Peduto steps into office with the promise of a new age



On the night of Nov. 5, fresh off a landslide victory in the Pittsburgh mayor's race, Bill Peduto wound his way through a packed Homewood auditorium, his presence announced loudly by a high school drum line.

On stage, to the roar of an enthusiastic audience, he evoked the Italian immigrant roots of his family.

"It's good to be home," he said. "This is where my family started nearly a hundred years ago, where a young woman named Margaret Antonacci walked these streets, my grandma, and where my family started with a dream of putting a business on Homewood Avenue.

"And that's the promise this city was built on, the promise that everyone and anyone could have that opportunity to join the middle class," he bellowed from the podium. "That's the promise of a new Pittsburgh, where every neighborhood has that opportunity to see the potential that is there."

But the truth is, while his family might furnish inspiration, there's little else about his background that can explain who he became: a self-identified progressive, an advocate of good government, an affable policy geek.

Not his Italian-American family, none of whom are involved in politics and find the world he now occupies alien. Not his conservative Catholic upbringing in Scott Township.

Perhaps that's why his path has not been linear: from an ROTC cadet at Carnegie Mellon University, to a wayward student at Penn State, to an intern at the county morgue and on Capitol Hill, to an aggressive and savvy campaign consultant -- and from Democrat to Republican and back again.

Mr. Peduto will be sworn in Monday at 1 p.m. and move into the fifth floor of the City-County Building. And with him, he'll bring these experiences that inform his style of governance, a style he hopes will inaugurate a radical departure from previous administrations.

The young history buff

Bill Peduto was born in 1964 and grew up in the midst of a country in upheaval: there was the space race, the Vietnam War and the resignation of President Richard Nixon, all of which he recalls clearly.

As a boy, he wanted to be an astronaut. When the Pirates won the 1971 World Series, he decided he would be "the first astronaut baseball player."

But by age 8, he had picked up a Pittsburgh Press paper route and became obsessed with history, an affinity he might have gotten from his late father, a schoolteacher who taught history. He devoured books on World War II, and the French and Indian War. His hero was President Franklin Roosevelt. He read the newspapers he delivered and watched the nightly news with his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who worked for Columbia Steel for four decades and lived with the family.

"My love of history transcended into an interest of government and politics," he said.

Out were the astronaut and baseball dreams. He wanted to work in government.

At Chartiers Valley High School, his parents, practical people, wanted him to focus on schoolwork. When he successfully ran for student body president, he hid it from his family because he feared their disappointment.

Older brother David, his senior by a decade, doesn't recall the episode but said it makes sense.

"We were pretty pragmatic," he said. "That wouldn't necessarily be a kudo in my family compared with what you do academically in school."

But Mr. Peduto did well enough to earn a full ROTC scholarship to Carnegie Mellon University. There he floundered, craving a liberal arts education at an institution that was making a strong push toward technology. He transferred to Penn State after two years and his academic career continued to meander: five majors and five years later, he left college three classes short of a degree in political science.

(He completed that Penn State degree in 2007 and went on to earn a master's at the Graduate School of Policy and International Affairs at University of Pittsburgh in 2011.)

He attributed his lack of academic focus to the fact that he was eager to work and short on funds. Though his grades were poor, he built his resume with internships on Capitol Hill and in the Allegheny County morgue. And he "dabbled in Republicanism," becoming one of the so-called Reagan Democrats for a handful of years, in part inspired by economics professors at Carnegie Mellon.

In 1989, after leaving school and working briefly for his father, then a manufacturer's representative who marketed health and beauty aids, he landed a gig with Ralph Cappy's campaign for state Supreme Court. It paid $100 a week.

Mr. Peduto might have remained an anonymous campaign grunt, but he brought with him an Osborne 1, a suitcase-sized laptop he bought used when he was student at Penn State.

Among his peers at CMU, his computer skills might have been considered rudimentary. But in the world of political campaigns, Mr. Peduto said, his use of spreadsheets to organize volunteers and activities was considered ground-breaking.

"There was no one in politics who had ever used a computer," he said. (Cappy won the election and served for almost two decades.)

After a brief stint in the finance department of Mayor Sophie Masloff, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work for a company pioneering the use of technology in campaigns, using data and analysis to deliver in-depth information about voters to candidates.

He moved back to Pittsburgh to start a political consulting firm, working jobs across the western half of the state and earning a reputation as someone who could be called upon to rescue sagging campaigns.

"My bread and butter at the point was not in government and policy, it was on politics," he said. "I learned bare-knuckle politics, and I learned from the best in the business."

On to the political stage

But his love for it slowly waned. He turned 30 in a TV studio in Youngstown, Ohio, where he was working for Bill Leaven, who ran unsuccessfully against Rep. Phil English, a Republican from Erie. He watched as the campaign's media consultant edited an attack ad and manipulated a portrait of the congressman, "compressing [his] head and adding a tinge of green."

"As I sat there and watched this, I asked myself, 'Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life?' " he said. "The entire presence of political campaigning is based around destroying your enemy. It just didn't seem like the thing I wanted to spend my life doing."

So he took a job, and hefty pay cut, to work as the chief of staff for city Councilman Dan Cohen. And he wasn't entirely done with campaigns. In 1996, he orchestrated Mr. Cohen's unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat that employed a notorious attack ad that was roundly criticized as dirty.

But from there, he focused his efforts on the gritty work of local government: answering the phones, handling constituent complaints and attending community meetings.

In 2002, running on a platform of bringing data-driven decision-making into city government, he coasted to victory to fill Mr. Cohen's seat.

For a decade on council, he's focused his efforts on so-called "good governance": strengthening the city's ethics code, campaign finance reform, encouraging green development and sustainability and reforming the process for city contracts. He ran for mayor in the 2005 primary, losing to Bob O'Connor, and withdrew from the 2007 primary, conceding that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl had an overwhelming lead.

He said he tried to steer the city away from the kind of pay-to-play politics he'd seen as a campaign staffer. As he becomes mayor, he has plans to use technology to streamline local government and better allocate ever-scarce resources, perhaps inspired by those early days with the Osborne 1.

"I saw politics so closely during the years that I was running campaigns that I saw the undue influence of the middlemen," he said. "I call them the merchants of democracy, the ones that bundle checks and twist arms to get people to contribute and then how they work to make those people into vendors. The only way to break that system is to shine the light upon it," using technology.

But some would contradict his argument that he's entirely above the fray. He's been known to box out those whom he disagrees with and could be a polarizing figure on council. As a new mayor with a bold agenda, his relationship with council may test him.

Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle said Mr. Peduto hasn't spoken to him outside of council meetings in four years -- since Mr. Lavelle declined to vote for him for council president.

But, Mr. Peduto argued, "Not speaking to someone means I'm not going to go after you, but you've worn out your welcome. ... If you're a leader and you stand on your own two feet, then they better be ready to be knocked down when they take a swing at you."


Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533 or on Twitter @MoriahBee.

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