City Councilman Bill Peduto released the first negative ad of the Pittsburgh mayor's race, criticizing Jack Wagner for having voted for his own salary and pension increases while a state senator and castigating his support for Corbett administration budget policies.
The 30-second commercial states that the former state auditor general "sided with Republicans when they cut Meals on Wheels for seniors," and asserts that he "wanted to cut health care for 100,000 people, even including children."
"They're grasping for straws. We expected them to go negative and they have, and that doesn't surprise us," Mr. Wagner said in response to the new commercial. "I think the public will be disappointed in that the initiation of their campaign is going negative. It's again I think a desperate attempt on their part to improve his candidacy."
While decrying the ad's tone, J.J. Abbott, Mr. Wagner's spokesman, did not dispute most of its factual assertions, but he did take sharp exception to its suggestion that Mr. Wagner "wanted to cut health care."
"That part of the ad is a deception tactic," he said. Calling it "a Karl Rove-style distortion," he added, "It's a textbook Republican attack trying to scare people."
The claim is based on audits of the Department of Public Welfare during the Rendell administration, which found high error rates in the department's rolls of participants. To suggest the DPW was wasting tax dollars on ineligible recipients, Mr. Abbott argued, does not mean that Mr. Wagner favored cuts to those who genuinely need safety net programs.
In a running disagreement, the Rendell administration disputed the auditor general's error rate assessment, pointing to a separate federal audit that found there was a much lower error rate than Mr. Wagner's auditors cited. The Corbett administration later cut more than 100,000 recipients from the state's Medicaid program. During the 2010 campaign, Gov. Tom Corbett repeatedly cited Mr. Wagner's welfare audits as justifications for cuts in the program.
"When you say you are going to find savings, whichever way you want to describe it, when you're discussing the [Welfare Department] the impact is going to negatively impact poor people," said Sonya M. Toler, spokeswoman for Mr. Peduto.
The Peduto campaign pointed to various statements from Mr. Wagner voicing general support for the cautious budget policies of the Corbett administration. Cuts to programs including Meals on Wheels were a natural outgrowth of those policies, although neither the ad nor the Peduto campaign cited any instance in which Mr. Wagner called for that cut specifically. Anticipating a primary electorate with a hefty share of older voters, however, it was natural for the Peduto team to emphasize cuts to such programs.
The Wagner campaign did not dispute the ad's mention of votes in favor of the salary and pension increases. "He can talk about votes 20 years ago if he wants; we're going to talk about the future of Pittsburgh," Mr. Abbott said.
Ms. Toler said the new ad would run in rotation with an earlier Peduto commercial that focuses on his biography and regional roots. Mr. Wagner has run two largely biographical ads. Two of the relatively few public polls in the race so far have found Mr. Wagner with a lead over Mr. Peduto. The other two Democratic candidates, state Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District and community activist A.J. Richardson, were in single digits.
The primary is May 21.
James O'Toole: email@example.com.