Wagner for mayor: His experience makes him Pittsburgh's best choice

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With city operations under investigation by federal agents and Luke Ravenstahl zinging his critics online, one thing is certain. The next mayor of Pittsburgh will be an upgrade.

That's no reason, however, for Democrats in the May 21 primary to give their vote to just anybody. With the party's overwhelming registration advantage and the Republicans offering another token standard bearer in the fall, the person who wins the Democratic nomination in two weeks is virtually assured of becoming the city's next mayor. That person should be Jack Wagner.

We say this out of no ill will toward Mr. Wagner's opponents: Councilman Bill Peduto, who has been a Ravenstahl adversary and the force behind various positive initiatives; state Rep. Jake Wheatley, who has been a good representative in Harrisburg for his district; and A.J. Richardson, a school bus monitor.

Based on polling, organization and fund raising, this election will come down to a Wagner-Peduto horse race. Mr. Peduto, 48, of Point Breeze, is in his third term on council and his third run for mayor. He finished second in the 2005 Democratic primary and aborted his candidacy two years later when political polling showed the formidability of Mayor Ravenstahl.

On council Mr. Peduto has been forward-thinking, seeking stronger ethics, campaign finance limits and lobbyist disclosure. He believes that city government, despite its financial progress, is not ready or prepared to leave the state oversight provided by Act 47. He is part of the council faction that is critical of the mayor -- and usually for good reason.

Nevertheless, that enmity on council and Mr. Peduto's stake in it is something that gives us pause on how he'd be able to work as mayor with all nine members. Another concern is his close relationship with Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Mr. Peduto's biggest political patron and his most potent weapon in the Democratic primary.

Although the Post-Gazette endorsed Mr. Fitzgerald for his own election in 2011 and supports many of his policies, he has shown a penchant on Grant Street for over-control. As desirable as it is for the county's and the city's top leaders to work together, Pittsburgh's chief executive should still maintain some healthy independence. Yet, frankly, after this race Mr. Peduto will owe Mr. Fitzgerald too much.

Jack Wagner would bring to the Mayor's Office none of that baggage.

At 65, Mr. Wagner, of Beechview, has served the public in more roles and on bigger landscapes. As a Marine in the Vietnam War, he was ambushed along with his unit in 1967, wounded and hospitalized for five months.

He was elected to city council in 1984, when it was more of a circus than it is now. He served there for 10 years, including four as council president. For the next decade, he represented the 42nd District in the state Senate. In the last eight years, he was state auditor general, Pennsylvania's top fiscal watchdog, in charge of rooting out waste, fraud and abuse.

During his time in Harrisburg, he worked with Democrats and Republicans, including Govs. Tom Ridge, Ed Rendell and Tom Corbett. That experience prepares him well for dealing with a city council riven by discord.

Although the opposition is trying to portray Mr. Wagner as the favorite of Ravenstahl supporters, his record demonstrates more independence than that. Otherwise, why would Mr. Wagner have been contemplating a run against Mr. Ravenstahl long before the mayor dropped out of the race?

When it comes to challenges confronting Pittsburgh -- fiscal solvency, better transit, public safety and stronger schools -- there is scarcely a difference between Bill Peduto and Jack Wagner. But the gulf between them is apparent in the scale of leadership and the gauge of experience that each would bring to the job.

Jack Wagner knows that it's not just important to work with Harrisburg; he knows how to work with Harrisburg. Jack Wagner knows that it's not just important to serve your part of the city; he knows how to serve the entire city.

Pittsburgh is on the verge again of choosing a real mayor, one who won't need on-the-job training or lessons in ethics and decorum. Democrats who go to the polls on May 21 should pick the most qualified person for the job: Jack Wagner.

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