Ravenstahl or his photo almost everywhere

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Andy Starnes, Post-GazetteMayor Luke Ravenstahl's image looks down from a billboard on Rt. 51 in the Overbrook section of Pittsburgh promoting a clean-up campaign started by his predecessor, Bob O'Connor.
By Rich Lord
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Luke Ravenstahl, defending champ. Luke Ravenstahl, scrappy challenger.

Neither is quite right, which is what makes this year's race for Pittsburgh mayor an unusual, and unpredictable, political event.

On one hand, the man who became mayor less than six months ago on the death of Bob O'Connor is running with many of the advantages of a classic incumbent. He has access to money, the bureaucracy, and the news media -- plus, in a less traditional twist, he has access to free billboards and the city Web site.

On the other hand, he is facing 2005's second-place mayoral finisher, Councilman William Peduto and has no experience running citywide and no list of accomplishments (or enemies) typical of incumbents who have held executive office for years.

"He's in a very unique position," said Jerry Shuster, professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. "He does have all of the perks of an incumbent, and runs like one. The only deficiency here is, by the time the election comes, he probably will not have had time to satisfy some of his critics with regard to his ability to make hard decisions."

So does he run as the candidate of the status quo, or as an agent of change?

As he walked the halls of his administration's suite of offices last week, clutching a miniature basketball -- "I guess it's a stress reliever," he said -- the mayor claimed not to be thinking in those terms. Instead, he said, he's "focusing on the day-to-day functions of being the mayor. That is what I believe the voters will respond to."

Of course, if voters didn't respond to ideas and images, there wouldn't be campaigns. In the image department, Mr. Ravenstahl is running as an incumbent, and then some.

His tenure started with the Sept. 1 death of Mr. O'Connor, and by virtue of being 26 years old (now 27) with just three years in office, he became an instant media phenomenon.

He promptly seized Mr. O'Connor's focus on "redding up" the city -- and the free billboard exposure, courtesy of Lamar Advertising, that came with it. Later came another series of billboards touting the city's 311 help line, also with the mayor's name and face prominently displayed.

Lamar currently has five such billboards citywide, which cost the company a total of $265 in materials and two hours of staff time, according to Stan Geier, the company's local vice president and general manager. "It is ad space that went unsold and is not displacing any paying advertisers," he wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

The signs are consistent with the company's practice of donating surplus space "as a public service to deserving organizations," he wrote.

To Mr. Peduto, the billboards are part of a pattern of abuse of incumbency that also includes "three [city] mailings [featuring the mayor's picture], constant PR on the [city's] cable channel, an unprecedented amount of propaganda on the city's Web site."

"I didn't hear him bring that up in March, April, May, June or July of last year when Mr O'Connor was doing the same exact thing," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "So I would argue that's part of being mayor, and when you are the mayor, you are the face of the city, and I'm very proud of that."

Officials using public service announcements to their advantage is nothing new, said political consultant Marty Marks, who is not working for either mayoral candidate.

Mr. Marks served as field director for Dan Onorato in 2003 when he ousted incumbent Jim Roddey from the Allegheny County chief executive's chair. "I can think of public service announcements and things that Jim Roddey did," he said. "It seemed like he was everywhere."

An incumbent's presence on official media "goes with the territory," said Mr. Shuster, the Pitt professor. "Look at what the governor does on tourism promotions on radio and TV."

Official Web sites are comparatively virgin territory in the context of campaigns.

The last time a sitting Pittsburgh mayor faced an electoral challenge, in 2001, the city's Web site was not a factor. Now the site gets 6,200 visits per day, up 44 percent from 2004, the earliest year for which statistics are available.

The site's front page features a large picture of Mr. Ravenstahl that, when clicked on, leads to a page with 25 more photos of him. Next to the large picture is a smaller frame with a slide show of photos of the mayor with kids, crossing guards, police, senior citizens and an Indian chief.

That compares to a single photo, repeated on two pages, on the mayor's campaign-paid Web site, www.lukeformayor.com. Mr. Peduto's campaign launched a more involved site, www.billpeduto.com, on Friday.

Mr. Ravenstahl's prominence on the city's Web site is unusual. Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Tampa have Web site front pages that feature a small picture of their mayors, or no photo at all.

"We don't treat [the mayor] any different from any other city department's needs," said City Information Systems Director Howard Stern. He stressed that the cost of updating and maintaining the site's front page is low. It takes "a few hours per week for one employee," usually the city Web master, who earns $54,383 per year.

"A lot of newsmaking items involve the mayor, so that's why he's there a lot," Mr. Stern said.

Reporters, too, have little choice but to show up to see the mayor clean up graffiti in Brookline, board up a home in Hazelwood, or show off police technology in Squirrel Hill, on the off chance he says something newsworthy -- say, on the fate of the arena-hunting Penguins or the condition of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

"When he speaks, people listen," said Mr. Shuster.

He'll likely speak loudly in coming months, via campaign-paid television ads. The mayor said he had around $500,000 in his campaign account at the end of January, and Mr. Peduto reported having $115,783. Some of the mayor's top donors are contractors and developers that do business with the city and its authorities -- a vein the challenger can't easily mine.

"People are lining up to give Luke money," said Mr. Marks. "Bill Peduto has to work much harder to raise money."

Incumbents usually have an advantage in the race for their party's endorsement, because so many of the committee members who bestow that nod work in government, said City Democratic Committee Chair Barbara Ernsberger. This mayor, though, may not have as much of an edge as did his predecessors.

"He has a job to introduce himself to everybody, which usually isn't the job of a sitting mayor," she said. "Peduto has run around the city once already, so he made friends in the committee.... I think the committee race is turning out to be a close race."

Mr. Peduto is now meeting with committee members one-on-one, in an effort to pull off what would be an upset win in the March 4 endorsement vote.

History shows that the committee can be surly if members feel they haven't been courted sufficiently. In 2001, Mayor Tom Murphy only edged out then-Councilman O'Connor by a vote of 383 to 359, despite feeding the committee breakfast and taking them through then-new PNC Park.

Mr. Murphy's Democratic primary win was similarly narrow that year, thanks in part to voter anger at public stadium funding. Mr. Roddey lost because property owners felt overassessed. Those are the perils of incumbency.

Similarly, Mr. Ravenstahl could face public wrath if arena talks with the Penguins collapse or some fiscal scandal erupts. He could misjudge his audience in neighborhoods he doesn't know well, as challengers sometimes do. For now, though, he seems content to be part incumbent, part newcomer.

"Certainly, somebody as young and fresh as I am, I think has an opportunity to show [leadership] and be a leader," the mayor said. "I believe I'm a good mayor, and the more chances and the longer tenure I have to show that, the more successful I'm going to be."

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl admires the gift paperweight from his alma mater, North Catholic High School.
Click photo for larger image.Darrell Sapp. Post-Gazette
Mayor Ravenstahl serves up another Thanksgiving meal at the Light of Life Rescue Mission , on the Northside.
Click photo for larger image.Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Earlier this month, the mayor was presented with a surprise on his 27th birthday -- a cake, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute on Liberty Avenue.
Click photo for larger image.

Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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