2 Pittsburgh mayoral candidates clash over past roles on council

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Jack Wagner and Bill Peduto offered conflicting accounts Monday of city council's recent and distant history as they clashed over which of them is better able to cooperate with government colleagues.

Mr. Wagner, the former state auditor general, was on the attack from the beginning of a WPXI-TV/Press Club of Western Pennsylvania debate among the Democratic mayoral candidates. Bemoaning a dysfunctional city government, he handed up his now familiar indictment of Mr. Peduto as a figure at the center of feuds among the city lawmakers.

Mr. Peduto responded that Mr. Wagner himself had been the focus of a polarized council, pointing out that his colleagues had voted to strip Mr. Wagner of council's gavel in 1993 in the middle of his term as council president.

Mr. Wagner denied the account, although he was, in fact, the object of an ouster attempt that dovetailed with the political maneuvering around a mayor's race in which he would be a candidate against former Mayor Tom Murphy. In a 5-4 vote in early 1993, council voted to oust the Beechview Democrat from his presidency. Mr. Wagner's opponents on council wanted to replace him with then-councilman, now state Sen. Jim Ferlo, who was then an ally of Mr. Murphy.

In a battle that found its way to Common Pleas Court, Mr. Wagner insisted that his colleagues did not have the authority to remove him from office in midterm. The dispute eventually was resolved, with Mr. Wagner retaining his post when then-Councilman Dan Onorato, who originally had sided with the insurgents, switched his vote to Mr. Wagner. As the political wheels turned over the intervening years, Mr. Ferlo would end up in the Wagner camp, endorsing him in this year's primary.

The exchange over the abortive 1993 council coup came after Mr. Wagner repeated his denunciation of an anti-Peduto ad aired by a political committee controlled by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

"I have not sought the mayor's support; I do not want the mayor's support," he told the moderator, WPXI news anchor David Johnson. "I have been an independent elected official."

That led to another "no-I-didn't-yes-you-did" exchange as Mr. Wagner assailed the lack of communication within city government and, after disavowing any ties with the mayor, criticized Mr. Peduto for setting the stage for Mr. Ravenstahl's ascension to the mayor's office by voting to make him council president at the outset of the administration of the late Mayor Bob O'Connor.

Mr. Peduto immediately denied that he had supported Mr. Ravenstahl, pointing out that he had been one of only three votes against him in his first council president election.

The record provides partial support to both of their contentions. Mr. Peduto said that in late 2005, in the crucial election in which Mr. Ravenstahl succeeded former council President Gene Ricciardi, Mr. Peduto did vote against Mr. Ravenstahl, in a move that symbolized the rocky relationship they would share when Mr. Ravenstahl became mayor.

He acknowledged after the debate, however, that in 2006, when Mr. Ravenstahl's re-election as president was already assured, he went along with a 9-0 vote for him as a show of unity. But that vote, Mr. Peduto said, was largely ceremonial in contrast to the crucial decision that elevated Mr. Ravenstahl the previous month.

State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, stuck to a tone largely above the fray of the Wagner-Peduto disagreements.

"We need a leader who can truly be a bridge-builder," he said.

Mr. Wheatley said the search for a new police chief to replace Nate Harper should be opened up to national candidates, a position echoed by Mr. Peduto.

"What's really crucial for the next chief," Mr. Wheatley said, was "building positive community and police relationships."

Mr. Wagner said the search for a chief should start with an eye toward officers already on the force, although he would not rule out an outside candidate.

All of the candidates said they supported more aggressive efforts to save money by merging some aspects of services and purchasing with Allegheny County, although none of them favored a full merger of the two governments.

Mr. Wheatley noted that he was the only one of the three who favored an amalgamation of public safety services.

A.J. Richardson, of Sheraden, who is also seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor, did not participate in the debate.

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


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