Ravenstahl leaving tarnished legacy as Pittsburgh mayor

Federal inquiry, absences lead to questions on his role in city progress

The conversations started with his family. He told them he was tired, that he didn't know if he could face another campaign cycle that would inevitably involve mud-slinging and dredging up of past mistakes. And he worried more about the toll it would take on those closest to him -- on his mother, who took each slight and criticism of him personally, on his 5-year-old son, who would be old enough to ask questions about his appearances on the nightly news.

Ten months ago, when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl strode into the mayor's conference room -- that regal space where stern portraits of former mayors stare down from the walls -- he seemed relaxed and comfortable with his decision to drop out of the mayoral race, to end this strange and unintended journey after seven years that had consumed his late 20s and early 30s.

"I feel good, I feel really good. I think I kind of freaked out my staff because this is not a somber day," he said, addressing a room packed with media and members of his staff, some of whom wept. "This is a day that I'm excited about. I'm at peace with my decision."

That hour-long press conference, where he offered to stay until the last question was asked, where he appeared neither cagey nor defensive, appeared to mark a turning point. Like many other mayors winding down their time in office, he said he was going to embrace the freedom that would come without being consumed with a re-election campaign.

"The ability now to make decisions without having to worry about re-election or alienating a constituency, it's a good feeling," he said. "And it may allow us to do some things that are perhaps bolder than somebody who might run for re-election might consider."

In the coming months, then, he would perhaps have an opportunity to redeem a legacy shaped by off-hours mishaps and chronic absentia more than by his administration's laudable policy achievements.

Mr. Ravenstahl pledged on several occasions to give an interview for this story, but on Friday communicated through his chief of staff Yarone Zober that he would not sit for an interview.

Early days

In 2006, Joanna Huss was a young staffer in Mayor Bob O'Connor's press office when O'Connor died of cancer, just months into his first year as mayor. In the hours after his death, she was assigned to find a Bible to swear in the council president as mayor, a fresh-faced Luke Ravenstahl who had joined the body just three years prior and had been twice elected its leader because warring members could agree on no one else.

On the fifth floor of the City-County Building, home to the mayoral and council offices, there was none to be found, so she fetched one from a nearby hotel.

"From the very beginning it was very hectic, chaotic," said Mrs. Huss, who later served as the mayor's press secretary and married Public Safety director Michael Huss before leaving the city early last year. She now runs her own public relations firm.

It was not an easy time to lead Pittsburgh, a city just a couple of years removed from a financial precipice that threatened to plunge it into bankruptcy, a city now grieving the loss of a mayor.

"The whole city is sad, mourning the death of the mayor, and they're looking at Luke to help them," she said.

When Mr. Ravenstahl took the reins, he gave the city hope. True, he was inexperienced, but he put a young face on Pittsburgh.

"It was nice to see somebody so young in a city with a demographic of old people," said Gerald Shuster, a professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh.

Perhaps the youngest mayor to lead a major American city, he became a minor celebrity, appearing on "The Late Show with David Letterman" and garnering national news coverage. On CNN, he was billed as the "Young Man of Steel."

And his schedule was packed, according to Ms. Huss, who had access to his calendar. He worked sometimes from 7:30 a.m. into the evening, trying hard to learn on the job while he met community leaders and power brokers.

But unlike a candidate who wins an election, he had none of the lag time to put together his own cabinet or set the tone in city hall. Almost immediately, too, he had to begin campaigning for a primary to earn the Democratic nomination for a special election to fill O'Connor's term. He won both, handily, in 2007.

The hurried nature of those opening months was something Ms. Huss believes hamstrung the new mayor. "I don't know if there was anyone at the office focused on building a team, focused on building a strong culture," she said.

But within the first four months of his time in office, he would announce an initiative that he still counts as his greatest achievement: the Pittsburgh Promise, an ambitious program to provide graduates of Pittsburgh public high schools who met minimal requirements with scholarships to attend college.

Though his level of involvement in the project is disputed, it was unquestionably bold. When he announced the initiative, it had no funding.

"That was a gutsy stand he took at that particular time," Mr. Shuster said. "People were looking at that like, 'Are you nuts?' "

But, with a massive infusion of cash from UPMC and other donors, the Promise was launched and has proven highly successful.

Those early years also were marked by youthful folly, mistakes that seemed to confirm that he was perhaps not ready for the job. He used a Homeland Security SUV assigned to the city to attend a Toby Keith concert and took a ride in the private airplane of Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, not long after signing off on a deal with the organization for a new arena. When questioned about the SUV, he fired back:

"But at the end of the day, I'm still going to continue to be who I'm going to be, and go to concerts like I always have, and go to have a drink with my wife in bars. That's what 27-year-olds do and I shouldn't be any different ... I'm not going to change my life to appease the media or appease somebody who wants me to be somebody I'm not."

Facing down fiscal crisis

Four years after graduating with a business degree from Washington & Jefferson College, the 26-year-old found himself at the helm of a nearly half-billion-dollar business, a precarious enterprise that had been declared financially distressed by the state and put under the auspices of state overseers through Act 47. The city was $824 million in debt and its credit rating was barely above junk.

As mayor, he was called cheap, even "miserly," by those close to him, frequently turning down staffers who asked for raises and department heads who asked for more staff or resources.

"He did not have a hard time saying no," said Ms. Huss, who credited him for "holding the financial situation at bay."

