The mayor's race will be the centerpiece of a Pittsburgh political season like no other.
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl spent 16 hours Tuesday hitting polling places and victory parties. Councilman William Peduto is attending some eight events a day and buttonholing campaign donors. Allegheny County Prothonotary Michael Lamb is conducting a poll.
In short, the mayor's race is on.
When Mr. Ravenstahl presents his budget to City Council tomorrow, it will provide his opponents with the first raw meat of the campaign, which is likely to be decided in the Democratic primary in May.
Featuring an incumbent, who will, by then, have had nearly nine months in office and one or more seasoned challengers, the contest will be the centerpiece of a city political season like no other. Along with simultaneous races for controller and five council seats, it could cement the city's shaky status quo or topple it.
"I'm in full campaign mode," Mr. Ravenstahl, 26, said as he shook hands Tuesday.
Formerly City Council president, he became mayor Sept. 1 when Bob O'Connor died of cancer after eight months in office. The county Board of Elections ruled that voters get to decide next year who will serve out the last two years of Mr. O'Connor's term.
In light of Mr. Ravenstahl's tenure in elected office of just three years, several older, more experienced Democrats said they hadn't ruled out joining the fray. They include state Reps. Harry Readshaw, of Carrick, and Dan Frankel, of Squirrel Hill; former county Commissioner Mike Dawida; County Council President Rich Fitzgerald; and the late Mayor Richard S. Caliguiri's son David, who is involved in the Penguins' bid for a new arena.
Auditor General Jack Wagner, of Beechview, has been mentioned as a potential candidate, but he said he was focused on winning re-election in 2008.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, of Highland Park, took himself off the short list Friday, saying Mr. Ravenstahl "has quickly won me over as a convert and I will be working to support his election with all the resources I can muster."
Next year's winner will be the instant favorite to win a full term in 2009. That adds weight to tomorrow's budget presentation.
Firefighter pay an issue
The 360-page, $419 million spending plan will mirror the one state overseers approved Oct. 20. Now, though, it will get scrutiny from council and is likely to face a legal challenge from Acting Controller Tony Pokora, who says it short-sheets his office.
"The budget is the difference between Luke and I," said Mr. Peduto, 42, who finished second in last year's mayoral balloting after supporting fiscal supervision by the state. He said Mr. Ravenstahl vacillated as a councilman over whether to submit to an austerity plan and still isn't accounting for the fiscal challenges ahead.
As mayor, Mr. Ravenstahl has worked with the overseers, giving in to their demands to curb spending by council and the controller's office.
Mr. Peduto plans to press the mayor on Fire Bureau costs.
The city can reopen its contract with the firefighters union next year, and state overseers have demanded that it take that opportunity to trim the bureau's $49 million budget. But the politically potent firefighters union, which has supported Mr. Ravenstahl, would probably oppose cuts.
"I feel that we can [reopen the contract] ... with the firefighters at the table," Mr. Peduto said. "If we're able to find just a 10 percent savings, that would be $5 million."
The mayor has said he isn't sure "whether or not it is appropriate or fiscally responsible" to reopen the pact.
Mr. Lamb, 43, last year's third-place finisher, is again positioning himself as the candidate championing collaboration between city and county. He said more cooperation was the solution to the city's budget shortfalls, because it "clearly gets you to where you can realistically provide the necessary services."
The Penguins might be Mr. Ravenstahl's biggest liability in the race.
If the team's partner, Isle of Capri Casinos, wins the right next month to build a slots parlor, it will pay for a new arena. If not, the team would probably enter into politically sticky negotiations with the city, county and state regarding how much taxpayer funding would go to a new arena, under the so-called Plan B, and might threaten to leave if the deal isn't good enough.
Mr. Ravenstahl endorsed the Isle of Capri plan as a councilman and has repeated that as mayor. But he called on the Penguins to accept Plan B and didn't retract a city report written under Mr. O'Connor that favored a Station Square casino proposal by Forest City Enterprises.
"Two weeks into being mayor, Plan B became Luke's Plan A," said Mr. Peduto, who backs the Isle of Capri bid. He questioned Plan B's viability, noting that neither the team nor the state Legislature had approved it.
He added that the mayor "should have come out strong" for Isle of Capri and withdrawn the city report.
"It's out of my control, the slots process," the mayor said. "That's a decision the state will make.
"The important thing is that we keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh. The Isle of Capri plan does just that. Plan B, in a different way, does that."
Mr. Ravenstahl has to deal with accusations that Operations Director Dennis Regan quashed police discipline against his housemate's brother, Detective Francis Rende. Mr. Regan has been under investigation and on paid leave for a month, and is to be interviewed by city lawyers this week.
"My hope is that it would be concluded as expeditiously as possible," the mayor said Thursday.
As mayor, Mr. Ravenstahl should be able to raise more campaign money than any challenger.
Mr. Peduto promises to be competitive. "I've been purposely going out to meet with Michael Lamb's finance people, and selectively meeting with some of Bob O'Connor's finance people."
If mayoral races typically hinge on personalities, issues and money, they also can be affected by geography.
Mr. Ravenstahl, of Summer Hill, is the only likely candidate from the city's north, but last year, only one in eight mayoral votes came from north of the rivers. Those votes aren't guaranteed him. He has tangled with influential Brighton Heights ward Chairman Ben Woods, who could back a rival.
In the last primary, slightly more than half of the votes came from between the rivers, where Mr. Peduto, of Point Breeze, is strong. But that breadbasket would be divided if others in the East End, such as Mr. Caliguiri, Mr. Frankel or Mr. Fitzgerald, all of Squirrel Hill, decided to run.
A single candidate from neighborhoods south of the rivers, which generated more than one-third of mayoral votes last year, could be formidable. But that vote, too, could be split.
Mr. Lamb, of Mount Washington, took one-third of the South Hills then and said he could pick up much of the rest in a race that wouldn't involve Mr. O'Connor.
He's weighing whether to run for mayor or controller. He said another bid for mayor would be "completely different" from last year's, when Mr. O'Connor was the heavy favorite and he and Mr. Peduto were less well known.
"No disrespect to [Mr. Lamb], but last time he ran, he didn't do that well," said Mr. Readshaw, 65.
Mr. Readshaw said he might run as the South Hills' man. "I don't think we've gotten our proper attention," he said. He'd limit himself to serving through 2013, which, he said, would allow him to make tough decisions without worrying about alienating interest groups.
Mr. Dawida, 57, of Carrick, said he too was considering a run. A former state senator and one-term Allegheny County commissioner, he is a consultant and college teacher. He'd tout the municipal cooperation he achieved on county-backed development projects such as The Waterfront and his experience in budget-cutting for the county, which was "in every bit as bad shape as the city currently is."
Mr. Pokora, a political player for 20 years, said Mr. Ravenstahl "is going to be the guy to beat, and people are going to be taking potshots at him." He added that Mr. Peduto had an energetic base of young voters, and Mr. Lamb could rally the city's south and contend for the Democratic Committee endorsement.
In sum, it could rank as one of the city's loudest mayor's races, he said. "I think it'll be bombastic next year."
Rich Lord can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1542.