The more the merrier for Peduto's chances for mayor

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As this is the most wide-open mayor's race in a quarter century, it's incumbent upon all columnists to write the traditional horse-race column, ignoring all issues.

Were the election held today, Councilman Bill Peduto would win.

Yeah, I know the race isn't over until the last bingo dauber is distributed at a senior citizens center. I also know that lame duck Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's brunchtime bombshell Wednesday about challenging the tax-exempt status of mighty UPMC makes a mere mayor's race seem briefly insignificant.

But it wasn't lost on any candidate that it will be the next mayor who will likely be in court looking for millions of dollars in taxes from UPMC. Mr. Peduto immediately called his own news conference in the wake of the mayor's. Mr. Peduto called the mayor's announcement a good first step, but now he wants to see all large regional nonprofits held accountable. (He's looking at you, Highmark.)

I've already broken my promise on the issue-free column but here's why Mr. Peduto, an East End councilman for the past dozen years, has the upper hand: Every candidate who has entered the race -- or left it -- this past month only increased Mr. Peduto's likelihood of winning.

First, the mayor fled. That was huge. Even when they're carrying more baggage than Amtrak, incumbent mayors are tough to beat.

The thinking is that the city doesn't have enough "progressive voters" -- that's what politicos call pretty much any white Democrat with a college degree -- to elect someone like Mr. Peduto in a two- or three-person race. But there should be enough support when the electorate is split five or six ways.

"The more the race gets divvied up, the more Bill's organization is able to assert itself,'' a Democratic political consultant who didn't want to go on record told me.

Mr. Ravenstahl's only challengers had been Mr. Peduto and city Controller Michael Lamb, the same two who finished far behind Bob O'Connor in the 2005 mayoral primary.

Mr. Peduto's strength was in the East End then and now. His supporters are solidly with him, but it's not a large enough coterie to form a majority. His best hope is a crowded field like the one in 1989, when five top-tier candidates ran and incumbent Sophie Masloff won the primary with just 28 percent of the vote.

That crowded field has arrived.

Mr. Lamb's base is in the city's South Hills neighborhoods, and he also made a fair showing on the North Side in 2005, but now Jack Wagner, also from the South Hills, is splitting Mr. Lamb's base. City Council President Darlene Harris of the North Side is splintering the vote further. Ditto for state Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District and long-shot school bus monitor A.J. Richardson.

None of them is likely to chip into Mr. Peduto's base. The only one who might have was fellow liberal Jim Ferlo, the state senator from Highland Park, but he pulled back his trial balloon last week.

Of course, what polls suggest and what actually happens aren't always the same thing. A Pennsylvania Poll a month before the 1989 primary had Allegheny County Controller Frank Lucchino leading with 29 percent. Mrs. Masloff had 21 percent and a maverick state legislator from the North Side named Tom Murphy was a distant fourth at 11 percent.

Mrs. Masloff won the primary, with Mr. Murphy second and Mr. Lucchino third. That was enough of a boost for Mr. Murphy to win the mayor's race four years later and ultimately serve three terms.

When I ran this analysis past Mr. Murphy last week, he said any successful mayoral candidate needs more than one base of support. East End votes complemented his North Side base, Mr. Murphy said, "but I don't know where Peduto goes out of the East End.''

Mr. Peduto's heard all this before.

"I think I went from underdog to front-runner in 24 hours," he said, "and the interesting part is the message never changed.''

He likes to say that every prominent elected official from the South Hills who isn't running for mayor -- state Sen. Wayne Fontana, state Rep. Erin Molchany and council members Natalia Rudiak and Bruce Kraus -- has endorsed him. He's opening campaign headquarters in Brookline and Brighton Heights, too. Votes are "not based on where people live," he said, "but where they stand.''

It's a good line, and a practiced one. He can use it at his victory party if there is one.


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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