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Wagner continues to consider run as independent for Pittsburgh mayor

| Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Former Auditor General Jack Wagner is running for mayor of Pittsburgh. Submitted

Former Auditor General Jack Wagner said Tuesday he continues to weigh whether to run for Pittsburgh mayor as an independent this fall.

“This is a decision I take extremely seriously,” Wagner, 64, of Beechview told the Tribune-Review. “I have been up front and frank when I say I am still weighing my decision.”

Though he has not held a fundraiser this year, Wagner said he has $300,000 banked from a failed gubernatorial run in 2010, “so if I run, I start out in good position financially.” His office, The Committee to Elect Jack Wagner, is on Isabella Street in the North Side.

In 2007, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl spent about $425,000 to defeat Republican challenger Mark DeSantis, who spent about $325,000. Campaign records from the 2009 election were unclear.

Wagner comes from a family with strong ties to Democratic Party politics. His brother, Democratic committeeman Pete Wagner, runs the family restaurant, The Huddle, in Beechview; his sister Eileen Wagner of Scott, an elected state committeewoman, is a former register of wills and former County Council member; his niece is county Controller Chelsa Wagner of Point Breeze.

A former City Council president and state senator, Wagner left office after eight years as Pennsylvania's auditor because term limits kept him from running. He won statewide elections in landslides, receiving more votes than President Obama in Pennsylvania in 2008.

Wagner said he realized that running for mayor as a Democrat in the May primary would be foolish, given that City Controller Michael Lamb and Councilman Bill Peduto are challenging Ravenstahl on the ballot.

Running as an independent would give him time to build a six-month campaign against the Democratic nominee, he said. To do so, Wagner would need to change his party registration by April 22. He said he would decide by “mid-April.”

“There are also some other candidates, besides me, who might jump in as independent candidates,” he said, though he did not name anyone.

Wagner has lost Democratic primaries — notably against former Mayor Tom Murphy in 1993. He lost two statewide primary elections, in 2002 for lieutenant governor and in 2010 for governor.

Wagner's candidacy could ramp up interest in the mayoral race, said Joseph DiSarro, a political science professor at Washington & Jefferson College.

“He has so many things going in his favor: a squeaky clean reputation, a respected family and name recognition,” DiSarro said. “The only thing I would worry about is his ability to raise money.”

Despite his longevity in politics, it could be difficult for Wagner to win as an independent.

“Pittsburgh is a big ‘D' town,” DiSarro said, noting that party affiliation “would be hard to overcome. If I was advising Jack Wagner, I'd hire a pollster before I'd get into the race.”

Still, he said, “The competition would be great, and it's not like it's never been done before. Richard Caligiuri won his first term as mayor as an independent” in 1977, against the late Tom Foerster, a county commissioner and powerful Democrat.

Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 5 to 1 in the city; no Republican is running. Records show 1.4 percent of Pittsburgh voters are registered with another party or unaffiliated.

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at szito@tribweb.com.

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