Is great Republican hope just an urban myth?

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A Democrat was elected mayor of Pittsburgh on Tuesday. In other news, the sun came up in the morning and set in the evening.

Everybody knew it wouldn't take many voters to elect Bill Peduto, and so most didn't bother with the ritual. Almost three hours after the polls opened, I became only the 31st voter at my North Side precinct. Citywide, fewer than 44,000 went to the polls, a record low for this time of year.

I broke with my contrarian tradition of voting for Republicans for mayor because GOP candidate Josh Wander (campaign slogan: "See ya!'') couldn't care less about two of the cardinal rules of campaigning: 1. Don't sell your house. 2. Don't move to the Middle East. Not that it would have mattered.

The last Republican to make a serious run at the mayor's office, Mark DeSantis in 2007, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and earned the endorsement of both Pittsburgh dailies. That got Mr. DeSantis less than 35 percent of the vote -- the best showing by a Republican mayoral candidate in Pittsburgh since 1965.

It's de rigueur to lament one-party rule in Pittsburgh. In the 80 years since a Republican last sat in the mayor's chair, the map of the world has had to be redrawn many times over, yet the city hasn't wavered from its D fixation. But we've been often asking the wrong question.

The question is not why more Pittsburghers don't buy the suburban Republicans' three-pronged argument: "You're all idiots. I'd never live in the city. Why don't you let us run it?"

The question is why Republicans don't like American cities. The largest one with a Republican mayor is Indianapolis, a place that's really more county than city. At 365 square miles, Indianapolis has more than six times Pittsburgh's footprint and less than half as many people per square mile.

Maybe that's the only kind of city Republicans care to run because they don't, as a general rule, like to live too close to their neighbors. Check any electoral map. The Republicans always win on acreage, but hardly ever win densely populated areas.

I called Bill Green, legendary political analyst and Republican stalwart, for an explanation. Mr. Green -- one of about 1,350 residents scattered across the 51/2 square miles of Bell Acres -- thinks the Republican exodus from cities can be traced back to the GI Bill and Bill Levitt launching the home construction explosion in American suburbia after World War II.

"Those that could, left ... for the bright lights of Mt. Lebanon and Monroeville," Mr. Green said.

Outside of cities, he believes, Republicanism made more sense because "Democrats like government, Republicans don't." (That trumps my theory of widespread Democratic fear of riding mowers.)

He has advised Republicans not to run for mayor of Pittsburgh. It's not worth it. The next GOP mayor would face nine City Council members of the opposite party "who'd tie him up with committee meetings."

"Democrats love that stuff," Mr. Green said. "They love unionizing stuff and running stuff and creating more [government] jobs. It's government of the government by the government and for the government."

Actually, the city has spent most of the past couple of decades slashing its workforce, closing fire stations, swimming pools and schools. The city's median age has dropped. The city now has a lower percentage of elderly residents than Allegheny County as a whole, while there has been net in-migration into the region for years. Younger residents don't necessarily share the suburban dreams of their grandparents.

Still I'd like to see a Republican mayor of Pittsburgh someday. Until one runs something other than a bedroom community in Pennsylvania, Republicans in America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature will have no reason to tackle this core issue: The city's biggest employers, the hospitals and universities that drive our regional economy, are largely exempt from paying property or payroll taxes.

Mr. Green acknowledged that point, but says his party would be better off trying to pick off a City Council seat or two rather than make "these quixotic runs for mayor.''

Politico wrote last month that "urban Republican politicians have emerged over the last year as perhaps the nation's most severely endangered political species.'' Whether you think that's because Republicans don't like cities or cities don't like them, Mr. Peduto taking 84 percent of the vote does nothing to change the prognosis.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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