want to say yes, but somebody has to say no," Mr. Murphy said.
Now a consultant with the Urban Land Institute, Mr. Murphy said the importance of the job has become clearer to him as he has visited other cities around the country. "As mayor you get so focused on the immediate -- kids in shootings, trash, potholes, getting snow off streets. Often you don't spend enough time thinking about the future."
That appears to be the goal of Mr. Acklin, too. He has talked to two chiefs to former Mayor Sophie Masloff -- Joe Mistick and George Whitmer -- and another to both Mrs. Masloff and the late Richard S. Caliguiri -- George Jacoby -- about the position. Mr. Jacoby also was Mr. Acklin's grade school football coach in Greenfield.
"I'm more of a vision person. If you look at my background, that's what I do," Mr. Acklin said. "For 12 years as a lawyer, every day I go into the office I have projects on my shelf I'm managing. That's my skill set and that's what I do best."
Mr. Acklin is perceived as having strengths where Mr. Peduto has weaknesses. He is familiar with the Downtown business community that largely supported Mr. Ravenstahl and then Mr. Wagner but also the city workforce that Mr. Wagner tried to rally to his side. (Unions for firefighters, police, refuse workers and others comprising some 80 percent of the workforce endorsed the former auditor general in the mayor's race.) Yet Mr. Acklin has deep roots there: his great-grandfather worked for Public Works; his grandfather and uncle were Fire Bureau brass; and his stepfather has worked nearly 40 years for Public Works, too.
Mr. Acklin -- whose grandmother still lives off her husband's firefighter pension -- may be key to mending relations with Fire Fighters Local No. 1, whose president Joe King is a vocal critic of Mr. Peduto. At the same time, the main agenda item for the Democratic nominee while in Harrisburg last week was a plea to stay under state fiscal oversight, which the union abhors.
"I understand the issues. Punching each other is not the way to handle these issues," Mr. Acklin said. "The last thing I or Bill want to do is undercut promises made to people who run into burning buildings, stop bullets or clean our streets. It's about being sure that we also uphold our commitments to taxpayers."
The attorney is a boyhood friend of Darrin Kelly, head of the fire union's political action committee. "He's very even-keeled, very professional, very educated," Mr. Kelly said. "The best interest of the city is always his No. 1 priority."
Pending the November election, the attorney will continue working on transition plans in advance of Mr. Peduto taking office in January. That includes budget planning, meetings with state overseers and possibly a rare meeting this week between Mr. Peduto and Mr. Ravenstahl.
"I'd do this for free, I really would," Mr. Acklin said. "I feel very lucky, no matter what my role, to have a chance to leave a mark on the future of the city. I'm very humbled by that. We could do a lot of good."
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter @EarlyReturns. First Published June 18, 2013 4:00 AM