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Mayoral race now worth watching

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Saturday, March 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

One match made all the difference.

It triggered that rarest of events, an occurrence about as infrequent as a papal resignation or a Steelers head coaching change.

It triggered a captivating Pittsburgh mayoral race. Who would have thought it?

As recently as a month ago, the campaign paradigm preparing to play out again was as tired as your octogenarian great-Uncle Art after a particularly vigorous boccie game. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl appeared well on the way to winning the Democratic primary, the de facto election in the Dem-heavy city, by letting two challengers divide the opposition vote.

But something strange happened on the way to that paint-by-numbers victory over Councilman Bill Peduto and city Controller Michael Lamb ­— Ravenstahl's political self-immolation.

Strolling into a crowded news conference on Friday, the mayor essentially doused himself with gasoline, then cheerfully struck the fateful match. He abruptly dropped the re-election campaign he formally began less than two weeks ago, a move he insisted was absolutely, positively unrelated to the rapidly accelerating federal investigation into financial peculiarities at the Police Bureau.

Sounds plausible to me.

Ravenstahl's stunning exit means Peduto and Lamb will duke it out in what, in all likelihood, will be the city's first competitive mayoral race since 2001, when Mayor Tom Murphy eked out a 699-vote primary victory over former Councilman Bob O'Connor. Murphy received a bonus with the win: A federal probe that he had cut a deal to win support of the 650-member city firefighters union by promising them $12 million in contract benefits.

Murphy wasn't charged in the investigation. But his popularity took a beating, and he didn't seek re-election in 2005 after finding himself with approval ratings rivaling those of hygiene-averse al-Qaida operatives.

Before that, the last suspenseful mayor's race occurred in 1977, when Richard Caliguiri, running as an independent, defeated Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster by 6,000 votes. Although Caliguiri was a 10-month incumbent, his victory was an upset as large as Foerster was at the time, as the commissioner had the backing of the still-powerful Democratic machine.

This race promises to be about as predictable as the two mentioned above.

Peduto is the obvious favorite thanks to a significant fundraising edge over Lamb, but the controller has a strong base in the city's southern communities and can't be counted out. Ravenstahl is pledging to support an as-yet unidentified candidate. Casting an extremely large shadow over the campaign is Jack Wagner, the former city councilman, state senator and auditor general, who was mulling a mayoral bid as an independent even before the incumbent bowed out.

How this plays out is anyone's guess. When Ravenstahl struck that match, he did more than send his political career up in flames.

He also ignited a rare mayor's race worth monitoring, transforming it from smoldering kindling to crackling inferno.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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