Pittsburgh mayoral candidate Jack Wagner sought to distance himself from advertising attacks by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl on rival Bill Peduto, saying ongoing squabbles between the two men are "childish" and "they need to grow up."
Noting the longtime fights between Mr. Ravenstahl and Mr. Peduto -- which surfaced again in secretive ads Monday -- the former state auditor general and city council president said there is "a dysfunctional, childish environment in city government. It's about time that ends. It's about time adults were running city government."
Meanwhile, Mr. Peduto, his chief rival for the May 21 Democratic nomination, has been trying to link Mr. Wagner to attack ads the mayor began running this week, even though the incumbent dropped his re-election bid March 1. Many of Mr. Ravenstahl's lead contributors then switched allegiance to the Wagner campaign.
Mr. Wagner called claims that his campaign was involved in the ads "an absolute lie."
Like so much in Pennsylvania's vague campaign finance laws, though, there is little to stop an outside spender such as Mr. Ravenstahl from working on his own to attack candidates in a mayor's race, or work with competing campaigns to do so.
A secretive group began running television advertisements Monday hammering Mr. Peduto for votes it said were against the interests of the city's black voters and low-income workers. Documents filed Tuesday showed the group is chaired by Mr. Ravenstahl and his "Committee for a Better Pittsburgh" placed the ads using a Republican media firm responsible for the "Swift Boat" ads that targeted presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.
After a Post-Gazette story on his connection to the ads broke Tuesday, the mayor posted a Facebook comment on the newspaper's website criticizing its reporting and saying "no one is hiding anything" about his involvement in the ads. He also pledged to televise more "to expose the real Bill Peduto."
Mr. Wagner, 65, of Beechview, and Mr. Peduto, 48, of Point Breeze, are the chief Democratic candidates seeking the May 21 nomination along with state Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District. Sheraden activist A.J. Richardson is also on the ballot.
Mr. Peduto said Tuesday that Mr. Wagner should disavow the mayor's ad campaign and noted he shared many supporters with Mr. Ravenstahl. "Jack needs to say to stand down, that these attacks have to end because all of his supporters are paying for Jack Wagner's campaign," the councilman said.
Union groups have called a news conference this morning to defend Mr. Peduto against the claims in the Ravenstahl ad that he voted against prevailing wage legislation.
Mr. Peduto's campaign was the first to begin attacks, with an April 24 commercial painting Mr. Wagner as a supporter of Republican policies. The Wagner team soon shot back with its own ad portraying the councilman as "dishonest" and "divisive."
Mr. Wagner said he disavowed all negative ads but had to defend himself, too. "Anyone who initiates a negative campaign and can't deal with it is an indication of their immaturity. ... These people need to grow up," he said Wednesday.
In federal campaigns, third-party political action committees can spend freely on outside advertising in races just as long as they do not coordinate their messages with candidate campaigns. There are no holds on local and state races: Pennsylvania campaign finance law is vague on spending by committees such as Mr. Ravenstahl's.
"Federal law is far, far more developed," said Scott Caulfield, a Harrisburg attorney and expert in election law. In Pennsylvania the groups "can take in as much as they want and spend as much as they want. If they want to spend to beat Mr. Peduto, they can spend as much as they want."
Under Philadelphia's campaign finance law, if a third-party group coordinates ads or other spending with a campaign it is considered an in-kind contribution and subject to the city's financing limits, according to Ellen Kaplan, vice president and policy director for the Committee of Seventy, the city's good government group. In advance of its 2015 mayoral race, Philadelphia City Council is weighing whether to require outside committees influencing city elections to disclose their donors.
Pittsburgh's campaign finance law has no language on outside spending, and a judge waived the law for this election.
The negative attacks from Mr. Ravenstahl's third-party committee are a first for a Pittsburgh mayoral race but likely not the last. Los Angeles adopted strict campaign finance rules decades ago that are crumbling in the face of outside spending in its mayoral race this year: Of the $17.5 million contributed to support its two main candidates, about one-third has come from independent PACs that can accept unlimited money, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns. First Published May 2, 2013 4:00 AM