Pittsburgh Mayor Ravenstahl cites 'grueling demands' in withdrawal from race
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl enters a room in the City-County Building, Downtown, Friday before announcing the end of his bid for re-election.
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Six years and some months ago, Yarone Zober walked across the marbled hallway that stretches between the offices of the mayor and city council, carrying a blue folder.
Mayor Bob O'Connor had died of brain cancer a hundred minutes before. Inside the folder was a letter from the city solicitor officially requesting that Luke Ravenstahl, then a 26-year-old who had unexpectedly risen to the position of council president, fill the vacancy.
His face betraying trepidation, he wordlessly accepted the folder and retreated into his office, the start of a seven-year tenure that has been defined by both youthful follies in his private life and laudable policy achievements in the public sphere.
Friday morning, Mayor Ravenstahl, whose chance political ascendancy made him one of the youngest heads of a major American city, announced that he would not seek re-election.
Eleven days after he officially kicked off his campaign, he told the assembled reporters that leading the city had taken too great a toll on himself and his family. But he was at a loss for words to describe exactly what he meant.
"The grueling demands of this office are difficult to describe, the sacrifices significant," he said, reading from prepared remarks. "The recent events surrounding police and the many nasty and vicious allegations that have been levied against me and those closest to me have caused me to reflect a great deal and arrive at the decision that I have."
Later he said in response to a question: "I don't know if I can put my finger on what it was or what it is but in order to move forward I had to make a decision and I did."
His face reflected a sense of relief, and his tone, confidence. He held himself as if a great burden had been lifted from his shoulders.
Those closest to him and those who advised him said it was not a burden he ever intended to carry, that the strange alignment of events that led him to that podium left him in a position he would not have sought on his own accord.
He entered the north wing of the fifth floor of the City-County Building, Downtown, unprepared to live his life under a microscope and never grew the skin to endure the barrage of criticism public officials inevitably face. His temperament -- cagey with media, unsociable with power-brokers who needed to be wooed -- was viewed by some as ill-fit for politics.
Asked what he disliked most about the job, he answered this way.
"The public nature is something I wasn't prepared for. I disliked the ability of folks to say and do whatever they wanted to say and do regardless of any truth," he said. "I disliked the politics of it, the folks that are in it to win and will do so at any cost. I'm just not that person. I never was."
The fact that he was a fresh-faced 26-year-old -- and insisted that he should not have to rein in his youthful ways just because he was mayor -- hamstrung him throughout his tenure and will inevitably be one of the defining aspects of his time in office.
Famously, he flew to New York with a Penguins owner, took a city security SUV to a concert, went to Seven Springs as a historic blizzard approached and had a long series of no-shows. He once said he would not apologize for his youth. Even Friday, at the age of 33, he was peppered by questions about late nights at casinos with his police bodyguards. He confirmed that he had, in fact, been in a casino after midnight with a police bodyguard.
He was uncomfortable in the spotlight and the scrutiny of his daily activities. In February of 2010, a month after a record-breaking snowstorm crippled the city, he held a news conference to berate the media for probing about his whereabouts.
Despite nearly seven years in office and two successful re-election campaigns, he never became acclimated to it and neither did any of those close to him, particularly his mother, Cynthia. When her son took hits on the front page of newspapers and on the nightly news, she felt them.
When a reporter asked if Mr. Ravenstahl's younger brother, state Rep. Adam Ravenstahl, would run for mayor, Mrs. Ravenstahl, who had flanked the mayor silently, piped up and said, "NO," prompting laughter from reporters.
As far back as 2009, the last time Mr. Ravenstahl successfully ran for mayor, he began toying with the idea of making this term his last, those close to him said.
"It was honestly what I had been feeling for a long time," he said. "I was probably trying to fight that feeling for a long time and did fight that feeling for a long time and finally made a decision that I probably should have made for a long time."
On Feb. 19, he officially launched his campaign and had raised nearly a million dollars.
But in the days since then, the administration faced some of its toughest challenges. Though news of an FBI and Internal Revenue Service probe of the city's police bureau had already broken, the heat on the administration continued to intensify as questions were raised about his knowledge of unauthorized city accounts. A day after his campaign kick-off party in the Strip District, the mayor met with FBI and U.S. Department of Justice officials for two hours, where he learned information that prompted him to ask for the resignation of police Chief Nate Harper, who he promoted to the bureau's top job early in his administration.
Last week, retired police bodyguard Fred Crawford said the mayor was fully aware of debit cards linked to a non-city account and used them to evade public criticism for expenditures on alcohol and other non-city business. The mayor continued to deny those claims Friday, providing bank statements he said contradicted Mr. Crawford's claims and suggesting he "wouldn't mind jammin' [Mr. Crawford] up."
The investigation had become "a distraction" and made it "difficult for me to do what we came here to do."
"When you're spending more time ... responding to things that are simply false, that are harmful and hurtful ... you have to deal with and therefore take your eye off the ball," he said.
It's not clear when he began discussing his decision not to run, but early talks occurred with his family. His mother was one of the few he broke the news to who did not try to dissuade him. He told some of his staff late Wednesday.
It was not just the scrutiny that he faced that unsettled him, he said, but that it had spread to those close to him.
"What frustrates me about that, the way that people categorize public service employees, it's just flat out wrong," he said, referencing negative media coverage of some city employees. "They dedicate their life and put up with that same scrutiny."
Even as he began to talk about his decision, he asked for the input from those in his inner circle. He wanted to be thorough and deliberative, though he would not be swayed.
"I think it was a decision on his own," said his close friend, Kevin Quigley, an assistant director of public works who supported his bid for city council as a 23-year-old. "When I got an inkling that he was thinking about not running, I did whatever I could do to make him stay in the race."
With 10 months remaining in his term, the mayor has a chance to exit gracefully and reshape his legacy. Dropping out of the race, he said, may free him up to achieve policy goals.
"The ability now to make decisions without having to worry about re-election or alienating a constituency, it's a good feeling," he said. "And it may allow us to do some things that are perhaps bolder than somebody who might run for re-election might consider."
His supporters hope that coverage of his youthful follies will not overshadow his administration's achievements. During his time in office, the city has brought down its debt load considerably and improved its bond rating, a remarkable achievement in the midst of a recession. The city's Act 47 overseers, who were appointed when the city was officially designated "financially distressed," have taken notice and have asked for the city to be freed from the state oversight.
He focused on development and boasted that he brought the Steel City to the world stage. In September 2009 the city hosted the G-20, a global economic summit that drew world leaders and President Barack Obama to Pittsburgh.
But his proudest achievement, he said, was the Pittsburgh Promise. The program pledges graduates of the city's public schools $40,000 in scholarships if they have a 2.5 GPA and a 90 percent attendance rate. Since its start in 2008, it's helped around 3,800 students go to college, he said.
"It was something that I really thought would change the future of Pittsburgh," he said.
Those are the achievements he hopes he is remembered by, and if that's not the case now, he hopes it will be in the future.
"Time will give folks perspective," he said. "Over time people will be able to appreciate more what we've been able to achieve."
Riffing on a quote from retired Steelers Coach Bill Cowher, he closed his prepared remarks by saying, "This North Side boy has lived his dream."
First Published March 2, 2013 12:00 am