Pittsburgh's Republican mayoral candidate Josh Wander pushes message of 'choice'

He's not in the race to win but 'to convey a message that there is a choice'

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Josh Wander is a prepper, but let's get this straight -- he isn't a Doomsday prepper.

"I always tell people, 'Reality TV isn't reality,' " he says, referring to the National Geographic series "Doomsday Preppers," in which he appeared last year, showcasing the food stocks and emergency supplies he's cached in his Squirrel Hill home.

He complains that the National Geographic crew filmed him at his house "for two days straight," to produce the relatively few minutes of video that appeared on the show. In the editing, he suggests, he and other subjects have emerged as caricatures.

"I don't believe in some Doomsday, but I do believe passionately in preparedness," he said. "I'm doing what [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] is doing -- educating people."

That wasn't his first brush with publicity. In 2003, he made national news with giveitback.org, a website he created to urge the return of the Statue of Liberty over France's lack of support for the war in Iraq. Then there's the split-screen video he posted of a clean-shaven Josh Wander interviewing a bearded, harried Josh Wander on the aftereffects of a population-decimating catastrophe.

In that political season of french fries being renamed "Freedom Fries," the movement to give back the Statue of Liberty was intended ironically, he explains. (The website address has since been taken over by a Habitat for Humanity group.) The interview video was something of a private joke, too, with insider references to amuse the prepper community.

But one thing that the 43-year-old security consultant is serious about is his run for mayor of Pittsburgh as the nominee of the Republican Party.

"I feel very passionately about the two-party system, about giving people a choice," he said in a recent interview in a Squirrel Hill coffee shop.

Not that he has any illusions about his prospects. Mr. Wander concedes that his chances of winning aren't any better than those of the parade of frustrated GOP mayoral candidates that stretches back to the depths of the Great Depression.

But through his candidacy, he argues that he can educate people about issues they should be more concerned about, just as he highlights the preparedness issue through yet another website, jewishpreppers.blogspot.com.

"Even Democrats admit there's a serious corruption problem in the city," he said, pointing to the federal investigation of police practices that led to the charges against former chief Nate Harper.

He argues that the decades of Democratic dominance in the city have led to a broader culture of corruption that only an outsider can eradicate.

As he described the policies of his very hypothetical administration last week, he was joined by Bob Howard, a former North Allegheny school board member and unsuccessful candidate for county controller who has been active in conservative politics such as Tea Party and 9/12 groups. Mr. Howard said a Wander administration would reform city finances by replacing the current pension system with a 401(k) style defined-contribution system and aggressive moves to privatize city services.

He would insist that a new police chief should come from outside the current system. On the latter point, his position isn't too far from that of Mr. Peduto, who has called for a nationwide search for a new chief of the troubled department.

Mr. Wander resists the suggestions that their positions on the public safety issues are similar, noting that Mr. Peduto, while a chronic critic of the Ravenstahl administration, should have done more to uncover police mismanagement.

"Peduto, as a councilman, should have been auditing this system," he said. "You need to get someone in there with a clean slate. I'm going to look objectively and find the corruption," he said.

Mr. Wander was born in McKeesport. At the time, his family owned a chain of electronic stores in the region. He is a citizen of Israel as well as the United States. He received a bachelor's degree from a rabbinical college in Jerusalem and served as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces. He received a master's degree in 2007 from University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. He said he plans to go on to study for a doctorate, but his progress toward that degree is on hold as he deals with the demands of raising six children with his wife, a critical care nurse who is also a veteran of the Israeli military.

He has found time to take flying lessons, though he hasn't yet earned a pilot's license. He also plans to work toward certification in skydiving, a sport he said he was first exposed to in the army.

Mr. Wander has run for office before. He was an elected constable in White Oak, near his original home in McKeesport. After moving to the city, he first sought the Republican nomination for mayor in 2009, but the incumbent, Luke Ravenstahl, captured the GOP spot on a write-in effort at the same time he was defeating former councilman Patrick Dowd for the Democratic nomination.

Mr. Wander was a Republican city council nominee in 2011, losing the Squirrel Hill-based seat to Corey O'Connor. He embarked on a county council run in the same year, but his nominating petitions were challenged for faulty signatures.

Mr. Wander said his campaign should be judged not by the number of votes he receives but by the degree to which he can educate voters. How loud a megaphone he will have to spread his message remains in doubt. In a primary marked by spending in the millions on the Democratic side, he raised less than $1,000. So far no debates have been scheduled for him, Mr. Peduto or the third, independent candidate, Les Ludwig.

"No organization has approached us about a debate," said Sonya Toler, Mr. Peduto's press secretary.

Mr. Wander professes to be undeterred.

"My campaign is more of a marketing campaign where I am conveying a message. I will be successful ... if I'm able to convey a message that there is a choice."


Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. First Published August 18, 2013 4:00 AM


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