Mayor's office up for grabs, but for whom?

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"The good old boys are neither good nor old/they never travel alone/They don't like what they don't know/and they don't know me." -- "The Largest of Small Towns" by Robert A. Wagner and the Little Wretches

Regardless of party affiliation, running for mayor of Pittsburgh is usually a thankless, foolhardy act.

For Republicans, there's never a serious hope of winning because of the Democrats' 3-1 registration advantage. For Democrats, there's usually "another mule kickin' in your stall," to quote the late, great Muddy Waters.

And there's no greater mule in Pittsburgh politics than Democratic incumbency in the mayor's office. As several colleagues recently pointed out, winning the Democratic primary is enough. November elections are a formality imposed on our region by old-fashioned sticklers for democracy.

Prior to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's announcement last week that he wouldn't seek re-election to the office he inherited by the kind of dumb luck that still keeps his rivals on city council muttering in their sleep, there were only two Democratic souls foolhardy enough to prepare to take on the 33-year-old incumbent.

City Councilman Bill Peduto and city Controller Michael Lamb knew the odds were stacked against them when they entered the race, despite Mr. Ravenstahl's well-chronicled missteps and disappearing acts. To go against incumbency in a town that doesn't take easily to change -- even good change -- is to find oneself tilting at windmills.

Still, in recent years, Pittsburgh politics has begun to resemble a page torn out of a quantum theory textbook. Where once there was a fatalistic acceptance of a certain kind of succession based on hackery, there's now a growing expectation that the unpredictable is possible.

If Mr. Ravenstahl's accidental mayoralty taught us anything, it is that sometimes political success is randomly distributed across a universe determined to mock conventional wisdom. Regardless of one's initial ambition (or lack thereof), it may be enough to be the faithful pooch snoozing with one's mouth open when the crumbs and occasional hunks of meat fall from the table.

Because Mr. Peduto and Mr. Lamb ignored conventional wisdom and mounted underfunded campaigns against an incumbent with more than enough money in his re-election coffers to overcome criticisms, it is more likely than not that one of these men will be elected Pittsburgh's next mayor. Is that quixotic enough for you, Pittsburgh?

Because politicians are nothing if not opportunistic when there's an open mayor's seat, several otherwise sensible Democrats will feel "moved" to join Mr. Peduto and Mr. Lamb on the May 21 primary ballot. There's a March 12 filing deadline, tons of money to raise and endorsements to court, but our pols aren't practical enough to let this windmill turn without tilting wildly in its direction. No one can remember the last time Pittsburgh elected a pragmatic, humble Sancho Panza type to the city's highest office.

We'll know more in about a week, but for the time being we're free to speculate about new candidates entering the race. All things are possible now that Mr. Ravenstahl, following the example of either Pope Benedict or President Lyndon Baines Johnson, has decided he no longer has the energy for the daily crucifixions that come with the job.

How does Mayor Darlene Harris sound? What about Mayor Jim Ferlo, every liberal's dream? What about a long shot like Mayor Ricky Burgess?

Would someone of Dan Onorato's stature consider giving up the perks of the corporate world to return to the picayune reality of local politics at a level far below his last position? Mayor Jack Wagner, anyone? What about Madame Mayor Chelsa Wagner? Will someone from the Pittsburgh school board jump into this before it's all over?

Whoever prevails in the May primary may not necessarily be the right fit for the mayor's office, because good intentions aren't always enough. Are we politically sophisticated enough to demand more from our local elected officials than name recognition? Will the office be won on the strength of a candidate's political ideas and savvy, or will sheer luck prevail over competence?

Are we prepared to act like a big city that understands the opportunity provided by this moment, or are we destined to be "the largest of small towns" wallowing in the insularity and triviality of our regional politics?


Tony Norman: or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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