Campaign 2007: Ravenstahl's rapid rise has been tempered by hard lessons
Pittsburgh's 27-year-old mayor says the election focus should be on his record, not the controversies in which he's found himself
October 21, 2007 8:00 AM
Rebecca Droke / Post-Gazette
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl meets the Post-Gazette's editorial panel. At right is Ryan Scott, candidate for the Socialist Workers Party.
By Dan Majors Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Luke Robert Ravenstahl, the 59th mayor of Pittsburgh, stands at the debate podium, ready to take a question from the audience.
"What is the biggest mistake you've made in your career," he is asked, "and what did you learn from it?"
His face betrays a slight smile as he runs a finger over the edge of the lectern. It's a question he anticipated.
"I think my greatest mistake, and I do this often, is I go too fast," he says. "I don't have the patience, and I want to get things done right away."
Time is precious, even to one of the nation's youngest mayors. He's 27, but he has a lot he wants to do.
"He could tell time when he was 3 years old," said North Side resident Dee Giffin Flaherty, 56, who has known Mr. Ravenstahl since he was 9 months old. "He would run into the kitchen and look at the clock. He told us what time it was, subtracted, and then said, 'Oh, we only have 40 more minutes to play.' He was 3!"
Ms. Flaherty's son, Philip, and Mr. Ravenstahl are two weeks apart in age and grew up together. As boys, they and the other youngsters in their Observatory Hill neighborhood would gather after school at the home of Robert and Cynthia Ravenstahl to watch television and play.
"His parents set clear limits," Ms. Flaherty said. "They had limits and they held the kids to those limits. Their kids, my kids, all the kids. I don't know any parents better than Bobby and Cindy Ravenstahl."
The family's political roots run deep. The mayor's grandfather, Robert P. Ravenstahl Sr., was a Democratic ward leader and state representative for the North Side until he was defeated in 1976 by a young reformer named Tom Murphy, who would go on to become mayor himself.
Robert P. Ravenstahl Jr. is a district magistrate on the North Side. His wife, a former crossing guard in Manchester, had heart surgery five years ago and has since become a teacher's aide with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. They have three sons, Luke, the oldest, Brad, 26, and Adam, 23.
"My family was always involved in public service," Mr. Ravenstahl said, "so it was always something I was involved in and appreciated because of the gratification I know my family received out of public service and helping people.
"I remember getting calls at 10 or 11 o'clock at night when somebody had a question or an issue. You just kind of grew up knowing that was the way that, if you wanted to give back to people, you had to be accessible like that and you had to open your life up to serving others."
Politics was part of the home environment, a topic of discussion at the dinner table and a way of life.
"I remember working in my father's campaign, when he was running for district judge, dropping literature and knocking on doors when I was, heck, I don't even know, 12 or 13 years old," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "I became a Democratic committeeman when I became 18 and eligible to vote."
"I was the first person to tell him that he would be mayor of our city," Ms. Flaherty said. "And he was 13 years old at the time. He was no average kid."
Luke Ravenstahl excelled in school. He took accelerated math classes, was president of the student council and graduated with honors from North Catholic High School in Troy Hill. But his passion was sports.
He was a star on his youth soccer and basketball teams. He hit the game-winning home run in a baseball playoff game for North Catholic. He set the school record for field goals on the football team at Washington & Jefferson College, where he earned a degree in business administration in December 2002.
His first job was as a sales representative for a courier service, cold-calling businesses in and around the city. But he was already mulling a run for City Council, eyeing the District 1 seat of Barbara Burns, a Democratic incumbent he thought was vulnerable.
"My mom did not like the idea," he said. "Just because of the political world that we live in. Probably, from the mother's point of view, the protective side of things and [she] didn't want to see her son, specifically at the age of 23, be exposed to the political world. ... But that quickly went away when I made my mind up."
As in any political family, relatives rallied around him. His father could not actively campaign because of his position as a district judge, but he has been there to counsel his son. The others took to the North Side streets.
"We really ran an aggressive, grass-roots campaign," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "We knocked on doors, dropped literature, showed the excitement of what we hoped to achieve in the city by having a young voice on council."
Despite Ms. Burns' incumbency, the Democratic Party gave Mr. Ravenstahl its endorsement. Still, he took nothing for granted. He passed up the opportunity to receive his college diploma with the rest of his class because the graduation ceremony was held two days before Pittsburgh's May primary, crunch time for a candidate.
The work paid off when he defeated Ms. Burns in the primary and went on to become the youngest member ever elected to Pittsburgh City Council. He reflects upon it as "a difficult task and a great accomplishment."
"At many times, [it was] overwhelming," he said of the campaign. "I had a full-time job and in the evenings I was out in the neighborhoods. ... I remember at the time thinking, 'There's not many other 23-year-olds doing what I'm doing now.' And I think I'm for the better because of that experience."
He kept the sales job through the summer, then quit so he could prepare for his council seat.
"He spent six months sitting in on budget discussions in my office even before he was sworn in," said city Councilman Jim Motznik, a Ravenstahl ally. "He didn't give us input, he didn't tell us his opinions. He sat on the couch and he listened and he learned about what the process was all about. It made a huge impression on me."
Once aboard, Mr. Ravenstahl was one of the most steadfast opponents to the Act 47 recovery plan and worked to protect municipal unions. Later, he was among those who worked for better accounting of council members' spending.
In August 2004, he married his high school sweetheart, Erin Lynn Feith, a hairdresser who graduated from the Pittsburgh Beauty Academy. The couple had known each other since they were youngsters. They live in the city's Summer Hill neighborhood, walking distance from the streets where they both grew up.
In 2005, Mr. Ravenstahl was elected council president when Mr. Motznik, who was lining up support for himself, could not secure the fifth vote needed for a majority. Mr. Ravenstahl emerged as a compromise candidate.
