Council upsets will pose challenge for mayor
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After a three-month campaign, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl took the day off yesterday, while his soundly defeated rival, Councilman Patrick Dowd, was bounding around the City-County Building before 9 a.m.
Mr. Ravenstahl may need the rest to prepare for challenges that are daunting despite his popularity.
The mayor's win with 59 percent of the vote in Tuesday's Democratic primary was "a strong victory," said city Controller Michael Lamb, who ran for mayor in 2005.
That said, whatever bounce he gets should be weighed against the results of two council races in which his preferred candidates lost. The mayor's best council friends -- Jim Motznik and Tonya Payne -- are lame ducks, to be replaced in January by Democratic nominees Natalia Rudiak in the South Hills and Daniel Lavelle in the Hill District and North Side.
"You have elected a number of people who are independent thinkers, who weren't supported by the administration," said Mr. Lamb, "so it will be a challenge for the mayor to build his majority."
The mayor's big number -- beating Mr. Dowd by 31 percentage points -- could be Exhibit A in his argument to council that he's got a mandate.
"I would think that he would be able to say to council, 'I won big, and this is what we're going to do,' " said William J. Green, a local political analyst.
"You come out of an election like this, here's the time to do something big," like merge the city and county, or solve the city's pension problem, Mr. Green said.
On the other hand, Mr. Ravenstahl's win came in an election in which just 25.9 percent of city Democrats voted for a mayoral candidate -- a turnout Mr. Green called "pathetic" and "embarrassing." It's a shade higher than the 25.4 percent Democratic turnout throughout Allegheny County, which was better than the 17.8 percent of registered Republicans who voted countywide.
"If I was in the Ravenstahl camp looking at those numbers, especially with the amount of money they spent on media," said council President Doug Shields, "I wouldn't think they crossed that [mandate] threshold."
Mr. Ravenstahl's campaign spent $661,995 through May 4, and even if it spent nothing more, that would be $25 per vote he got. Mr. Dowd said he spent $100,000 by Tuesday, or $8 per vote.
The mayor could have spent his money better, said Mr. Lamb.
"He's a likeable person and personality. I think he could have taken that to a new level in this campaign," he said, calling the race a "missed opportunity" to dramatically bolster his image.
Mr. Ravenstahl could not be reached yesterday.
Councilman William Peduto, a sometime mayoral foe, said that independent polling from early in the year predicted Mr. Ravenstahl winning with around 60 percent.
That suggests that the mayor "wasn't able to convince those that were not supportive of him back in February to vote for him in May," said Mr. Peduto, but also that he was "Teflon" in large parts of the city.
Mr. Ravenstahl racked up more than two-thirds of the vote in almost all of the wards south of the rivers, and three of the North Side wards. He lost only the wards anchored by Squirrel Hill and Shadyside, and easily beat African-American attorney Carmen Robinson in all of the city's majority-black wards. She finished with 13 percent of the vote citywide.
Mr. Ravenstahl's back-to-basics approach appealed in long-neglected neighborhoods.
"When people saw houses being torn down, people started to ask, 'Who's doing that?' And I said, 'Luke Ravenstahl,'" said Ora Lee Carroll, a Larimer community activist.
The election's reverberations may be first felt in the coming debate over a new Act 47 recovery plan, likely to be introduced in council today. Though Ms. Rudiak and Mr. Lavelle will not vote on it, because it's expected to be enacted by the end of June, it could become a test of the mayor's post-election authority.
Mr. Dowd said their wins, despite mayoral support for their opponents, were "a pretty decisive blow to ... the authority of the administration to generate support in the [council] districts."
Even where Mr. Ravenstahl was strongest -- in the South Hills -- he couldn't drive voters to his chosen council candidate. His campaign made calls telling voters that the mayor wanted them to vote for Anthony Coghill to replace Mr. Motznik, who will become a district judge, but Mr. Coghill finished third.
Long-time Democratic infighting may have hurt Mr. Coghill.
"I heard time and time again that people were just sick and tired of the political factions throughout the South Hills, and sick and tired of the factions in city government," said Ms. Rudiak.
Ms. Payne, too, may have been torpedoed by a community-wide desire to end divisiveness after years of tumult in the Hill District over development -- tumult that led to what Hill lawyer Paul Ellis called an "advent of accountability" in which residents decided to take charge of their futures.
"I think that she was the fulcrum of that division," said former Councilman Sala Udin, who Ms. Payne ousted four years ago. "When the community said that they were almost unanimous about not wanting a casino in the Hill District, she jumped right in bed with the Penguins and [casino developer] Isle of Capri. When the community said we wanted Barack Obama as president, she went with Hillary Clinton" in last year's presidential primary.
The mayor made no effort to mend fences with Mr. Dowd.
Mr. Dowd said Mr. Ravenstahl never returned his repeated calls Tuesday night when he sought to concede the race.
Meanwhile, the mayor publicly called on the councilman to apologize for negative campaigning.
"Nothing that I said was personal," Mr. Dowd said.
First Published May 21, 2009 12:00 am