Pittsburgh mayoral candidates urged to refrain from mudslinging
By Salena Zito
Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013, 11:00 p.m.
Pittsburghers don't want their candidates for mayor to make the campaign one of personal attacks intended to narrow a growing field, though that could happen, a political expert cautions.
With 10 weeks to go before Democrats nominate a successor to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, voters need to demand that candidates articulate their visions for the city, say community activists and business owners.
“We need to elicit specifics from the candidates and not allow them to bring brick bats to the race,” said Rick Swartz, executive director of Bloomfield-Garfield Corp.
Once Ravenstahl announced his decision to withdraw from the race, the number of contenders more than tripled from two to seven: Councilman Bill Peduto of Point Breeze; Controller Michael Lamb of Mt. Washington; state Sen. Jim Ferlo of Highland Park; Sen. Wayne Fontana of Brookline; Council President Darlene Harris of Spring Hill; former Auditor General Jack Wagner of Beechview; and Allegheny County Councilman Bill Robinson of Schenley Heights.
Democrats edge Republicans 5-1 among the city's registered voters, “so essentially, Pittsburgh elections are decided in the May primary,” said Morton Coleman, political scientist emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh. “We haven't had a Republican mayor for nearly 100 years.” None has declared candidacy.
Policies and personalities
The Democrats circulating nominating petitions come from varying sections of the city, and overlaps heighten rivalries, Coleman said.
“Ferlo cuts into Peduto's East End base. Fontana cuts into Wagner's and Lamb's South Hills base, with Harris and Robinson holding their North Side and Hill District neighborhoods without internal competition, at least for now,” he said.
Beyond divisions marked by geography or policy beliefs, some of the candidates dislike one another, Coleman said.
“They all have individual antagonisms towards each other,” he said. “Ferlo will be defending Ravenstahl's policies, so he and Peduto will go at each other. Fontana is probably only circulating petitions to irritate his nemesis Wagner, and so on — so it's hard not to imagine personal attacks not outweighing policy.”
Ferlo did not return calls seeking comment.
Fontana and Wagner, once allies, parted ways when Fontana beat then-Rep. Michael Diven, a Brookline Democrat who switched his party registration to Republican in 2005, for the Senate seat Wagner vacated when he was elected auditor general.
Fontana said he doesn't want old grudges to cause mudslinging with Wagner and that the candidates should instead address neighborhood issues.
“Just because we don't get along doesn't mean neither of us should run,” Fontana said, though he acknowledged that he might pull out of the race if he senses that he, Lamb and Wagner would split the South Hills base. If Wagner wins, Fontana said, “It's up to him to work with me” as a state senator.
Animosity between candidates or elected officials puts the onus on residents to demand more, said Carl Redwood, chairman of the Hill District Consensus, a community organization he began in 1991.
“It is on us to keep them talking about reforms in the city,” Redwood said. “The differences among the candidates, as far as their platforms, are not that great. It will all come down to money and organization.”
Getting to the issues
Redwood said he believes that “many of the issues in both the black and white neighborhoods are the same.” Among them, he said, are jobs, open-air drug trafficking, vacant homes and attracting business development.
“But they are magnified to a higher degree in the poorer black areas,” he said.
Robinson said issues affecting blacks in Pittsburgh could cause lively debate, though not necessarily negative attacks. He hopes the candidates hold an “honest discussion.”
“That is why I am in this race,” he said. “Thirty-five percent of this city is black, and the top issues in this race are black poverty and undocumented workers, which impacts jobs and job training in the black community.”
In the Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey, 65.5 percent of Pittsburgh's 307,484 residents said they are white, putting the minority population at 34.5 percent. Twenty-eight percent of those surveyed consider themselves as black.
Black voters won't limit themselves to voting for a black candidate, Redwood said. It's unacceptable for Democratic candidates to continue to rely on the black vote to win and not follow up on their promises, he said.
“The candidate who wins the black vote will win the mayor's race, so they need to speak to the problems and not point fingers at each other,” he said. “We must all keep them accountable.”
Pete Notarangelo, a North Side business owner, agrees with Redwood. He said many businessmen and women want a mayor who will address issues that accompany development projects.
“I'd rather see them talk about errant landlords, vacant buildings and parking issues than spend money on television ads that attack their opponents,” Notarangelo said. “Is 10 weeks enough time for each candidate to flesh out their platform? Probably not, but it is what we have to work with.
“Voters should do their homework on the candidates and avoid getting caught up on dramatic accusations,” he said.
Attack ads can sway voters to be more emotional than analytical, said Mark Minnerly, director of real estate for Robinson-based Mosites Construction and Development Co., which is working on the East Liberty transit center.
Minnerly, 49, of Friendship has worked on “Main Street” business and residence projects for 10 years. He acknowledges feeling unsettled by the turn of events in the mayor's race during the past two weeks.
“It is exciting that we have so many folks who want to run, but (there's) now a lot of pressure to measure who will be best to continue to lead the city forward,” he said.
Coleman said voters deserve to hear each candidate lay out his or her vision for the city's growth and economy; for addressing budgetary matters and how much money tax-exempt nonprofits should pay; for working with state and federal officials; and for handling health care-community problems that might arise with the battle between Highmark and UPMC.
Highmark, the state's largest insurer, plans to buy West Penn Allegheny Health System to compete with UPMC, the dominant health care provider.
“We are all better off, I think, when we talk about the issues that count than mean-spirited attacks,” said Coleman. “Nasty breeds nasty.”
Staff writer Brian Bowling contributed to this report. Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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