Unleashed, Mayor Ravenstahl can show his chops

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No one saw it coming. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's decision to challenge the charitable tax status of UPMC, the region's largest employer, is a genius move that no "lukologist" that I'm aware of predicted.

It feels counterintuitive coming from a mayor who hasn't exactly been a foil for powerful special interests in this city.

Lobbing a molotov cocktail in the direction of Jeffrey Romoff's magic kingdom comes the same week the mayor committed himself to firing a perennially in-trouble police officer videotaped harassing a cooperative civilian on the South Side.

Conventional wisdom is already coalescing around the notion that Mr. Ravenstahl's sudden burst of political courage is merely a ploy to worm his way onto Highmark's payroll after he leaves office. Because expecting pure motives from a politician is a form of insanity, there's no point in splitting hairs about whether Mr. Ravenstahl is merely feathering his own nest or simply checking items off a populist bucket list in an attempt to redeem an otherwise sketchy legacy.

The mayor's decision not to run for another term was, itself, a savvy piece of political theater requiring more self-awareness than our 32-year-old mayor has previously been given credit for. A similar thing happened when the creators of "Lost" announced the series' end date just as creative exhaustion was creeping in. Suddenly, the cast and writers of a hit show that was beginning to lose steam were rejuvenated.

Having an end date as opposed to facing the indignity of cancellation meant the producers of "Lost" were free to screw with the show's chronology, refine its mythology and mess up everyone's confident expectations about what the characters would do next. The result was a brilliant, if not always dramatically satisfying, narrative.

Mayor Ravenstahl is determined to reboot his legacy in a way that will leave even his harshest critics smiling at the end and mumbling under their breath: "That kid wasn't really so bad after all, now was he?"

I admit that I much prefer this version of Luke that has emerged from the shadow of perpetual incumbency over the previous model. The prickliness that once surrounded him like a halo is dramatically muted. The mayor can now smile in the middle of even the testiest exchange with a journalist because his days as a public servant are numbered. Soon, he'll be able to hang out all night with whomever he wishes without worrying about whether it rises to the standard of breaking news.

That's why it was a relief to see him kick the responsibilities for selecting a new police chief down the road to the next mayor. He or she will have to deal with the fallout from UPMC as well, but the next chief executive could actually be up to the task.

As much as he loved the perks, Mr. Ravenstahl treated the obligations of the office like a total drag. His boredom at public events was palpable. Beyond being a cradle Democrat, he had no deep-seated political convictions. He wasn't a policy wonk or a one-issue crusader when he was elected to city council from Spring Hill. He was a kid from the North Side who happened to be the scion of a politically connected family. He could just as easily have gone into landscaping if that had been expected of the next generation of Ravenstahls.

The miracle of Pittsburgh is that in any other city, Mr. Ravenstahl would've been an obscure back-bencher relegated to the un-sexiest committee assignments imaginable. Because of infighting on council, he was the compromise candidate for president. Even those who voted against him never felt threatened by him.

Luke Ravenstahl was 26 years old when the death of Mayor Bob O'Connor made him the youngest big-city mayor in America in 2006. Books will be written about how a dysfunctional political culture made it possible for a recent college graduate with no obvious mayoral ambitions to ascend to the city's top executive office. There's no way he should have been expected to have either the experience or the managerial chops to get the job done.

The scandals came early and often. The cast of characters and situations were as colorful as they were corrupt, but Mr. Ravenstahl possessed an unerring sense of what it took to survive, if not thrive, in the mayor's office. Now that he has shifted into legacy mode, he's found a plausible reason to become a champion of good government and the little guy. Sometimes it takes losing a job to bring out the best qualities in a human being, even if he's only faking it.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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