As flurries fell on four dozen supporters gathered behind him on Polish Hill yesterday, Pittsburgh Councilman Patrick Dowd launched what even backers called a David-and-Goliath campaign to unseat Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in a Democratic primary that is 12 weeks away.
But even as Mr. Dowd wielded his rhetorical slingshot, Mr. Ravenstahl moved to armor himself against criticism and rise above the fray, announcing a trip to Washington, D.C., today to join scores of mayors in talking about stimulus funds with President Barack Obama.
Mr. Dowd joined council last year and sometimes worked with the mayor on topics like bicycles and infrastructure.
Yesterday, though, he pronounced himself "completely dissatisfied with what's going on." He said the administration undermined development planning, dealt no-bid contracts to campaign contributors, and failed to lead on issues like campaign finance reform, gun control and the stimulus package.
"Let's seize this day and elect a mayor who will look to the future with vision and leadership," he said. He said his first act would be banning no-bid contracts for campaign contributors.
Mr. Ravenstahl sought to take several issues off of the table. He touted an order he signed last month requiring vaguely defined competitive processes for city contracts.
Noting that he won't get details today on which projects get stimulus funds, he said that process is "too important for us to be playing mayoral politics with. ... I would hope that the councilman, rather than casting criticisms about this, joins with us in this effort."
The 29-year-old mayor from Summer Hill now has two 40-year-old challengers -- Mr. Dowd of Highland Park, and attorney Carmen L. Robinson of the Hill District.
There's no post-World War II precedent for beating an incumbent Pittsburgh mayor at the polls, but Mr. Dowd telegraphed his strategy: knock doors, get wonky and take on the "Nobody's Boy" label used by Mayor Pete Flaherty in the late 1960s.
The challenger will try to use the mayor's million-dollar war chest and likely big edge in endorsements as a weapon against him, arguing that he's too beholden to special interests. And he'll argue that he can better reverse a half-century of decline.
He said city government must "make sure that we are further constructing, coordinating and promoting [economic] opportunities. And if city government doesn't engage that project, then those opportunities and our population will continue to shrink and decline."
Mr. Ravenstahl faces voters at a time when there's a crisis atmosphere globally, but no local budget deficit, stadium controversy or other highly divisive issue.
"The reality is, despite the world crumbling around us, Pittsburgh is faring rather well," the mayor said. "My focus will be talking about this city, talking about how wonderful it is" and touting his administration's achievements, like the Pittsburgh Promise for college tuition aid.
Mr. Dowd, a former private school teacher and a father of five, first ran for public office in 2002, losing to state Rep. Joe Preston.
He and the mayor both first won office in 2003, when Mr. Dowd toppled school board member Darlene Harris -- now a council colleague -- and Mr. Ravenstahl beat Councilwoman Barbara Burns.
Mr. Ravenstahl became mayor upon the 2006 death of Bob O'Connor. Mr. Dowd beat Councilman Len Bodack in 2007.
Since joining council, Mr. Dowd has ratcheted up criticism of Mr. Ravenstahl, appealing a controversial and now-nixed Downtown billboard permit the mayor backed, demanding details of a debt reduction plan, and pounding away at alleged circumventions of proper process.
"This administration has systematically undermined the function and the importance of the Department of City Planning," he railed yesterday, saying that meant "less of a focus on the public good."
Mr. Dowd may be best known citywide for his school board tenure, during a time of superintendent changes and school closings.
"Closing schools was a difficult choice. Every one that I closed, I nearly cried about," he said. "I'm driven to increase population, so nobody ever has to do that again."
His supporters seemed pumped. "I think this is an exceptional human being," said Ed Brown, a Polish Hill builder. "He feels like a person who has both the energy and the patience to do this kind of job."
Ms. Robinson welcomed his entry. "At the very minimum, hopefully we can get a healthy debate among all three of us."
Rich Lord can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1542.