City council races starting to take shape
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The competition for Pittsburgh City Council districts shifted into public view last week with the first formal announcements by candidates for an open seat in the East End.
Sam Hens-Greco was the first out of the gate, launching his candidacy Thursday before a small, chilled crowd gathered outside a Unitarian Church on Ellsworth Avenue. Jeanne Clark hosted a more star-studded debut for her candidacy Saturday night, where she was introduced there by abortion rights leader Eleanor Smeal. Rich Fitzgerald, the county executive, and Nancy Mills, the Allegheny County Democratic chair, also lauded Ms. Clark at the Shadyside event.
Mr. Hens-Greco and Ms. Clark are vying with Dan Gilman, Councilman Bill Peduto's longtime aide, for the seat that Mr. Peduto is relinquishing in favor of his challenge to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.
The competitive pictures in the other three districts that will be on the ballot this year are slower to come into focus. Those even-numbered seats are held by R. Daniel Lavelle, Theresa Kail-Smith and Natalia Rudiak. Franco Dok Harris, a former mayoral candidate, is considering a challenge to Mr. Lavelle in a district that extends from the Hill District to the North Side. In an interview, Mr. Harris declined to confirm his plans, but the Downtown resident said he would have more to say about the race in an announcement Monday. Mr. Harris, the son of former Steelers great Franco Harris, ran for mayor as an independent in 2009, finishing a distant second to Mr. Ravenstahl in a three-person race.
Challengers to Ms. Rudiak and Ms. Kail-Smith have yet to emerge in public. Several people are reported to be weighing a run for Ms. Rudiak's seat in the city's South Hills. Pete Wagner, chair of the 19th Ward, the district's largest, said he had been contacted by several would-be challengers. He said he was not ready to back anyone at this point, but he described John Lee, a sports commentator and former Seton-LaSalle basketball coach, as one credible potential challenger. Mr. Lee could not be reached for comment.
Mr. Wagner opposed Ms. Rudiak four years ago when she won narrowly in a four-person race for the Democratic nomination that is tantamount to election in this and the other council districts. The South Hills communities that this district comprises have produced considerable political turbulence in recent years. In the race that she won in an upset, one of Ms. Rudiak's rivals was Anthony Coghill, who ran with the support of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. Mr. Wagner and other Democratic officials backed Patrick Riley, who was running with the endorsement of the Democratic party organization. Mr. Coghill is now a supporter of his 2009 rival and he predicts that her campaign, which has scheduled a fundraising kickoff reception Wednesday, will prevail even if the opposition coalesces behind one challenger.
"I guarantee that Natalia will win again no matter what the mayor does," Mr. Coghill said. "If they do rally behind somebody, I don't think it will make a difference."
With three candidates with substantial bases of support, the race for the Peduto seat across the river may be hard fought, but in its early stage at any rate, it appears an unusually civil contest. All three have praised one another and they all will appear together Sunday at a Squirrel Hill candidates' forum that will also feature the three mayoral candidates -- Mr. Ravenstahl, Mr. Peduto and city Controller Michael Lamb.
Ms. Clark, a longtime activist on progressive and feminist issues, is also the chair of Shadyside's 7th Ward. Mr. Hens-Greco chairs Squirrel Hill's 14th Ward, the city's largest, although he said he would yield his 14th Ward duties to his co-chair for the duration of the campaign. Mr. Gilman has worked on district issues at Mr. Peduto's side for nearly a decade, and he has Mr. Peduto's support, even as the councilman's most high-profile supporter, Mr. Fitzgerald, throws his weight behind Ms. Clark.
Mr. Fitzgerald described the veteran activist as one of his most trusted informal advisers.
"One of the people I turn to for advice is Jeanne Clarke,'' he said. "She understands the issues; she's pragmatic ... she's someone I lean on.''
Recalling decades of work together on a litany of feminist and liberal causes, Ms. Smeal said, "Over 40 years we've worked together ... changing the world.''
She noted the Obama administration's decision last week to end prohibitions against women in combat and related how she and Ms. Clark had once unsuccessfully pressed the courts to grant equal draft status for women and men during the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment.
"Well Jeanne, we were only 35 years ahead of times,'' she said, adding "she's a brilliant strategist and she knows the issues cold.''
Ms. Clark delivered her speech surrounded by a group of the younger women she described as her inspiration. She described city council as a bully pulpit that could be used to help, "make Pittsburgh the next great city.''
Ms. Clark said that one of the issues she would tackle was the chronic challenge of seeking city revenue from the city's large nonprofit institutions.
"You're going to hear me talking a lot about good corporate citizenship,'' she said.
Mr. Hens-Greco's kickoff event this week offered a low-key contrast to Ms. Clark's planned launch. To symbolize the grass-roots activism that he hopes to foster in city government, he unveiled a proposal to create a system of tax credits and foundation support to encourage Pittsburgh homeowners to purchase rain barrels. He called for the use of part of the revenue from the tax paid on real estate transfers to be devoted to a partial credit for the purchase of rain barrels in a region where stormwater runoff poses a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure challenge.
Turning to more high-profile issues, he said he hoped to offer a proposal in the coming weeks to combine solutions to two chronic municipal issues -- the city's underfunded pension system and the elusive effort to gain more revenue from the city's large nonprofit institutions. Mr. Hens-Greco said that among the strengths he would bring to the office was his legal training, noting that none of the current council members was a lawyer.
The council competition picture should become clearer by the end of the week, with the Feb. 1 filing deadline for candidates seeking the Democratic Party endorsement. The party's elected committee members will vote to give their institutional support to one candidate in each of these races.
First Published January 27, 2013 12:00 am