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Urgent challenges await next occupant of Mayor's Office

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Saturday, March 2, 2013, 9:54 p.m.

Departing mayors don't pack up their cities' problems when they clean out their desks.

As Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl prepares to leave office in 10 months, his ascendant city faces shaky economic times and its first political transition in more than six years.

His announcement that he's dropping his re-election bid leaves two declared candidates — City Councilman Bill Peduto and Controller Michael Lamb — and several politicians who likely spent the past two days measuring their ambition against the challenges ahead.

“You're totally in charge and totally responsible for everything,” said Sophie Masloff, mayor from 1988 to 1994 and a former City Council president. “That's the difference between being one of nine (members of council) and being one.”

That one leader needs the sense of a salesman to attract companies and residents and of a financial manager to pull the city out of state oversight.

“We've done a lot of deals in this city that you could say maybe we're a better city because of it. But when you're using tax dollars to (attract) competitors to local businesses,” it can hurt local shops, said Kevin Joyce, owner of The Carlton, Downtown. Joyce cited high parking taxes and stepped-up ticketing as city government decisions that hurt businesses.

“We're poised to continue to grow our city and region. But first, you want a guy or gal that's competent, passionate for the job, and hopefully able to usher our city into the future.”

As the executive of a city employing more than 3,600 workers with a $470 million budget, the mayor must be a negotiator who can settle union contract disputes; a lobbyist for state and federal aid; and a headhunter who can put the right talent in charge of city authorities and departments.

“City government is different (from other levels of government). You feel it every day — having clear streets on a winter's day, walking in a safe neighborhood. That's a function, really, of good management, good policies,” said Mark DeSantis, an entrepreneur who lives Downtown and ran against Ravenstahl in 2007 as a Republican.

Picking a mayor should not be a partisan decision, DeSantis said, though he has no plans to run this year.

“It's not some kind of inside game,” he said. “It is truly a means to make something better.”

The leader must inspire confidence in a government sullied by a federal investigation and persuade at least five of nine council members to embrace his or her vision.

And the mayor will need the experience to get “up and running right away,” said Gerald Shuster, political communications professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Field likely to expand

With the national economy still weak, the next mayor cannot afford to slow recent momentum in attracting development and improving the city's image, Shuster said.

“It can't be training time again,” Shuster said.

Former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, 64, of Beechview is considering a run against Peduto, 48, of Squirrel Hill, and Lamb, 50, of Mt. Washington in the May Democratic mayoral primary.

Ravenstahl said he has a candidate in mind to replace him, but declined to say whom.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, 61, D-Highland Park, said he's been approached to run and is considering it. Council President Darlene Harris, 61, of the North Side is mulling a run, as is Wagner's niece, Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner, 35, of Brookline.

“None of the names mentioned are going to have a cakewalk,” said Robert Strauss, professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

Peduto enters this new race with 700 volunteers and the endorsements of several unions and top Democrats, including Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

“My phone has been ringing since (Thursday) afternoon with people who supported Luke wanting to sit down and meet to come on board with our campaign,” Peduto said.

Ravenstahl might back someone, but Peduto questioned how much that approval will mean.

“It's one thing to be able to promote yourself when you're an incumbent mayor; it's quite different when you're a lame duck trying to support someone else,” Peduto said.

Ravenstahl promotes Pittsburgh as “America's Most Livable City” — a title Forbes magazine gave it in 2009 — but the federal probe of police spending threatens that image.

The value of endorsement

Ravenstahl's departure leaves Lamb as the only candidate eligible for the city Democratic committee's endorsement, which will be decided in a vote March 10. Peduto did not seek the committee's support.

“I'm the endorsed Democrat in this race,” said Lamb, who as controller is the only candidate who has won a citywide race.

The endorsement still matters in Pittsburgh, Shuster said.

In off-year primaries, when turnout is typically low, the party's ward leaders have enough organization to make a difference, he said.

Democrats have controlled the Mayor's Office since 1934 and have a 167,000-to-31,000 registration edge over Republicans.

Ravenstahl has a large carrot to entice any reluctant politicians: his campaign infrastructure and the $910,000 he raised as of the end of last year, which is more than three times as much as either Peduto or Lamb.

“I will speak with my donors and decide what the best course of action going forward is with those dollars,” Ravenstahl said.

Ferlo has been a close ally of Ravenstahl's and serves on the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which plays a key role in any mayor's efforts to attract business or residential projects.

“I'm very proud of what's happened over the last six and a half years, and I think it's a foundation for whoever is mayor to really continue to build on,” Ferlo said. “It's a great opportunity for somebody who's got some energy and vision and wants to keep building on that foundation.”

Building relationships

Voters who are fed up with political spats that bog down every level of government might want to move past the alliances and enemies of Ravenstahl's administration.

Ravenstahl displayed his chilly relationship with some on council on Thursday. As rumors swirled about his political future and a stream of aides flowed into his office, Harris could not get an audience with Ravenstahl.

“I was shocked he would not see Darlene (on Thursday),” Strauss said. The next mayor “will have a better working relationship with City Council.”

Jack Wagner could fill that role, Shuster said. Wagner could not be reached.

An established force in city politics, the Wagner family includes brother Pete Wagner, an influential ward chairman, and Chelsa Wagner. Jack Wagner served as city councilman and state senator before winning statewide office.

“If Jack Wagner isn't the secret candidate out there, then it's got to be somebody like him,” Shuster said.

New entries are likely to jump in soon, as current and would-be candidates scramble for the political orphans of Ravenstahl's campaign, such as the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1, a powerful union that endorsed Ravenstahl.

“We'll let the smoke clear on this,” said Darrin Kelly, chairman of the firefighters' union's political action committee. “There will be more candidates. If I've learned one thing from Pittsburgh politics, it's ‘don't believe you see everything.' ”

Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or Staff writer Salena Zito contributed to this report.

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