Mayor's wish to oust council incumbents goes unfulfilled
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Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's name wasn't on the ballot Tuesday, but the election results could affect the next two years of his term and determine whether he will serve another one.
At first blush, it seemed an unambiguously bad day for the mayor. Four Pittsburgh City Council incumbents were re-elected. Three of them are regular antagonists of the administration.
In his North Side base, the mayor and his allies worked intensely to defeat council president Darlene Harris, but she survived. So did Bruce Kraus in the South Side and Patrick Dowd in a seat that extends from Highland Park through Lawrenceville. A victory for Ricky Burgess, normally an administration ally, was an exception to that pattern.
Mr. Ravenstahl never took a public position in the Democrats' Allegheny County executive race, but he was widely perceived as favoring Mark Patrick Flaherty over the eventual winner, Rich Fitzgerald.
Some opponents were quick to see in the results a clear erosion in the political clout of a figure who carried every city ward in his 2009 re-election. Others cautioned against projecting the results to future contests.
"I've never been a big believer in coattails; I don't believe in the opposite, either," said city Controller Michael Lamb, who has joined council members in butting heads with the administration over pension issues and is frequently mentioned as a potential challenger to Mr. Ravenstahl two years from now. "I think those results said more about the power of incumbency of the individual council members."
Mr. Lamb ran unopposed Tuesday in the Democratic primary for another term as controller.
County council President Jim Burn, the state Democratic chairman who has supported both Mr. Fitzgerald and Mr. Ravenstahl in the past, said the results don't necessarily suggest that Mr. Ravenstahl, the winner of two successive landslides, would be vulnerable the next time around.
"I think the mayor would be the front-runner and would be difficult to beat," he said.
But while the council results may be an unreliable guide to future elections, the success or failure of the mayor's relationships with those lawmakers will have a potentially crucial effect on policy issues, budgets and initiatives.
Mr. Ravenstahl hoped that Tuesday would produce a chamber more likely to accede to his wishes on issues such as pension funding and parking privatization. In that, he clearly fell short.
"Now he has to govern with this council; that could create problems moving forward," Mr. Lamb said.
Paul McKrell, Mr. Ravenstahl's 2009 campaign manager, maintained that any mayoral setbacks among the council results were balanced by the prospect of Corey O'Connor's occupying the seat now held by Doug Shields. The former council president has been a consistent critic of the administration. Mr. O'Connor, the son of the late mayor, has said he will be an independent voice on council, but from the standpoint of the administration, that would be a distinct improvement.
Ms. Harris, the current council president, said she was ready to put the acrimonious past behind her, although she noted in passing that the mayor had yet to offer his congratulations on her victory.
"I'll continue to work to unify this council," she said. "I'll continue to work with the controller [Mr. Lamb] because that relationship has been beneficial."
Of the mayor, she said, "I can work with anyone; I will not hold the city back."
At this early stage, it's impossible to project the field for the next mayor's race with any certainty, but inevitably, some names have already been the focus of speculation. Mr. Lamb is among them, as are state Auditor General Jack Wagner and Councilman Bill Peduto, all of whom have unsuccessfully sought the job in the past.
In an interview after her victory, Ms. Harris declined to comment on -- or to dismiss -- more recent reports that she might consider the race. In a television interview earlier this year, Mr. Wagner said he had never ruled out a return to municipal politics. Mr. Lamb insisted that he was concentrating on his re-election, although he is unopposed, and said he had no comment on future contests. And by next year, when speculation will turn to real preparations for any credible hopefuls, it's anyone's guess as to how many more names might emerge.
Mr. Ravenstahl may have been frustrated in dictating the occupants of the offices at the other end of the City-County Building's fifth-floor hallway. But he has plenty of company among modern Pittsburgh mayors who have failed when pushing candidates for office.
A year after taking office, Richard S. Caliguiri pushed Pat McFalls for an open council seat in 1978, only for him to lose to Michelle Madoff. Caliguiri's preferred candidate lost again for an open seat in 1983, when he pushed city employee Gil Lancia over Mr. Wagner, and he twice pushed losing candidates for city controller over Tom Flaherty.
Rather than be tainted by those losses, Caliguiri, who died in 1988, gained a reputation for rising above party politics. "Dick had an interesting perspective of trying to persuade people to his thinking rather than using political arm twisting," former Caliguiri aide David Donahoe said.
Tom Flaherty, who is now a county judge, said that in retrospect fighting Caliguiri "was the biggest political mistake I ever made. He was the nicest guy."
Successful politicians have to fight their own wars before worrying about others. Tom Murphy, like Caliguiri, had a reputation as an independent, but still got the Democratic committee's endorsement all three times he ran successfully for mayor. By his third term, Mr. Murphy still could not push hard enough to get his friend Barbara Burns elected to a North Side city council seat in 2003.
The winner of that race: Luke Ravenstahl.
First Published May 19, 2011 12:00 am