Under his tenure, the city paid off more than $300 million in debt and he set the city on a course to significantly reduce its annual debt payments by 2019, which still eats up around 18 percent of the city's operating budget.

For the first half-decade of his tenure, he took on no new debt -- which is where cities typically get money to repair roads and keep up facilities -- and instead opted to use money the city already had on hand. He held the line on taxes.

In June, his administration celebrated as the city's credit rating got another boost from Standard & Poor to BBB, still slightly below average, but a vast improvement over the rating Mr. Ravenstahl had inherited.

In his November budget address, he acknowledged those decisions were not easy on the city's workforce.

"Five years without acquiring any new debt meant we all had to make sacrifices. We had to do more with less," he said. "It wasn't easy, and it wasn't always the most popular choice. Thank you to the directors who operated on baseline budgets. Thank you to the workers who tirelessly served our city, despite facing stagnant wages. And thank you to the residents for your patience during this time of conservative spending."

And by 2012, the city was healthy enough financially that its overseers advocated that it graduate from the program. Dean Kaplan, one of the city's Act 47 coordinators, credited the city's success to "that level discipline, which really started to show up in those first few years."

Under Mr. Ravenstahl, the city saw other changes, too: a revamped Market Square and a boom in development in Downtown and East Liberty that continues today. Consol Energy Center was erected during his tenure. In 2009, PNC erected the first skyscraper in two decades Downtown and will complete another in 2015.

A shining example of postindustrial success, the city was chosen to host the G-20 Summit in September 2009, which put the city on an international stage. And despite conflicts, it was largely hailed as a success.

The sometimes absent mayor

But observers say these are not the things that would define his legacy.

Perhaps because it was not a job he would have sought on his own accord, his enthusiasm for the work waned.

He was out of the city celebrating his 30th birthday during a record-breaking snowstorm in 2010. When he was unreachable days later -- and rumors swirled he was out of town -- he held a press conference to berate reporters.

If the intention was to diffuse the scrutiny of his whereabouts -- scrutiny that he often felt was unfair -- it had the opposite effect. Ms. Huss, who often fielded the inquiries as his press secretary, said she felt the media attention -- which sometimes focused on his private life -- was warranted.

"If you were to work hard and play hard, that's OK," she said. "But you can't just play hard."

Where he was -- and what he was doing -- became constant lines of inquiry and any absence became noteworthy. His failure to show up at the scene of a flash flood that killed four on Washington Boulevard in August 2011 gave more fuel to critics.

Sometime during his tenure, he stopped meeting with department heads. He alienated city council, which cost him dearly when his plan to privatize parking assets to rescue the city's pension was deflated by a lack of support.

But if his first half-dozen years in office were marked by some good and some bad, 2013 came to represent some of the worst aspects of his administration. News of a federal probe surfaced at the beginning of the year, leading to the resignation and guilty plea by former police Chief Nate Harper on charges he directed employees to deposit city money into an outside account that he used for personal expenses.

Later that year, it became clear that federal authorities were interested in his office as well. Three men who had served as his police bodyguards testified before a federal grand jury investigating city dealings, along with his chief of staff, secretary and two female acquaintances. It's unclear where the investigation stands today. His attorney did not return a call for comment.

The day when he announced he would no longer run -- when he hinted he might sketch out new policy initiatives -- was instead followed by long withdrawals from the public eye because any step in front of cameras meant a barrage of questions about the federal probe.

If he had any desire to take advantage of his final time in office, those golden months when many politicians indulge the opportunity to work without worrying about re-election, he was quickly robbed of it by the pall cast by the federal investigation. The one major announcement he made during that time -- that the city was filing suit against medical behemoth UPMC to strip it of its nonprofit status -- had been decided on long before he dropped his bid.

Even when his absences stretched longer than a month, he declined to explain where he was or what he was doing, except that he was going about "city business." Described as a "hands off" executive by city administrators, he was not meeting regularly with department heads or city council members.

And he defended his inactivity by saying it was merely the nature of being an outgoing mayor.

"The trash continues to get picked up. Folks in city government continue to do their jobs, and I haven't personally received very many complaints at all in this regard," he said in mid-October.

That, too, was how Aggie Brose, a longtime community activist and deputy director of the Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, saw it. Her organization partnered with his staff on several issues, including a public safety task force.

"I felt that within his team he had some really smart people," she said. "Whether he was showing up for work or not, I was working with staff. What was going on in Luke's world ... I didn't make it my business."

Mr. Ravenstahl never considered public appearances a favorite part of the job, and they were now made more agonizing by the federal investigation.

It is these sort of things that complicate his legacy, said Mr. Shuster. His absences, combined with his lack of transparency, called into serious question the role he played in the good things that happened in the city during his tenure.

"We won't know for sure whether or not he was the prime mover in some of those projects ... or whether those happened despite everything else because they were already in motion," Mr. Shuster said. "Instead of allowing us to evaluate his success in government, he kept people focused on other things, mostly his behavior, and he seemed very reluctant to let people get inside his office doors."

This quandary, this disconnect between his wounded legacy and the progress that occurred under his tenure, was one he acknowledged.

"Some people like to think that all the bad happens because of me and all the good happens despite me," he said, answering questions following the opening of the Pittsburgh Public Market in October. "I like to think it's a little bit of both."

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

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