Pittsburgh mayoral race begins to take shape

Ravenstahl dealing from strong position

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A mayor's competition that's already divided some of the region's senior Democrats will gain intensity this month as candidacies are formalized and fundraising races a yearend reporting deadline.

Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will defend his seat in the May 21, 2013, Democratic primary with the advantages of incumbency, a relatively strong local economy and the boast that he's held the tax line since his unanticipated ascent to the office he inherited with the death of former Mayor Bob O'Connor in 2006.

From the publicity surrounding the 2009 G-20 meeting to a Brookings Institution report last week that rated Pittsburgh one of three metropolitan areas that had best recovered from the financial crisis, the region -- if not city government itself -- has been the focus of a stream of positive national attention in recent years.

Pointing to development Downtown and in a variety of neighborhoods, Mr. Ravenstahl contends that on his watch the city is experiencing its "third Renaissance," one that has been encouraged by the "positive climate for growth," his administration has cultivated.

His likely challengers contend that he's taking credit for economic trends he's had little to do with, but they face the hurdle of making that case to the voters.

"You need to remind people of what good government looks like," said city Controller Michael Lamb, who says he is poised to announce his candidacy. "Part of the problem is that Pittsburghers have grown to expect so little from their government."

The mayor's critics point to the administration's failed efforts to shore up the city's pension funding and to tap the revenue of the city's nonprofit community.

Councilman Bill Peduto, the mayor's longtime legislative nemesis, will formally announce his candidacy Dec. 13 with a fundraiser hosted by Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

Mr. Lamb will host his own fundraiser the previous evening.

While he's yet to make a formal announcement, Mr. Lamb said last week, "I have every intention of running. We are organizing, raising money, putting the team together."

State Auditor General and onetime mayoral candidate Jack Wagner remains a question mark in the prospective field. He has said repeatedly over the past two years that he is seriously interested in the race. His name recognition and established political base in the city's South Hills might allow him to gear up quickly for a challenge but he has yet to take any visible public steps toward a second bid for the office.

Peduto ready to try again

Mr. Peduto finished a distant second in a 2005 bid for the Democratic nomination in which Mr. O'Connor won easily. He embarked on a second campaign, this time against Mr. Ravenstahl, in 2007 but abruptly withdrew from the election in the face of the incumbent's daunting polling strength.

"I had to withdraw. Luke had that popularity; he was polling in the 80s," Mr. Peduto said last week.

The councilman said that his campaign had yet to do any polling in this cycle, but added that he had seen data over the last year showing an erosion in the mayor's popularity

"Back then the overwhelming reaction was 'give him a chance,' " he said, referring to the 2007 mood. "That sentiment is gone. It's not one thing -- not the snowstorm, not the flooding, not being around for community meetings. It's just the whole history of the last 6 1/2 years. Although the city as a whole has done quite well, the city government is stumbling."

Mr. Peduto, among others, criticized the mayor for the administration's response to a 2010 blizzard and to a 2011 fatal flood on Washington Boulevard.

Mr. Ravenstahl charged that it's Mr. Peduto who has been an impediment to a smoother government climate.

"He has been against anything and everything I have proposed," the mayor said. "When you look back and see what we have been able to achieve, we've been able to do it over the objections of Councilman Peduto."

Mr. Peduto contends it's the other way around, noting that he and his council colleagues rejected the administration's plan to shore up the city's plan to privatize city parking assets and instead, with the support of Mr. Lamb, crafted a plan to tap parking authority revenue to support the pension system without selling parking authority assets.

Mr. Peduto is popular in his East End base. His citywide chances were boosted with Mr. Fitzgerald's early backing, the culmination of a long, though not always harmonious relationship. Mr. Peduto was the campaign manger for former city Councilman Dan Cohen's unsuccessful 1996 challenge to then U.S. Rep. Bill Coyne. Mr. Fitzgerald also worked on the Cohen campaign, but in the final days before the primary, he resigned in a public protest of the challenger's negative campaign tactics.

"There were a number of years when we didn't even talk," Mr. Peduto said of the aftermath of that campaign. "We went down some rough roads together and were able to get past that."

Mr. Peduto eventually succeeded Mr. Cohen in his East End council seat. Mr. Fitzgerald represented an overlapping county council district before his victory in the 2011 election for county executive. The two worked together on a variety of issues over those years. Mr. Peduto was a strong supporter of Mr. Fitzgerald in his primary race against former county Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty. Although the mayor was publicly neutral in that race, he was widely perceived as favoring Mr. Flaherty.

"To be honest, I was surprised at Rich's decision," Mr. Ravenstahl said, insisting that he'd done "everything in my power to work with him and build a relationship."

The mayor speculated that the executive's embrace of Mr. Peduto's candidacy was a reaction to Mr. Ravenstahl's criticism of a county property tax increase enacted last year.

"City taxpayers are county taxpayers [but] I know Rich probably didn't appreciate that," Mr. Ravenstahl said.

Mr. Fitzgerald dismissed that suggestion, maintaining that his stand in the mayor's race was based on his shared experience with Mr. Peduto.

"He's somebody I've worked with for a long time; we shared districts. He was an early supporter of mine in the executive race, so, number one, there's certainly a loyalty factor that I have with Bill."

While the region's two senior Democratic executives have clashed in the past, they both insisted this week that the mayor's race would not be an impediment to working together on regional issues.

"What I can say is that I've been able to, and Rich has been able to put politics aside ... I haven't seen any blowback, if you will," Mr. Ravenstahl said.

And Mr. Fitzgerald said of the mayor, "We've been able to work together on a lot of issues, maybe most issues."

Dividing the vote?

The prospect of Mr. Peduto and Mr. Lamb both entering the race -- possibly along with Mr. Wagner -- might be a case of the more the merrier for the mayor as they would potentially divide whatever anti-Ravenstahl vote is out there.In 1989, for example, former Mayor Sophie Masloff won the Democratic nomination with just 28 percent of the votes in a six-person primary field. And there is still time for additional contenders to emerge.

Mr. Lamb rejected the suggestion that his candidacy, added to Mr. Peduto's, would spell victory for the incumbent.

"I absolutely believe a three-way race is a winnable race," he said, arguing that his support in his South Hills base, coupled with his ability to draw votes elsewhere in the city, could be enough to trump the East End roots of Mr. Peduto and the North Side base of Mr. Ravenstahl.

"[The South Hills] has never had a mayor," he noted.

In the 2005 primary, Mr. O'Connor had roughly 28,000 votes compared with 14,000 for Mr. Peduto and 13,000 for Mr. Lamb. In an interview this week, Mr. Peduto praised Mr. Lamb and made an apparent effort to avoid saying anything that would be construed as an effort to pressure the controller not to run. But he contended that he was well positioned to raise money and to collect endorsements from labor unions that did not back the incumbent.

"Anybody who considers this race has to show the ability to ante up $1 million, to have the public leaders, unions, and community leaders with you," he said. "You need a big team ... incumbents don't lose very often."

Mr. Lamb observed that Mr. Peduto was trying to suggest "an air of inevitability" about his campaign, but said, "There are a lot of things going on right now; most of them are under the radar screen. It's going to be after the first of the year that we have a real sense of what people are doing."

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Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. First Published December 2, 2012 5:00 AM


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