Glare of political life is intense for families
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl hugs his mother, Cindy, and father, Robert, after announcing the end of his re-election bid Friday.
Luke Ravenstahl holds son, Cooper, on Jan. 4, 2010, as he takes the oath of office for Mayor of Pittsburgh, given by his father, District Judge Robert Ravenstahl Jr.
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A tiny boy ran through the crowd and dutifully stood on stage at Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's re-election launch last week. "This is the reason I do what I do," the mayor said, placing his hand on 4-year-old son Cooper's head. It was a typical thing for a politician to say, but then the mayor went on.
"I feel bad he has to go through what he has to go through."
Three years ago he held infant Cooper in his arms as his father, Robert, a North Side district judge, swore him in for his first full mayoral term. But after admitting to years of doubt about the personal and familial demands of the job, which included relentless media scrutiny and "nasty and vicious allegations" levied against him, Mr. Ravenstahl said Friday he would step down at term's end.
"The toll that takes on one person and on one's family has become too great for me, and for us, to endure," Mr. Ravenstahl said, with his father and mother standing to his side.
It is the kind of story many of Pittsburgh's past mayors -- whose faces looked down from portraits lining the mayor's conference room -- could have told.
David L. Lawrence was an ambitious and powerful pol in 1942 when his two oldest sons were killed in a Butler County car crash, sending him into depression and doubt about his future. The experience reforged him into the man who would be elected mayor of Pittsburgh three years later then enter the governor's office in 1958, where he kept pictures of the boys permanently displayed.
Mayor Tom Murphy had just started his second year in office in 1995 when his 5-year-old son T.J. began waking up screaming in pain. Half his face sagged and his legs grew numb while he suffered from what was later diagnosed as a rare infection called Guillain-Barre syndrome. The media tried to learn about his son's condition and Mr. Murphy's absences from Grant Street, but he fought back.
"I disappeared for a week or two. I didn't want to talk about it. It was unbelievably intrusive," Mr. Murphy said Friday. "There was idle speculation: "Murphy's up at his Butler County estate. Did he beat his son?' Somebody said that on the radio. I wanted privacy -- you saw resentment."
But Mr. Murphy, who with wife Mona also has two older children, said he went through soul-searching similar to Mr. Ravenstahl's both times he ran for re-election to the office.
"I thought [Ravenstahl] did a really good job of expressing what a challenge being the mayor of the city is and the pressures you face," said the former mayor, who served through 2005. "At some point you either figure out how to live with it or ignore it, or you don't."
Mr. Ravenstahl earned media attention in ways the old guard never would have, through youthful escapades like taking a city SUV to a Toby Keith concert his first year in office to hanging out with Snoop Dogg after the Steelers won the Super Bowl in February 2009. He separated from his wife the following November after being re-elected to his first full term, after winning a special election in 2007, which also made him the first single dad in the mayor's office. (Late Mayor Pete Flaherty divorced a decade after leaving office.)
"I'm not going to apologize for my age, I'm not going to make excuses, but I do think it clearly was an issue" in the way he approached the mayor's job, Mr. Ravenstahl said Friday. "... My age is something that folks always talk about and I suppose always will."
City Councilman Corey O'Connor has spent much of his life in the public eye -- he was 7 when his late father Bob was first elected to council and 27 when he won the same seat in 2011.
"It is a lot of pressure, especially when you get it at such a young age, but you have to be able to balance it," he said Friday. "You've got to make sure that everything's OK at home or else your mind is not going to be focused on the job you have to do, and I think that probably led to [Ravenstahl's] ultimate decision."
Mr. Ravenstahl has politics in his blood: His grandfather was a state representative from the North Side, his father is a district judge and a younger brother, Adam, is now in the General Assembly. Robert Ravenstahl said he counseled his son the last few days "to stay and fight" through the election but relented. "He's very relieved. I can see it in his face. It's not a bad thing."
His mother, Cynthia, has early stage breast cancer, with surgery scheduled Tuesday. The prognosis is good, she said.
"You want your children to be happy. That's all I want for my kids," she said after her son's announcement. "I knew he wasn't happy for a long time."
First Published March 2, 2013 12:00 am