With Ravenstahl out of the race, who will jockey for Pittsburgh's top job?

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The aftershocks of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's decision to abandon his re-election bid continue to rumble as the two existing candidates for his job confront new tactical realities and would-be rivals consider whether to compete against them.

On Saturday, former state Auditor General Jack Wagner released a statement saying that he was now considering a late entry into the May 21 Democratic primary. Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, his niece, said she was optimistic that he would return from a current trip to Israel to join the Democratic field -- and added that she would "definitely'' consider becoming a candidate herself should Mr. Wagner decide against a bid.

Mr. Wagner had previously been focused on the option of running as an independent in November, one that his statement said was still a possibility.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, had already said that he would consider the race, as did Darlene Harris, the president of Pittsburgh City Council.

Mr. Ravenstahl, during his remarks on Friday, said he had someone in mind to replace him. Senior Democrats have suggested that former Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, a fellow North Sider, is the mystery candidate. Mr. Onorato has done nothing publicly to fan the continuing speculation. But neither has he done anything to quash it, failing to respond to repeated attempts to reach him for comment.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, said he has not spoken with Mr. Onorato, who ran for governor in 2010.

But Mr. Doyle added that he "just can't imagine" that Mr. Onorato would leave his senior position with Highmark, which he took in 2011 after choosing not to run for a third term as executive.

Any would-be contender faces a tight deadline for a decision. The last day to file nominating petitions for the race is March 12. Legally, the bar to enter the race is fairly low, but logistically it's more daunting. Any candidate for the primary needs to submit a nominating petition with the signatures of 250 voters. But to join the field now, they would face the challenge of catching up with many months of field work and fundraising by the existing candidates, city Controller Michael Lamb and city Councilman Bill Peduto.

The questions on who will run will be answered within 10 days. But a more fundamental question about the race may take longer to sort itself out -- just what will this election be about?

Until Friday's unprecedented announcement, the contest was likely to be largely a referendum on the incumbent. Now it's wide open, not just in terms of the identity of the players but on how they will distinguish themselves from one another in their appeals to the voters. What had been an argument dominated by the recent past -- the mayor's record -- will shift emphasis to who has the most compelling vision of the future.

Whatever opposition research the Peduto and Lamb camps had compiled on the incumbent now goes out the window. And just as the overall competition is now scrambled, so are the accompanying battles for related prizes, including money, and activist and union support.

On Thursday night, even before the mayor's announcement, Terry Matuszak, a veteran Democratic activist who had been supporting the mayor, said he had already received phone calls from the Lamb and Peduto camps seeking his support.

Those factions and whoever may join them will be going over the mayor's ample contribution reports, courting his financial backers.

Before the mayor dropped out, Mr. Peduto and the mayor had dominated the competition among unions that had made early endorsements. Now, many of them will be up for grabs, for Mr. Lamb and conceivably for whatever new candidates may materialize.

Mr. Wagner -- a former city councilman and state senator who served two terms as auditor general -- has enjoyed strong union support in the past.

"We're going to take a few days, sit back and let the smoke clear and see what comes in front of us. The one great thing about Pittsburgh politics is there's always surprises around the corner," said Darin Kelly, who leads the political action committee for the Pittsburgh firefighters union, which had endorsed Mr. Ravenstahl, along with other locals including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Operating Engineers Local 66.

Mr. Peduto had early support from unions, including SEIU Local 32BJ and the Laborers' District Council.

The Allegheny County Labor Council, the largest umbrella group of unions in the region, plans to meet Friday to consider an endorsement in the mayoral primary. The organization's rules demand the support of two-thirds of members of its political committee. Before the mayor's withdrawal, it seemed possible that no candidate would be able to meet the two-thirds threshold. Jack Shea, who heads the ACLC, said that in the changed environment, the competition for its backing remained wide open.

Like Mr. Onorato, Mr. Wagner's entry and established name would be a challenge to both of the existing candidates. The presence of Mr. Wagner or Controller Chelsa Wagner on the ballot would be particularly problematic for Mr. Lamb, who shares their South Hills political base.

Similarly, if Mr. Ferlo were to run, he could be a worry in particular for Mr. Peduto. While Mr. Ferlo's redistricted state Senate seat sprawls up the Allegheny Valley into Armstrong County, his longtime political base overlaps Mr. Peduto's East End stronghold. And while the city Urban Redevelopment Authority board member is an ally of the Ravenstahl administration, Mr. Ferlo, who served 14 years on Pittsburgh City Council, has strong traditional ties to the liberal wing of the party.

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Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. First Published March 3, 2013 5:00 AM


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