Bill Peduto heatedly defended himself Saturday against charges from mayoral rivals that he was a divisive force on city council while Jack Wagner denounced efforts to tie him to an anti-Peduto television commercial sponsored by a political committee headed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
The animated exchanges, at a debate sponsored by the Alliance for Police Accountability at the Kingsley Association in Larimer, began as a moderator asked Mr. Peduto about his strained relationship with councilmen Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle, the only African-American members of city council.
"Mr. Burgess and Mr. Lavelle don't support me. They didn't support me before. They supported [Mayor Ravenstahl],'' Mr. Peduto said. "Is it a big surprise that Luke's political backers are not backing me? Does that surprise anybody?''
Mr. Wagner and state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, then joined in a tag-team assault on Mr. Peduto and his sometime stormy relations with those and other council opponents.
Mr. Wheatley dismissed the characterization of his ally, Mr. Lavelle.
"Daniel Lavelle is not a Luke Ravenstahl supporter and apologist,'' he said. "His decision of not supporting Bill Peduto has very little to do with Luke Ravenstahl. It has to do with the relationship, or nonexistent relationship, that he has with you on council. And it is a question about what happens when you become mayor and it is a serious question.''
Mr. Wagner echoed the criticism, citing reports that Mr. Peduto had essentially ceased communication with opponents, including Mr. Burgess and council President Darlene Harris.
"That offends me; that offends me greatly,'' Mr. Wagner said.
Mr. Peduto cited his broad array of supporters as evidence of his ability to forge productive relationships with other officials. And he combined defense of his relations with his colleagues with a rebuttal to one of the points raised by the Ravenstahl ad -- its criticism of his vote against a senior citizens' building now under construction in Homewood. He contended that its mention was part of a racially divisive intent by the ad's sponsors.
The councilman said he had requested a one-week hold on council's consideration of the high-rise issue after being contacted by more than 30 Homewood residents who raised questions about the project. He cast the only council vote against it after his request was turned down.
"I did what I thought was right and voted against it,'' he said.
Mr. Peduto said the Ravenstahl ad was the product of an effort to "keep power for the same people who have been running this city for the last 40 years."
"They get a little taste of all the deals that go on in this city and they're scared as hell that I'm going to win because I'm going to stop it,'' he said.
Mr. Peduto has criticized the ad as the product of a firm associated with "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," which attacked 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's Vietnam record. Since it appeared, he and his campaign have called on Mr. Wagner to denounce the ad and suggested some sort of guilt by association on his part because prominent Ravenstahl supporters have migrated to the Wagner camp.
Mr. Peduto didn't make that claim explicitly during Saturday's debate, but Mr. Wagner clearly had it in mind as he said loudly, "For someone to sit beside me -- and believe me I'm not going to sit here and take it -- and say that I'm associated with something else related to the Swift Boat ads of [Sen.] Kerry is an absolute lie and an insult.
"I'm a Vietnam veteran. I put my life on the line,'' he continued. "No one is going to say that in my presence and try to associate me with it.''
The clashes came near the end of a 90-minute session in which the three Democratic candidates had voiced largely similar positions on issues including the need for a more sensitive police force and the challenges of recruiting more minorities to the force. Mr. Peduto said that the mayor's office should have taken a more aggressive approach to investigating the beating of Jordan Miles, the Homewood teenager whose 2010 encounter with city police officers brought widespread accusations of police brutality. Both the district attorney and the U.S. attorney declined to prosecute in that case and, in a split verdict, a jury found for the officers in a 2012 civil case in which the family sought damages.
Mr. Wagner said he agreed with Mr. Peduto on the issue and said that it showed a failure in police procedures in that there had not been video and audio recording of the incident.
The candidates also agreed on the need for recruiting steps to move toward a more diverse police force. Mr. Wheatley said educational requirements for police recruits should be altered to allow them to attain college credits after they are on the force rather than before applying. Mr. Wagner said that the city might also improve its recruitment by doing more to reach out to minorities who have served in the military.
Politics Editor James O'Toole: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1562.