"It takes a special person to lead the leaders," Mr. Motznik said. "I've witnessed in the time that I've worked with Luke that he's hard-working, he's very intelligent, he takes the time to listen to all sides before he makes a decision.
"Sometimes people assume that he's doing what his father tells him, and that isn't the case at all. He's not led by anyone, which is important to me."
The summer of 2006 was supposed to be a season of celebration in the city as baseball's All-Star Game was played in PNC Park. The day of the game, however, Mayor Bob O'Connor, who had taken office only six months earlier, was undergoing chemotherapy for a rare form of brain cancer. It was a fight for his life that he would lose Sept. 1.
"I woke up the morning of Sept. 1 of last year, I was president of City Council," Mr. Ravenstahl said, "and I go to bed that night all of a sudden [I'm] the mayor. To get thrust into that situation, whether you're 26 or 56, you can't be prepared for that type of turmoil, that type of transition, that unique situation."
The transition was less than smooth. Mr. Ravenstahl, surrounded by staff members put in place by Mr. O'Connor, was not comfortable. Still, he committed to following through on a number of the previous administration's goals, including the popular "Redd-Up" campaign.
In March, Mr. Ravenstahl fended off a potential primary challenge from Councilman William Peduto, a fellow Democrat who chose not to engage in a battle that he feared would turn negative. Already there were signs that the honeymoon for the neophyte mayor was ending.
Mr. Ravenstahl initiated the first of two staff shake-ups he would oversee to put people of his own choosing into positions of trust and responsibility. Those on their way out the door -- and others affected by the moves -- expressed their criticism, hallway whispers that found their voice through radio talk shows, television newscasts and newspaper headlines.
He promoted three police officers who faced allegations of domestic violence or disturbances. He traveled to New York aboard the private jet of one of the Penguins' owners the same day that officials agreed to build a new arena for the hockey team. He took part in a charity golf event in which his fees were paid by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Pittsburgh Penguins, both of which do business with the city. He used an SUV purchased for police with a federal Homeland Security grant for business and personal reasons this summer, including trips to Harrisburg and to a concert by country star Toby Keith.
What's more, when confronted about the incidents, Mr. Ravenstahl seemed to bristle, often responding with answers that were defensive if not defiant. Even though the city Ethics Hearing Board gave him a pass on the golf outing, his critics -- particularly those opposed to him politically -- have cited the behavior as a lack of maturity and good judgment.
"It's been a unique situation for the past 13 months," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "I've been a new mayor as well as a political candidate. As a result, I think ... it's been easy for the media to say, 'Hey, you've had all these different situations that have occurred,' and as a result of all of them they may draw some sort of conclusion. I understand that. I respect that position.
"Have I learned a lot of things? Absolutely. Do I understand better now, today, that every decision that you make is going to be scrutinized and examined? I do. There was a period of time where I continued to be protective of my private life. I understand now that you can't do that in the office of the mayor.
"At the end of the day, my record is one of success. None of [the controversies] have adversely impacted our ability to govern and move this city forward. I've dealt with them. They've been difficult issues in many cases to deal with. But they haven't not allowed me to do my job."
Mr. Motznik is among those who think the criticism is unfair.
"I think the problem is it's a small town and sometimes there isn't a lot of news," he said. "The [news] media grab anything they can. Unfortunately, because of his age, they're on him. It's part of the game. But no other elected official in this city has had to put up with this. This is small stuff."
The focus, the mayor said, should be on his record.
Mr. Ravenstahl has submitted two balanced budgets with an eye on reducing the city's debt. He extended the city's garbage collection to Wilkinsburg, a move that has helped both sides. He has streamlined the process for Downtown development and has made a point of improving the city's relationship with legislators in Harrisburg.
"He created the 3-1-1 line to take care of constituent complaints," said Mr. Motznik. "He saved $17 million by reducing the city's health care providers from three to one. But the major thing he's done is the capital asset buyback program" aimed at turning vacant lots and abandoned houses from eyesores into revenue-generating properties.
Mr. Ravenstahl is convinced that these accomplishments amount to a resume worthy of his being elected to the job that was thrust upon him. And he is aware that it isn't going to get any easier. Even if he is elected Nov. 6, he will serve out only the two years remaining in Mr. O'Connor's term. Mr. Ravenstahl will hit the ground Nov. 7 running for a full term of his own in another Democratic primary only 18 months later.
The constant candidacy, however, does not bother him, he said.
"I feel very blessed and embraced by the residents of this city," he said. "Everywhere I go, to this day, people come up to me, thank me, tell me how they appreciate what we're trying to do for the city of Pittsburgh. And I can't tell you how encouraging that is.
"One great thing about the people of Pittsburgh is they'll tell you what's on their mind. They'll tell you what they're happy about, and they'll tell you if there's some issues that they have. That's been healthy and that's been good."
Well, most of the time. There are occasions when the voices can be cruel.
Ms. Flaherty recalled a time when the boy who would become mayor was playing basketball for Incarnation Academy on Observatory Hill.
"It was when Luke was about 13. He was in seventh or eighth grade," she said. "My son was on the team. And Luke was well-known in the league because he was such an outstanding player. It was a playoff game, I think.
"I can hardly talk about this. I was sobbing through this whole game. Because the parents of the kids on the other team were sitting in the stands saying, 'We've got to get him. We've got to get Luke Ravenstahl.' ... The whole other side was cheering against him. I could not stop crying because I was thinking, 'This is a 13-year-old boy.'
"But Luke never lost his cool. He never responded negatively. He just played a good game. And they won the game."
The lessons learned in those competitions inspire the man to this day.
"Some of my best athletic performances were when the pressure was on," Mr. Ravenstahl said, "when the adversity was at its peak."