Primary 2013: Pittsburgh mayor's race based more on personality

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The Democratic mayoral primary is a battle based more on personality than ideology.

On key issues such as municipal finance and reform of the scandal-battered police department, the differences among them amount to nuances rather than dramatic, polarizing fissures.

In one sense, that's not surprising. They're all Democrats. And the three leading contenders have first-hand experience with the practical realities of politics on the fifth floor of the City-County Building where council and mayoral offices line opposite hallways.

Nearing the end of his third term, Bill Peduto is the longest-serving member of Pittsburgh City Council. Former state Auditor General Jack Wagner was once council's president, and state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, like Mr. Peduto, is a former council aide.

The lack of truly polarizing issues in the race may also reflect the limits of a government whose core financial decisions remain under the oversight of state officials. No one's talking about raising or lowering taxes, or returning police or fire department employment to the higher levels of a decade ago.

And, for the most part, the candidates are not being challenged by an angry electorate. One recent survey of the race showed that a majority of likely primary voters, 52 percent, thought the city was moving in the right direction. That's a contrast from statewide and national polls that, since the onset of the financial crisis, have typically found majorities supporting the "wrong-track" answer to that standard survey question.

That may help explain why the contenders spend such a disproportionate amount of time on the stump talking about things that are beyond official responsibility of the office they seek. That's most true of the subject of education, which certainly affects city government and its constituents, but is the focus of the separately elected school board. None of candidates suggest that structure should change but that doesn't stop them from sounding at times as though they were running for school superintendent.

From the time he announced, Mr. Wagner has emphasized his concern over the city schools' dropout rate and his support for enhanced early childhood education. In their many debates and public appearances, Mr. Peduto and Mr. Wheatley have also stressed the need for universal early childhood education. None of them, however, has offered any detailed plan for how they would reach or pay for that goal.

Mr. Peduto has suggested that the city could divert a portion of the federal dollars it already receives as seed money to attract private and other support. Mr. Wagner asserts that his experience at different levels of government would make him a strong lobbying ally for school officials in pursuit of more state and federal dollars. Mr. Wheatley points to the fact that he has voted for expanded early childhood initiatives in the Legislature.

But while supporting the concept, none has offered any real specifics on how he would be able to help a financially challenged district fulfill their vision.

The candidates largely agree on the need for a larger city voice on transportation issues, including representation on the Port Authority board. But just what that change might produce is less clear. Another area of agreement in the transportation realm is the desirability of promoting more bike- and pedestrian-friendly routes throughout the city.

Into the policy details

The relative lack of clashes on issues does not mean that people aren't talking about them.

Mr. Peduto has offered by far the longest list of specific policy initiatives. His website is counting down on a "100 policies in 100 days" pledge, spotlighting the initiatives his administration would pursue. Some of them are ambitious, with big though unspecified price tags, such as his call to revamp a federally mandated storm water plan to rely more on green strategies including the creation of green spaces in various neighborhoods as holding areas for storm water.

Mr. Peduto was the first among the candidates to spotlight that issue, but his rivals quickly embraced similar rhetoric in favor of green strategies. As a public policy advocate, such imitation might be flattering, but as for a candidate trying to carve out distinctions, Mr. Peduto might find the unanimity less helpful.

Filling the vacuum left by the lack of polarizing, front-burner issues are arguments over which candidate's style and experience best equips them to lead the city. Mr. Wagner argues that his broad experience, from council to the state Senate to the auditor general's office, gives him a track record that will help him build coalitions needed to solve the city's problems. Mr. Peduto portrays those years of experience as his entrenched membership in a government establishment that hinders the city's progress. The fact that high-profile supporters of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl have gravitated to the Wagner camp, he argues, is evidence that he would be an agent of the status quo.

Mr. Peduto points to his more detailed policy proposals and the millions of dollars of development that have occurred in his East End council district as evidence that he could lead the city to a more innovative and productive future. At debate after debate, he noted that his district is the only one in the city to have experienced any population growth in the last half-century.

In taking credit for that growth, however, Mr. Peduto confronts an argument that he once used against Mr. Ravenstahl when the mayor still loomed as his biggest electoral rival. Mr. Ravenstahl's since-aborted campaign relied heavily on the city's relatively robust economy and its serial appearances on most livable lists as evidence of his positive leadership. Mr. Peduto and other critics contended that the mayor was trying to take credit for developments that had little or nothing to do with city government.

