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City paramedics union backs Peduto for mayor

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The sway of unions

Pittsburgh's public safety unions historically have had an important part in mayoral campaigns.

The city employs 842 police officers, 660 firefighters and about 160 paramedics. Urged by union leaders to support specific candidates, many workers volunteer to knock on doors, make phone calls and persuade family and friends to vote.

One of the most significant union endorsements involved the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1 and former Mayor Tom Murphy, who negotiated the 2001 firefighters contract while running a tough primary campaign against the late Bob O'Connor, then City Council president.

That February, Murphy signed a written agreement with the union promising not to close fire stations or lay off personnel. The union agreed not to oppose his solicitation of Allegheny County Labor Council and Democratic Party endorsements.

In April, Murphy reportedly promised raises and the firefighters' union switched its endorsement to him. The mayor won the May primary by 699 votes, causing speculation about the union's influence on the election.

Federal prosecutors investigated Murphy's handling of the contract for two years, before former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan took the unusual step of publicly announcing she would not charge Murphy or exonerate him. In a deal with prosecutors, Murphy agreed to help authorities identify problems with Pennsylvania's collective bargaining law.

Buchanan said Act 111 allowed Murphy to use arbitration to hide the private deal he and union leaders made on major contract issues.

— Tribune-Review

Off Road Politics connects Washington with Main Street hosted by Salena Zito and Lara Brown PhD. Exclusive radio show on @TribLIVE

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013, 11:32 p.m.

Pittsburgh paramedics on Tuesday became the first unionized city workers to endorse Councilman Bill Peduto for mayor, as six Democrats continue to jockey for support from unions and elected officials in the weeks leading to the May 21 primary.

Though Controller Michael Lamb earned the party's endorsement and that of the Teamsters Union, Peduto has lined up others, including the United Steelworkers of America and the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees, Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, and the Laborers District Council of Western Pennsylvania.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, state Sen. Wayne Fontana, state Rep. Erin Molchany, Councilman Bruce Kraus and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak also support Peduto to succeed Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who quit his re-election campaign.

Anthony Weinmann, president of Fraternal Association of Professional Paramedics Local 1, said his members chose Peduto “because of his continued support of our organization and concern for the safety and well-being of all residents.”

Political analysts say endorsements carry varying weight with voters, particularly in a mayoral race that people consider more personal. Union leaders, particularly those representing city workers, can persuade members to help with campaigns and get-out-the vote efforts.

“I would rather have an endorsement than not have one,” said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist. “But elections are really won on communicating a coherent message that is embraced and having the resources to deliver it.

“If an endorsement can help with that mission, then it means something. If not, it just adds to the noise of an election.”

Peduto of Point Breeze likens it to a pizza shop placing a sign in the window proclaiming it has the best pie in town.

“It's one thing for them to advertise that, but the persuasion comes when your best friend, or co-worker, or family member tells you that their pizza is out of this world and you have to try it,” he said.

Lamb was the only Democrat seeking the party's endorsement when committee members met following Ravenstahl's sudden decision not to run. Since then, former Auditor General Jack Wagner, Council President Darlene Harris, state Rep. Jake Wheatley and community activist A.J. Richardson filed nominating petitions to join the race. One Republican, Josh Wander, is running.

The Democratic Party's endorsement carries clout in Pittsburgh, where 72 percent of the 229,765 registered voters are Democrats. Lamb said he has always had a commitment to party politics.

“I have been a Democrat all of my life,” Lamb said. “It meant a lot to me.”

One powerful union, the Allegheny County Labor Council, decided not to collectively back a mayoral candidate when several votes did not yield the required two-thirds majority. Instead, individual labor unions will decide who to support.

The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1 and Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1 remain neutral; the firefighters endorsed Ravenstahl in November. The unions' executive boards have met with most of the candidates.

Sgt. Michael LaPorte, the FOP president, believes many people look to public safety unions' opinions when deciding how to vote.

“They realize the working relationship we have with (elected officials) on a daily basis. This personal relationship affords us first-hand knowledge of what types of people they are,” LaPorte said. “We witness their values and moral character, which directly reflects in their behavior, decision-making and personal interactions, both in public and in private. We recognize their qualifications, or lack thereof.”

Darrin Kelly, trustee for the firefighters union, said firefighters care because they are active in the community.

“We are the baseball coaches, parents and neighbors across the street,” Kelly said. “We have just as much at stake to pick the best candidate as everyone else does.”

With 660 firefighters who can influence others, the union's endorsement can bring a couple of thousand votes. With a crowded ballot, “that can turn an election,” Kelly said.

“The firefighters are one of the most active unions in the city,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic strategist who ran Fitzgerald's successful 2011 campaign. “Candidates benefit because (firefighters) are held in such high regard with voters, even nonunion voters.”

Wagner, a former City Council president and state senator, confirmed he met with leaders of public safety unions. A Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, he said he's also reaching out to veterans groups and senior citizens.

“I have a long history of working with those constituencies,” Wagner said.

Labor endorsements can carry more weight than a political party's backing because unions offer volunteers to go door to door and make phone calls, Mikus said.

“Plus, they do an effective job of communicating their endorsement and the reasons behind it to their members,” he said.

Labor unions have political action committees that contribute money to endorsed candidates. Mikus estimates the candidates will spend $850,000 to $1 million to try to win in the race.

“Peduto and Lamb will get in or near those figures, and for Jack Wagner to compete he will need to move quickly to catch up,” he said.

If endorsements provide money for advertising or validation among voters, they also carry a potential drawback for the winner, said Ceisler, the Philadelphia Democratic strategist.

“God help the candidate who wins the close election, because then everyone takes credit for the narrow victory,” he said. “And they can, because anyone can say they got you those last few votes to put you over the goal line.”

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at

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