Peduto filling coffers despite likely victory

Mayoral candidate takes advantage of relaxed fundraising limits

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Bill Peduto, the Democratic nominee for mayor, faces only token opposition in November but that's not deterred his campaign from an energetic pursuit of political contributions.

The sophisticated effort was on display last week as the candidate basked in the applause of scores of supporters at a Downtown restaurant. Their cheers -- but more to the point, their checks -- buoyed the campaign's progress toward seemingly inevitable victory over Republican Josh Wander and independent Les Ludwig.

Mr. Peduto views himself as a champion of campaign finance reform. He worked on council for the legislation designed to impose limits on contributions in city elections. But he's also a practical politician.

Since an April court ruling suspended the limits for the duration of this election, he hasn't hesitated to pursue the big-ticket contributions temporarily allowed in the mayor's race. That was understandable and perhaps essential in a primary in which he was outspent by rivals similarly freed from the contribution ceilings.

But the invitation to the reception at Vallozzi's demonstrated his continued embrace of the current fundraising reality. The suspended city law would cap individual contributions at $4,000 per election. "Hosts'' at the event, were invited to contribute $5,000 to the campaign. Of course, he accepted far larger sums during the primary campaign, more than $100,000 from the Laborers' Union and more than $50,000 from his close ally, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

He needed nearly all of that in a campaign in which he was outspent, in total, by the campaigns of former state Auditor General Jack Wagner and state Rep. Jake Wheatley, and an independent ad assault from his longtime foe, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Mr. Wander and Mr. Ludwig don't pose anything like a similar threat, but the Peduto fundraising staff will continue to exploit the ceiling-free window between now and the Nov. 5 election. His campaign took advantage of the summer to compile a database designed to be a comprehensive guide to political contribution patterns in the city and the county's local races.

"We went through all the finance reports -- Ravenstahl, Wagner, [city Controller Michael] Lamb -- and were able to track back and look and see who was bundling, how the finances came out, who was supporting whom and basically put together an entire guide to how local financing is right now,'' Mr. Peduto said.

The likely future mayor said the goal of the effort wasn't just to support his own future campaigns, and the television commercials he plans to air in the balance of this one, but to have resources to aid allied candidates, such as city council hopefuls Deb Gross and Dan Gilman in the East End and Natalia Rudiak in the South Hills.

In charge of this effort has been Eric Hagarty, a 25-year-old transplant from the Pacific Northwest who also handled fundraising for Mr. Fitzgerald's 2011 campaign for county executive.

Mr. Hagarty explained that while the campaign finance data for each race and candidate is available online, it's not particularly user-friendly and that it is especially cumbersome to track donor patterns across multiple races.

"Now we have one central database we can search from,'' he said. "If you wanted to look up a certain individual and see who they gave to, it's in one place.''

So far, he said, he's amalgamated the information from local races and the county executive race back to 2008.

Mr. Hagarty called the data product "a strategic document'' that would inform decisions such as budgeting for future races and whether it would be advisable for Mr. Peduto to set up a political action committee as a warchest for other campaigns.

Meet the new machine?

Mr. Peduto has frequently denounced "the old machine'' and what he characterizes as a "pay-to-play'' culture in city government. In a recent interview, he dismissed a question on whether his own energetic fundraising and alliance-building was a precursor of a new machine in the garb of reform.

"The basic philosophy is, in [the late Mayor] Davey Lawrence's time, you rewarded the workers, the people who worked on the campaigns, with jobs -- in the police force or the fire bureau or public works,'' he said. "Then, in the 1980s it became you rewarded the people who wrote the checks, and what we want to do is end that.''

On Wednesday night, Mr. Peduto welcomed a crowd dotted with lawyers, real estate developers and engineering firm executives whose interests routinely depend on city contracts or decisions. In an earlier interview, however, he criticized what he sees as a system in which "middlemen'' work to steer contracts to contributors and extract contributions from city vendors.

"What we want to do is eliminate those middlemen so [city government decisions] become about policy,'' he said. "So if it gets tied up into contracts, money, then we are guilty of what they did, but just with new people.''

While sketching ethical rules for a new administration that he said would insulate policy from fundraising, he added, "So that's the difference, it's not raising the money, it's what you do once you've done that. ... So if we can end that, then we end the machine.''

The legislated contribution limits were suspended for this campaign due to a provision that states that if any candidate contributes more than $50,000 of his own funds to a mayor's race, all of his or her rivals would be free from the contribution limits of $4,000 for an individual and $4,000 for a political action committee.

Attorneys for Mr. Wagner successfully argued that Mr. Lamb, during his short-lived bid for the Democratic nomination, had given his campaign more than $50,000. Mr. Lamb disputed that assessment, contending that he had refunded an initial donation of $2,000 before contributing another $50,000 to his campaign.

A judge ruled in favor of Mr. Wagner's analysis of the Lamb balance sheet, however, finding that it had triggered a "millionaire's exception'' that freed all the candidates of the donation ceilings.

In the course of that litigation, the city law that Mr. Peduto had pushed was criticized for being vague and confusing.

Mr. Gilman, Mr. Peduto's aide on council and the Democratic nominee to succeed him, predicted that the new administration would act to shore up the measure.

"We do plan to look at it for amendments,'' he said. "A number of things need to be looked at to make sure the language matches the legislative intent.''

At one point prior to the enactment of the city legislation, Mr. Ravenstahl and former county Executive Dan Onorato proposed that the city and county should establish parallel contribution limits, but the county legislation never went forward. Amie Downs, Mr. Fitzgerald's spokeswoman, said the county executive wasn't aware of any effort to revive the legislation at the county level.

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Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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