What once looked like a watershed election in Pittsburgh has turned into a yawner.
With last week's withdrawal of Councilman William Peduto from the mayor's race, there's no top-of-the-ticket battle to drive debate on issues from potholes to pension problems. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will get a free ride through the pivotal Democratic primary, while Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato faces no established political candidate in his bid for re-election.
Some say that's bad for democracy and will allow issues to fester, while others argue that it gives a city shaken by turbulence a chance for some smooth flying.
The lack of high-profile contests "sends a message that there is little interest on the part of the politicians to stage a debate on the real issues in how the city should be administered," said Jerry Shuster, professor of political communication at the University of Pittsburgh.
"I just thought we needed to take a collective breath and enjoy some stability," said state Sen. Jim Ferlo, an early supporter of Mr. Ravenstahl.
Due to the Sept. 1 death of Mayor Bob O'Connor, the mayor's office appears on the ballot two years earlier than usual. Add races for city controller and five of the nine council seats, and the potential was there for a change in seven of the 11 elected city posts.
In addition to Mr. Peduto's bowing out last week, school board member Theresa Colaizzi dropped her challenge to council President Doug Shields, leaving him unchallenged for re-election even as he also runs for controller. Though the controller's race and remaining council races appear competitive, there's no high-profile battle or big issue to galvanize voters.
That could help endorsed candidates.
When city lawyer Hugh McGough heard Wednesday that Mr. Peduto was withdrawing, he promptly dropped his own unendorsed candidacy for judge.
"With Peduto out of the race, you have no unendorsed standard-bearer," he said. Voters looking for mavericks may stay home, he said.
"It's going to drop turnout, perhaps," said Patrick Dowd, a school board member challenging party-endorsed Councilman Len Bodack. He said it doesn't change his strategy, which includes emphasizing issues like rehabilitating old housing.
The lack of a mayor's race could take the urgency out of the ongoing debate on the city's finances, an area in which Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Peduto had differences. While the councilman was the first public official to call for the state supervised fiscal austerity under which the city now operates, the mayor (then a councilman) was among the last to sign on.
"From my perspective, there were huge differences" between the candidates, said David Y. Miller, dean of the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. "They weren't the kind of differences that inspire great debate in the general public."
That raises a question: Would even a vigorous campaign of ideas have educated the public?
"I didn't really see that happening, with all due respect to Bill [Peduto]," said Mr. Ferlo.
Campaigns cost, and only Mr. Ravenstahl had enough.
To dent Mr. Ravenstahl's popularity, Mr. Peduto would have had to "question [the mayor's] maturity," said Mr. Shuster, by hammering away at missteps. Those include a withdrawn nomination for public safety director, a night flight to New York with a Penguins co-owner and the revelation of a 2005 altercation with a police officer at Heinz Field.
Mr. Peduto said he didn't want to run a negative campaign. He's not ruling out a general election run as an independent, and continues to squirrel away campaign cash.
South Side swim coach Mark Rauterkus has said he's running for mayor, and five other offices, as a Libertarian, and others could emerge. Republicans, embroiled in divisions between city, county and state leaders, have no candidates on the May primary ballot, though there may be write-in efforts.
"It must be a snooze-fest for the Republicans," said Dianna S. Wentz, a spokeswoman for the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. "It's not a snooze-fest for us, because we're using this [election year] to bring key issues to the voters."
She said the committee will hold forums at which endorsed candidates will speak with, and hear from, African Americans, veterans, seniors, women and gays and lesbians. The goal is to get voters excited about the endorsed candidates, boost turnout, and build support for the future, she said.
Given the local dominance of the Democratic Party, Mr. Ravenstahl likely has until 2009 to prove his mettle.
The toughest issues before him may be the size of the Fire Bureau, a looming pension crisis, and revenue problems, said Mr. Ferlo, a former City Council president.
"Given the financial health of the city," he said, "there is a need for some consolidation in the Fire Bureau. It's going to have to be on his watch over the next couple of years."
That could mean confrontation with a politically powerful union with a heroic aura.
The pension fund is around $500 million short of the $843 million level required to meet future obligations, and the Ravenstahl administration is considering bringing on a new fund manager. But more drastic measures may be needed.
And with uncertainty regarding revenue from a slots venue and nonprofit institutions, plus Allegheny County's decision to set a base year of 2002 for property assessments that holds down property tax revenue, the mayor may have to look hard at spending and taxes.
Financial problems "are sitting there under the surface waiting to explode," Mr. Miller said. "I think they'll be deferred until the financial crisis occurs again."
In politics, friends come and go, but enemies accumulate. So while Mr. Ravenstahl tries to consolidate his hold on power, detractors will look for a viable challenger for 2009, or beyond.
Whether they coalesce around Mr. Peduto, Mr. Shields, county prothonotary and controller candidate Michael Lamb, or some other figure, the process will start behind the scenes. They're all raising money, and Mr. Peduto said he'll be building his war chest.
Meanwhile, the unchallenged leaders will do what they can to stay that way.
"Maybe the city's in a position to look for some security and let things settle down a bit," said Mr. Onorato. "We don't have elections to distract us."
Rich Lord can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1542.