For mayor: Mark DeSantis is the choice for a new Pittsburgh

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Pittsburghers are living in a unique time. There has never been an election for mayor in which the incumbent has served for 14 months, in which the winner will get only two years and where the future of the city, now under strict oversight from the state, hangs in the balance.

Unusual times call for more than the usual leadership. For Pittsburghers on Nov. 6, that means voting for Mark DeSantis, the first Republican the Post-Gazette has endorsed for mayor since John Tabor in 1969.

Why should a city dominated by Democrats consider a Republican for mayor? Because one-party rule has failed Pittsburgh and failed it repeatedly. It has failed to prevent population loss and business erosion. It has failed to head off the city's near-bankruptcy and job loss. It has failed to generate the big ideas that should be propelling Pittsburgh into the 21st century.

A Democratic mayor and a nine-member Democratic council have robbed the city of the robust political competition that renews the state and keeps the federal government in check. We see the invigorating value of shifting party control in Harrisburg and Washington, but on Grant Street we see rust, cobwebs and a city bravely trying to manage its own decline.

The latest mayor challenged with the task is Luke Ravenstahl, 27, of the North Side. As everyone knows, the incumbent was the council president who became mayor in September 2006 upon the death of Bob O'Connor, an outgoing salesman for the city who won election on the basis of charm, enthusiasm and a determination to clean every neighborhood.

Mr. Ravenstahl moved into the mayor's chair and, out of respect for the memory of his predecessor, pledged to push Pittsburgh in the same direction. But it was soon apparent: The new mayor may have adopted the O'Connor agenda, but he was no Bob O'Connor.

Call it youth, inexperience or simply lack of judgment, Mayor Ravenstahl began treating the city to a series of well-publicized disappointments, embarrassments and outrages, and he was slow to accept responsibility for some of his actions.

On the substance of governing, too, Mayor Ravenstahl has left much to be desired. Sure, he has continued his predecessor's "redd-up" campaign, stepped up the tear-down of abandoned buildings, sworn off new borrowing and submitted two balanced budgets.

But he is unable, despite his fresh arrival and the promise of generational change, to think big enough to break with the past. Instead of privatizing a service like trash collection, he extends it to Wilkinsburg -- not because it saves Pittsburgh money but because it's created a few more city jobs while helping a municipal neighbor. Instead of initiating action to combine services with the county, he's merely open to discussion and waiting to see a blueprint "put in front of me" (translation: not really interested).

He can't get the city's own parking authority to cut rates to reflect the lower parking tax. He (and the city school superintendent) can't get more than the teachers union to contribute to the Pittsburgh Promise, an otherwise good program to help students pay for college. And he says he's pressed rich nonprofits to boost their municipal aid, and they've said they'll give again, but no one knows if they'll get off with a paltry sum like the last time.

This is not an election, though, about who should not be mayor. It's a campaign about who can muster the vision and leadership to modernize city government. In this four-way race, Tony Oliva, 28, of Oakland is the Libertarian nominee and Ryan Scott, 24, of Friendship represents the Socialist Workers Party. None of them holds the promise of Mark DeSantis.

The 48-year-old former aide to the late Sen. John Heinz is a high-tech businessman and consultant. With a Ph.D. in public policy, he is an adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University, but he's no ivory-tower geek.

Five years ago, he co-founded Citizens for Democratic Reform, a group that championed the successful drive to consolidate county row offices, saving taxpayer dollars. He was chosen by Jim Roddey, the first county chief executive, to lead his economic development transition team, the New Idea Factory. With such a reformist pedigree, a Republican mayor like Mr. DeSantis will be able to add to the Democratic support the city already gets from Harrisburg and Washington the GOP backing that has eluded Pittsburgh for so long.

He is tired of a city that puts up new buildings and sunny facades without adding net new jobs and businesses. He's heard enough talk and seen too little action on city-county consolidation, especially when both entities are led by Democrats. He's grown impatient with the sacred cows preserved by one-party rule, whether it's the number of fire stations, the size of the city budget or a lax approach to ethical behavior.

He wants to approach long-standing problems in a different way. Besides extracting more voluntary contributions from tax-exempt institutions, Mr. DeSantis says Pittsburgh should look beyond cash and, for instance, negotiate a deal with UPMC, the region's most profitable nonprofit, to provide health care for city retirees. He wants an ethics policy for city officials and employees that prohibits all freebies and uses an ethics compliance officer for enforcement. He wants city departments not just to operate well but to be judged against other cities' performance.

Mr. DeSantis, who lives Downtown and works on the South Side, is articulate, forceful and persuasive in his goals for change. As a self-proclaimed nonpolitician, he is refreshing and even chafes at the notion that mayoral politics expects him to "pound my chest and say I'm great." That's not him, he said. "I'll tell you what I don't know." Yet, in reality, there's not much he doesn't know.

One thing we do know is the Republican, this year, can win. With $285,000 raised in cash and in-kind contributions, more than any recent mayoral candidate from his party, the DeSantis challenge has a shot.

If the number of Post-Gazette readers reading this editorial agree he should win, then he will win. These readers, these voters, have that kind of power, even though some of them may have voted for few or no Republicans in the past. Other "Democratic" cities, after all, have had successful Republican mayors -- New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, to name a few. In Pittsburgh, plenty of disaffected Democrats and others have been waiting for a credible candidate to return two-party democracy, debate and decision-making to the city.

That would be the first big change under Mark DeSantis. For Pittsburgh, it should be the start of many more.


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