Mr. Peduto would dispute that comparison. He portrays himself as a moving force, not just a bystander to the East End's revival, pointing to years of church basement and kitchen table meetings in which he and countless community members charted goals and forged consensus to spur the developments. That model, he contends, will provide the impetus for the next phase of growth across the city, one that he contrasts with the top-down approach to development that informed the city's first postwar renaissance under the late David Lawrence.

Mr. Wagner maintains that Mr. Peduto's boast of a role as a consensus-builder is belied by his sometimes rocky relationships with council colleagues, including President Darlene Harris and Homewood's Ricky Burgess. One Mr. Wagner's ads, echoing an earlier attack from a Ravenstahl-related committee, faults Mr. Peduto for having opposed a senior high-rise in Mr. Burgess' district. Mr. Peduto said he had merely tried to delay approval of the project because he had heard community complaints of a lack of consultation on it.

Personality details, too

Mr. Peduto acknowledges occasional friction with some of his colleagues, but points to strong relationships with other officials, on and off council, such a council members Bruce Kraus and Natalia Rudiak, county Executive Rich Fitzgerald and state Sen. Jay Costa, the leader of the Senate's Democratic caucus.

On Thursday, Mr. Wagner once again leveled his oft-repeated critique of Mr. Peduto's demeanor. Mr. Peduto countered that the day before he had worked in concert with his sometimes opponent, Mr. Burgess, to help advance domestic violence legislation sponsored by the Homewood lawmaker.

Mr. Wagner has also criticized Mr. Peduto for opposing a tax break for PNC's office and hotel complex Downtown. Mr. Peduto said he supported other, larger public subsidies for the project that he thought was sufficient.

Mr. Peduto is a Penguins fan and hockey player himself, but it was not surprising that Penguins president David Morehouse appeared on the host committee of the fundraiser for Mr. Wagner. Mr. Peduto supports the Hill District Consensus Group's call for a $1 dollar a car fee from parking on acreage controlled by the Pens to help subsidize community development. Mr. Wagner hasn't taken a position on the plan.

Noting his support from other Ravenstahl allies, Mr. Peduto contends that Mr. Wagner is a more benign face on the same establishment that the mayor exemplifies. But the mayor's withdrawal has made it tougher for Mr. Peduto to project the stark differences that he would have emphasized in a run against the incumbent.

The deep mutual antipathy between Mr. Peduto and Mr. Ravenstahl was clear. Despite being the frequent target of his criticisms, Mr. Peduto frequently stresses that he likes the former auditor general and lauds his record of service. For years, Mr. Peduto prepared to run against a mayor he would have assailed as a bad manager and flawed person. That's a tougher argument to make against the veteran Wagner.

And as they prepare to face the Democratic voters at the May 21 primary, Mr. Wagner, who is relatively conservative on social and fiscal issues, has done his best to leave as little daylight as possible between his positions and those of his rivals. While Mr. Peduto boasts of his support for lost- and stolen-gun legislation, Mr. Wagner points out that he sponsored a municipal assault weapons ban while he was on council. He emphasizes his support for gay and lesbian rights, a position he maintained in the state Senate, and in a recent debate, said he had changed his mind since voting on council against one proposal to expand gay rights.

Mr. Wheatley, one of the two African-American members of the four-person field, argues that his decade in the Legislature has demonstrated his ability to get results for a diverse constituency. He calls support for him the best opportunity for Democrats to make a true break with the past. His most distinctive position is his regular emphasis on the need to end poverty in Pittsburgh. While he hasn't offered anything like a step-by-step blueprint on how to achieve that elusive aim, he maintains that unless Pittsburgh is willing to agree on that as a goal, there is no chance that it will happen.

A.J. Richardson, the Sheraden community activist, has identified the elimination of police brutality as the most important issue in the race and pledged a campaign to stop drug dealing and violence. He promises a man-against-the machine mayoralty, in which he would wear out his sneakers taking the office to the streets.

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Politics editor James O'Toole: or 412-263-1562. First Published May 12, 2013 4:00 AM


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