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Pittsburgh mayor's youth, partying mar legacy

Jeremy Boren
| Friday, March 1, 2013, 11:54 p.m.

Luke Ravenstahl said that becoming the nation's youngest big-city mayor at age 26 made him a media darling and allowed him to showcase Pittsburgh's transformation from smoky city to a medical research and higher-learning haven.

Critics contend Ravenstahl's youth, predilection for partying and lack of experience ultimately outweighed the advantages and derailed a once-promising political career. Ravenstahl, 33, of the North Side said on Friday that he would not seek re-election.

“It's good news for Pittsburgh. I think that we can do much better than Luke Ravenstahl as mayor,” said Jim Roddey, chairman of the Allegheny County Republican Committee. “He got a lot of publicity because of his age and then he sort of just went through the motions, and he doesn't have much to show for it.”

Former Gov. Ed Rendell said Ravenstahl, a fellow Democrat, helped remake the Golden Triangle. Rendell credited him with a role in keeping the Penguins from leaving town during negotiations to build Consol Energy Center in 2007.

“You can almost feel it in the air that there's a different sense of vibrancy and activity Downtown now,” said Rendell, a former Philadelphia mayor. “Obviously, I'm aware of some of the scrapes he got in, and you can chalk some of those up to youthful inexperience, but in the things that were job-related he improved very quickly.”

Ravenstahl said he is proudest of Pittsburgh Promise, a college scholarship program he announced in 2006 with Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt. Charities fund the program.

Others said Ravenstahl helped guide the city back to financial health.

“He took this city from the brink of bankruptcy and made it the most livable city in less than seven years,” said Darrin Kelly, a trustee and chair of the political action committee for Pittsburgh Firefighters Local No. 1.

Robert Strauss, professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said strict state oversight during Ravenstahl's tenure drove much of the city's financial improvement.

“What nobody wants to openly discuss is the fact that with two oversight boards, both the mayor and council have been hamstrung dramatically,” Strauss said.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald credits Ravenstahl with pushing to put bike lanes in the city and construct energy-efficient buildings. Fitzgerald said it's no secret he didn't get along with Ravenstahl politically, and he faulted him for failing to work with council members Natalia Rudiak, Bruce Kraus and Bill Peduto, whom Fitzgerald backs for mayor.

“I'd like to see him do well, and my sense is that he wants to go back to his old life,” Fitzgerald said.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, referred to a photograph that circulated recently showing a woman purportedly sitting on Ravenstahl's lap while a bodyguard sat at his side. He said the mayor is single, young and did nothing illegal, though some people might view that as improper behavior.

“I think if there's one downside, it's him maybe not fully appreciating all the land mines that are out there and maybe not fully appreciating what it means to go from being a district councilman to somebody who lives in a fishbowl,” said Ferlo, a Ravenstahl supporter.

Gregg Perleman, CEO of Shadyside developer Walnut Capital, said Ravenstahl provided an open-door policy with development firms.

“It's a credit to him to allow developers like us and others to stimulate the economy,” said Perleman, whose firm built Bakery Square in East Liberty. Its executives were among Ravenstahl's largest campaign donors. “If we don't have that partnership, we're going to turn into another Cleveland or a Youngstown.”

Ravenstahl faced a string of public relations debacles and criticism.

He initially denied flying to New York City in March 2007 hours after announcing the $290 million deal for the hockey arena. Later he acknowledged having dinner and drinks in Manhattan with billionaire Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle, who flew Ravenstahl and a friend there on his private jet.

In August 2007, Ravenstahl took a GMC Yukon that police used for surveillance operations to a Toby Keith concert. U.S. Homeland Security money paid for the SUV. Critics said it was an irresponsible misuse of city resources.

Ravenstahl's opponents said he wasted city money to serve his 2009 campaign by buying 250 trash receptacles printed with Ravenstahl's name and slogan “Taking Care of Business.” The city spent $1,010 for each receptacle but did not seek competitive bids. Tribune-Review stories revealed the city could have bought them for hundreds of dollars less.

In 2010, Ravenstahl endured harsh criticism for celebrating his 30th birthday at Seven Springs Resort in Somerset County during a February blizzard that paralyzed the city for days.

“I thought he did a good job, eventually. He didn't start out that good, but I thought he was doing well,” said former Mayor Sophie Masloff, who as City Council president took office in 1988 when Mayor Richard Caliguiri died.

Ravenstahl grew into the job so well that Masloff supported his re-election, she said.

Controller and mayoral candidate Michael Lamb said it's too early to determine the Ravenstahl administration's legacy.

“You never really get a sense until you have some time to look back at it,” Lamb said. “He's still in it.”

Jeremy Boren is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7935 or Staff writer Mike Wereschagin contributed to this report.

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