DeSantis says no to city status quo

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Mark DeSantis kicked off his campaign for mayor yesterday with a broad indictment of the political culture of the city he'd like to govern.

Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette
Mark DeSantis
Click photo for larger image.

"Our city leaders have tried everything to avoid confronting the troubling reality," Mr. DeSantis said, speaking before about 80 supporters gathered under the rotunda of The Pennsylvanian, Downtown.

"They've refinanced and mortgaged every asset we have. They've shirked maintenance and custodial responsibilities. When confronted with fourth and inches, they've punted every time. And the clock has now run out."

While expressing intolerance for the status quo, the Republican did not offer any specific prescriptions for Pittsburgh's ills, notably the massive debt, and negative demographic he bemoaned.

Mr. DeSantis, a business consultant to a variety of high-tech enterprises, said that in the weeks to come voters would hear more details of the policies he would urge to address those problems.

Yesterday, his message concentrated on the inaction and inadequacies of the municipal establishment coupled with such broad goals as "confidence in our leaders," "greater personal safety," and "fewer and fair taxes."

While the incumbent Democrat, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, was the implicit target of much of his rhetoric, Mr. DeSantis never mentioned him by name, nor did he attack any particular decisions or policies of the current administration. On a day when the mayor was on the defensive in the City-County Building on the promotions of police officers who had had brushes with domestic violence, Mr. DeSantis' criticisms did not appear to have compounded his immediate public relations problems, at least in the short term.

Whether the DeSantis campaign emerges as a greater concern to the mayor in the future depends on the challenger's ability to leap the hurdles of history, money and political arithmetic. No Republican has occupied the mayor's office since the dawn of the Depression. Four years ago, Republican nominee Joe Weinroth managed to raise only about $20,000 in the face of a million-dollar war chest raised by the late Mayor Bob O'Connor.

Mr. DeSantis said yesterday that he expected to be able to collect more than $250,000, a sum that, while well short of Mr. Ravenstahl's fund-raising potential, would be enough to wage a credible campaign. Mr. DeSantis emphasizes that while he is determined to direct public attention to uncomfortable issues, his goal is not simply to send a message, but to win.

Danika Wukich, the mayor's campaign spokesman, said that Mr. Ravenstahl welcomes Mr. DeSantis to the race, commends him for his public service and looks forward to meeting him in debates. Mr. DeSantis has said he'd like to meet the mayor in four or more debates.

Ms. Wukich said the campaign hadn't focused on a specific number yet and hadn't yet discussed the logistics of debates and other issues with the Republican's aides.

Mr. DeSantis captured the Republican nomination to oppose Mr. Ravenstahl with a surprise write-in victory. He had no opposition in the GOP primary, but now faces a different kind of preliminary competition that will prepare the ground for his general election fight.

Before the fall campaign is joined in earnest, Mr. DeSantis will be in a kind of plausibility primary, testing whether his campaign can cross a threshold of credibility that will convince voters, the news media and contributors that it is worth their attention.

His performance on the stump and the degree to which he can present convincing solutions to the city's problems are among the factors within his control that will help determine whether he can cross that threshold.

But the performance of the Ravenstahl administration will also whet or dull the public's appetite for alternatives. The mayor's popularity through the first months of his inherited administration was so formidable no potential Democratic opponent was willing to face him in a primary that once was expected to draw a crowded field.

Still, Mr. Ravenstahl has never had to run in a citywide race, so his own credentials as a candidate have never been tested on this broad a stage.

"Can he win? Very doubtful," Bill Green, the veteran Republican analyst, said in assessing Mr. DeSantis' prospects. "Can he raise some issues and flush the mayor out on the future of the city? That's a possibility."

The first statistic usually cited in handicapping any Republican's chances in a citywide race is the Democratic Party's voter registration advantage of roughly 5-to-1.

Mr. DeSantis hopes to gain some ground with an appeal that crosses party lines. He hopes, for example, to poach Democratic votes from constituencies that city Councilman Bill Peduto was courting before abandoning his campaign.

Mr. Peduto, who remains a sharp and persistent critic of Mr. Ravenstahl, said yesterday that he would not support either candidate in the general election. In an assessment that may or may not be wishful thinking, Mr. Peduto anticipates that the toll of governing is bound to erode the mayor's once stratospheric popularity ratings.

Should that happen between now and November, he said, "I don't know if [Democratic voters will] be drawn over to DeSantis or if they'll just decide to ride the bench."

During a speech that competed with the rumble on the nearby busway, Mr. DeSantis invoked its setting, the former Pennsylvania Railroad station, as a symbol of his roots in the region. He pointed out that one grandfather had been an engineer for the railroad while another had passed through the station on an immigrant journey from Italy. His father, he said, had passed through it on his way to service in the Pacific in World War II.

He said his role as an early supporter of the successful campaign to consolidate Allegheny County's row offices is evidence of his commitment to reform local government and he pointed to his former position as an aide to the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz as a key credential in his political resume.

Mr. DeSantis also offered an implicit contrast with the incumbent as he emphasized his business background.

"In business, where I see an opportunity I will find a market, raise the money, and build the team," he said. "I welcome every challenge."


Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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