City Controller Michael Lamb's decision to exit the mayor's race and instead back Jack Wagner on Monday lent a formidable boost to the former auditor general's bid for the Democratic nomination for mayor.
"I am doing this because I love Pittsburgh -- and a race with many candidates is blurry and difficult -- and the fact of the matter is, there is a real choice for mayor," Mr. Lamb said in a brief statement in his Greenfield campaign office.
"I believe the best candidate is Jack Wagner," he continued. "Jack Wagner is both a friend of organized labor and of Pittsburgh's business community. And as someone who grew up in the same community as me, he understands that we need to focus on our communities as growth in all our neighborhoods helps us all."
Mr. Lamb's reference to their shared political roots hinted at how his candidacy and that of Mr. Wagner had seemed destined to cannibalize one another's support in the city's southern neighborhoods. For now, at least, the former state official is positioned as the strongest rival to city Councilman Bill Peduto, who had declared himself the front-runner on the strength of robust early fundraising and field organizing.
Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, and political newcomer A.J. Richardson remain on the ballot, but neither has demonstrated the fundraising ability of the top two contenders. And the smaller field changes the tactical arithmetic of the race in a way that makes it tougher for long shots to break through. Seven Democratic candidates filed nominating petitions last month; now the field is down to four. That reduces the chances that a candidate could prevail with a relatively small plurality of the Democratic vote.
Mr. Lamb's surprise announcement was the latest transformation in a race that has consistently confounded expectations. The first and still most stunning shift came when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced last month that he would not seek re-election. His departure prompted a land rush of unanticipated candidacies.
State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, and city Council President Darlene Harris had also collected enough signatures to get on the ballot, but both withdrew last week. The deadline for getting off the ballot has passed, but Mr. Lamb plans to seek a court order to withdraw, a request routinely granted at this point in a campaign.
For the first time in memory, that would leave the Democratic Party organization without an endorsed candidate in a Pittsburgh mayor's race. Eileen Kelly, the party's city committee chairwoman, said she was concerned about the blank at the top of the party's slate cards and would consider whether and how the elected committee members might set up a vote for a substitute. Mr. Lamb won the endorsement without opposition after Mr. Ravenstahl's exit.
Mr. Peduto decided not to seek it at a time when the mayor was strongly favored to win it. By the time he dropped out, it was too late for the other contenders to enter that preliminary contest.
Mr. Wagner was among those late entries. With the news of the mayor's decision, he cut short a vacation to Israel to launch his campaign. He welcomed Mr. Lamb's decision at a news conference at the South Side headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Mr. Wagner said he and Mr. Lamb had been in communication throughout the race but that he hadn't known that Mr. Lamb would endorse him until the controller called him Monday morning, just hours before the news conference. Both Mr. Wagner and Mr. Lamb insisted that there had been no discussions of a quid pro quo for the endorsement.
"We have talked about the issues of Pittsburgh and only the issues of Pittsburgh," Mr. Wagner said.
There was some irony in the reactions to the development in that Mr. Peduto and his allies had tried for months to persuade Mr. Lamb to get out of the race at a time when he was perceived as the councilman's rival for anti-Ravenstahl votes. In the weeks since Mr. Ravenstahl's decision remade the race, however, Mr. Peduto had devoutly hoped that the controller would remain in the field to attract voters targeted by Mr. Wagner.
While some of Mr. Lamb's supporters will doubtless end up in the Peduto camp, both of the leading contenders clearly thought that the net effect would benefit Mr. Wagner. Mr. Peduto greeted the news with a statement that spoke to his campaign's efforts without mentioning any of his rivals.
"Voters have a clear choice to make. Pittsburgh needs a strong leader who has demonstrated a real commitment to ending waste, fraud and abuse -- someone who has revitalized neighborhoods and secured the city's finances," he said. "We have built a new coalition of people who understand what Pittsburgh can be. I'm looking forward to continuing to earn the support of voters all over the city and working to reach this vision together."
Mr. Wheatley issued a statement that praised Mr. Lamb while vowing that he would not be the next candidate to fall by the wayside.
"[As] we move into the last 50 days of this campaign, now more than ever I am committed to presenting to the people of Pittsburgh an agenda that will end the politics as usual and moves our city forward under the premise that we will only truly claim prosperity if all our citizens are prospering."
The only public poll in the race so far showed Mr. Peduto in the lead, at 30 percent, followed by Mr. Wagner at 20 percent and Mr. Lamb at 12 percent.
The top campaigns will face one another in court Wednesday as Mr. Peduto's attorneys seek an injunction barring Mr. Wagner from using more than $300,000 from his statewide campaign fund in this race. Mr. Peduto argues that a relatively new city campaign holds candidates to funds raised specifically for this race and collected under contribution limits of $4,000 for individuals and $8,000 for political action committees.
Mr. Wagner said he had been advised that he could draw on his existing war chest, but added that he was confident of being competitive in fundraising regardless of the court's ruling. Monday's announcement adds to the sense of momentum for Mr. Wagner generated last week with his joint endorsement by a group of city workers unions including the International Association of Fire Fighters and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Mr. Peduto, however, retains significant assets in the race. He has been organizing for months, establishing what is viewed as the most extensive and sophisticated grass-roots organization in the race. The Wagner campaign is still in the midst of hiring staffers.
In the face of Mr. Lamb's shift to the Wagner camp, Mr. Peduto can boast of his own extensive list of high profile backers, led by county Executive Rich Fitzgerald. The East End council member had also made endorsement inroads in the South Hills communities called home by Mr. Wagner and Mr. Lamb, with support from figures including state Sen. Wayne Fontana and city Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak.
James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. First Published April 1, 2013 4:30 AM