GOP spent big, got no change

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Congratulations, Luke.

Pittsburgh's mayoral election turned out like one of those nonevents hyped by the squall squads in local television newsrooms.

Storm Team 11 and Weather Watch 4 and Whatever The Third One Is Called get a few people running around madly, buying toilet paper and such, while most folks ignore the reports and wind up heading home, same as usual, without so much as their intermittent wipers going.

That was Mayoral Election 2007. The 27-year-old incumbent, Luke Ravenstahl, was returned to office like every incumbent and every Democrat since Republican John Herron was dumped in 1933. Despite spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and getting the endorsement of the Pittsburgh dailies, GOP challenger Mark DeSantis scored only about 71/2 percentage points higher than his counterpart in 2003, Joe Weinroth, who spent about a buck-ninety-eight.

Most Pittsburghers didn't give a damn either way. Only about 28 percent of registered voters turned out. (In fairness, it was a cold, rainy Tuesday after a Monday night Steelers game, and it's entirely possible there was a good episode of "Gilligan's Island" on cable.)

So what does Mr. Ravenstahl's nearly 2-to-1 thumping of Mr. DeSantis mean?

Well, for starters, an old lesson should be relearned. Those in the chattering classes who spend most of their time talking to each other need to get around more. As a friend from McKeesport sardonically put it Wednesday morning: "The center of the world is not the intersection of Shady and Forbes."

Mr. DeSantis took prosperous neighborhoods such as Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Point Breeze, Regent Square, Highland Park, the Mexican War Streets and slices of Oakland, Friendship and Bloomfield. That part of the map looks like what Councilman William Peduto might have carried had he stayed in the Democratic primary, but that's not Pittsburgh for most people.

Residents of largely black neighborhoods -- Homewood, the Hill District, Manchester, Perry Hilltop, Garfield -- were not ready to pull the lever for any Republican. Mr. Ravenstahl took more than 80 percent of the vote in those neighborhoods.

That's only part of a winning formula in a city two-thirds white. The mayor did well in middle-class white and blue-collar neighborhoods, too. He took all but a tiny gentrified bit of his native North Side, plus Lawrenceville, Greenfield, Hazelwood and nearly every precinct south of the Monongahela.

The mayor has been caricatured in the blogosphere as an empty suit or worse, but he surely is not, coming out of this election considerably stronger. He took part in seven debates, a brazen act for a man whose principal advantage was supposed to be name recognition, and more than held his own. He didn't bow to the police union's wishes for the right to live out of town, while his challenger backed that bad idea.

Mr. Ravenstahl also hoarded his campaign war chest, not bothering with TV ads despite the alleged momentum going the challenger's way, and still took 63 percent of the vote.

This guy should be very hard to beat in two years.

Mr. DeSantis did OK for a guy who was just a write-in candidate in the May primary. Knocking a 5-1 Democratic voter registration advantage down to something less than a 2-1 defeat is a dubious achievement, but his nearly 24,000 votes are the most for a Republican candidate since 1969 and his take of nearly 35 percent the best since 1965. That and $1.75 can get him a bus ride on the 16B, the 26A or the 54C to see some of the places he didn't carry.

President Bush's unpopularity didn't help Mr. DeSantis, but it wasn't the difference maker. I've been pulling Republican levers in the last two mayoral elections not because I think that party has better answers, but because I want its Pennsylvania branch to start asking the right question:

How does a city survive when the largest employers pay no taxes and it's a quick commute to escape the wage tax?

Mr. DeSantis said the night of his defeat that he will keep pushing for a countywide referendum on combining the city and Allegheny County governments, along with starting a loan program for minority businesses. That would beat the old Republican plan: running some bedroom communities and blaming the problems of that big shrinking city down the parkway on whoever happens to be mayor.

That always missed a large part of the problem, but that remains our Pittsburgh.


Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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