Mayor hopefuls address throng at Pittsburgh forum

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A standing-room-only crowd jammed the Wightman Community Center in Squirrel Hill on Sunday to hear the Democratic mayoral candidates spar on public safety, fracking and the city's fiscal future in their first joint appearances of the primary campaign.

Some of the sharpest exchanges in a generally civil forum came as the candidates discussed controversies involving the police. City Councilman Bill Peduto charged that recent incidents, including the failed follow-through on a 911 call that preceded the shooting death of Ka'Sandra Wade.

"It all starts at the top, whatever organization you're in; you need strong leadership," Mr. Peduto said.

"What the people of the city demand and what they want out of this government, is that the leader of this government hold people to a higher standard," city Controller Michael Lamb said in one of several points in which he underlined his contention that expectations for city government's performance had eroded under this administration.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl defended the overall performance of police officers, noting that the city's crime rate had fallen by 25 percent during his tenure. Alluding to a federal grand jury investigation of a police communications contract that has swirled around associates of police Chief Nate Harper, Mr. Ravenstahl said, "Chief Harper has been a great leader. I hope that what he is telling me is true. I have no reason to think otherwise. ... I don't believe there is a lack of leadership there."

Mr. Peduto responded that he hadn't been faulting Mr. Harper's leadership. "It was his boss," he said.

In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week, Chief Harper denied improper involvement with the contract award.

On another public safety issue, Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Lamb disagreed with Mr. Peduto on the residency requirement for city police officers. Mr. Peduto said it should be on the table for negotiation. The mayor and the controller said the residency requirement should be retained. Both of the challengers criticized the lack of diversity in police hiring.

"We need a force that looks more like the city," Mr. Lamb said.

Mr Ravenstahl largely conceded the point. He said the city had made efforts to reach out in police recruitment, but he acknowledged that it needed to do more.

The event was co-sponsored by the 14th Ward Independent Democratic Club and the Democratic organizations of the 14th and 7th wards, the most reliably liberal territory in the city, including the neighborhoods that are the bedrock of Mr. Peduto's East End base. But the first question, on education, allowed Mr. Ravenstahl to point to "the thing I'm most proud of" -- his role in establishing the Pittsburgh Promise, the college scholarship program for qualified graduates of the city system.

But Mr. Peduto noted that despite the attraction of the program, school-age families continued to leave the city.

"The Promise is not a silver bullet," Mr. Lamb said, noting that more than half of the district's African-American students were not performing at a level that would allow them to take advantage of the scholarship dollars.

While the three candidates seemed to be in agreement that the mayor should promote the school system from the sidelines, none suggested any political or structural changes that would give the city office any direct responsibility for the system.

Near the end of the one-hour session, moderator Chris Zurawsky asked the tactical question that has hung over the early stages of this competition -- whether it made sense for two candidates to be competing for anti-incumbent votes.

A smiling Mr. Ravenstahl said he'd be happy to defer to his challengers on that one.

"I like our controller; I'm not going to say not to run. ... I'd like to say 'Don't run,' but I can't," Mr. Peduto said. But he insisted that his campaign would be able to attract enough votes to win regardless of the size of the field.

"I know we are reaching people in a big way," Mr. Lamb said. "I feel very good."

The three candidates all said they were opposed to natural gas drilling in the city, but they clashed on the wisdom of the city council measure that would ban drilling.

Mr. Peduto called the ban a model for the country, and said it was essential to withstand industry pressure "like nothing since the 1880s with the railroad industry."

While stressing his opposition to drilling, Mr. Lamb said that council's legislation would not withstand legal scrutiny.

"We need to strengthen the ordinance; the ban will not stand muster," Mr. Lamb said.

"Bill and city council -- they passed it to grab a headline," Mr. Ravenstahl contended, calling the legislation "frivolous" and arguing that it would have no practical effect on drilling.

Restating their positions on another core issue in city government, Mr. Lamb and Mr. Ravenstahl said the city was ready to move beyond the state's Act 47 oversight of city finances, while Mr. Peduto said the move should be put off several years until the city's scheduled debt service obligations drop sharply.

As the overflow crowd demonstrated, the joint appearance had been highly anticipated as the candidates' first high-profile encounter on the road to the May 21 primary. While it produced some friction and clear disagreements on issues, however, it did not spark any bombshells or gaffes likely to alter the overall contours of the race.

"We're three people who pretty much know one another," Mr. Lamb said afterward. "We know where we disagree."

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Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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