Analysis: Negative race could have marred Peduto's future
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Rebecca Droke, Post-Gazette
William Peduto pauses in his headquarters after making his announcement yesterday.
City Councilman William Peduto ceded the Democratic mayoral nomination to Luke Ravenstahl because, he said, he could not defeat him without waging a negative, divisive campaign.
Mr. Peduto implicitly acknowledged, however, that on the current record, there is no evidence that he could have defeated Mr. Ravenstahl even if he had been willing to scorch his party's earth.
"Luke's popular,'' he said at one point. "In the image category, Luke was going to beat me.''
Mr. Peduto's internal polls and his own feel for the electorate after months of campaigning combined to suggest that the public attitude toward the young incumbent was, "Give the kid a chance.''
Given that sentiment, the negative tactics Mr. Peduto described had the potential to mar his own political future as much as bring down the incumbent's popularity.
Speaking to reporters after a news conference that was alternately somber, resigned and defiant, Mr. Peduto recalled another campaign that had turned negative, leaving an indelible political lesson. That was the 1996 challenge that his old boss, former Councilman Dan Cohen, waged against former U.S. Rep. William Coyne. Mr. Coyne was popular. No stark issues divided the two Democrats. So the challenge that Mr. Peduto presided over as campaign manager turned sharply negative. The tactics didn't help. Mr. Coyne won in a walk, leaving Mr. Cohen with a defeat that was an even bigger blot on his political resume given the sharp elbows he'd thrown.
"I went through that 11 years ago in a congressional race and it stuck with me, and I wasn't willing to do it again,'' Mr. Peduto said.
In citing the likely effect of a divisive campaign, Mr. Peduto noted its cost on the city. But had he stayed a candidate, Mr. Peduto would have faced long odds and, potentially, a big loss for his own public future.
But the fact that that political calculation could change overnight was another message of yesterday's news conference and the tactical options Mr. Peduto left so pointedly open.
The Democrat insisted that he hadn't thought through the possibility of running in the general election as an independent, but he repeatedly refused to rule that out. He said would continue to pursue issues embraced in his campaign.
The unspoken message was that during that time, the novelty and popularity of the young mayor's new administration could fade.
"When he has a record, there will be issues to run on,'' Mr. Peduto said. "Right now, it's just image that he's running on and it's very difficult to run against image without being negative.''
Mr. Peduto's partisans can only hope that controversies like the questions over Mr. Ravenstahl's recent trip to New York City with Penguins owner Ron Burkle can start that process and that other, unforeseen events would accelerate the incumbent along the vector of political vulnerability.
That could set the stage for a renewed Peduto challenge, either in November or in 2009.
Even a November race would leave plenty of time for events to alter a landscape now tiled against Mr. Peduto. But he doesn't have much time to make the first decision to preserve that possibility.
The late Mayor Richard Caliguiri ran and won as an independent after succeeding Mayor Pete Flaherty when he took a job in the Carter Justice Department. Mr. Caliguiri sat out the 1977 Democratic primary but then ran and won as an independent in the fall, albeit with all of the advantages of incumbency. Burned by that experience, the political establishment that Mr. Caliguiri had circumvented changed state law to create hurdles for major party figures pursuing an independent route in general elections.
Mr. Peduto said the timing of yesterday's news conference was triggered, in part, by the spate of publicity Monday over his opponent's New York trip. That, he said, reinforced in his mind the likelihood that this would not be a campaign focused on issues.
That may be true, but a more significant element in his timing was that fact that yesterday was the last day that a candidate could withdraw his nominating petitions without a court order. Had he not withdrawn, his name would have gone on the primary ballot and he would have forfeited the option of running as an independent in the fall.
A second decision date looms for Mr. Peduto on April 15. That is the last day he can change his party registration from Democratic to independent. The law passed in the wake of Mr. Caliguiri's success states that no one registered as a member of a major party within 30 days of a primary election -- May 15 this year in Pennsylvania -- can run as an independent.
If Mr. Peduto decides to bide his time on council, that could create a perhaps unprecedented situation in which a sitting Pittsburgh mayor coasts to election with no formal opposition.
The situation would be all the more remarkable given the way that Mr. Ravenstahl ascended to his office as a relative political neophyte, selected as City Council president as a compromise candidate at least in part because he had not been in office long enough to make enemies.
This possible, even likely, mayoral coronation coincides with a similar lack of competition at the top of the Allegheny County ballot. Chief Executive Dan Onorato has only token opposition in the Democratic primary and, barring the emergence of an independent, would be alone on the November ballot. All of that is a recipe for a remarkably low turnout election -- good news for candidates with the party endorsement, but not for voters hoping for a heated discussion of issues at any local level.
First Published March 22, 2007 12:00 am