“This is quite a game, politics. There are no permanent enemies, and no permanent friends, only permanent interests,” according to William Clay, an old Southern politician. And once upon a time, that's the way it was in politics. But the current race for mayor of Pittsburgh tells a different story.
Incumbent Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, after suddenly dropping his re-election bid days after announcing he would run, has re-emerged as chairman of the “Committee for a Better Pittsburgh,” which is running negative ads against mayoral candidate and city Councilman Bill Peduto.
Ravenstahl and Peduto spent years as constant antagonists, as close as it gets to political enemies in this usually genial town. Ravenstahl, an accidental mayor, seemed to take little about governing seriously. And Peduto, who has been very serious about it all, chafed at Ravenstahl's nonchalance and challenged the mayor at every turn.
As Euripides said, “There is nothing like the sight of an old enemy down on his luck,” so it is understandable that the departing mayor would try to scuttle his nemesis. Seinfeld had Newman, Mozart had Salieri, Batman had The Joker and Peduto has Ravenstahl.
But if Ravenstahl had any interest in creating a better Pittsburgh, as the name of his committee indicates, he would have worked more and played less. While he surely had more fun than any other mayor in the city's history, his critics say he was more interested in a better Ravenstahl than a better Pittsburgh.
Ravenstahl seemed to get bad advice at every turn, using a Homeland Security vehicle to tailgate, crashing events where he was not invited and skipping those where he was expected. Heading to a ski resort to celebrate his birthday, when everybody with a television knew the winter storm of the century was headed for Pittsburgh, might be his legacy.
And it seems that the bad advice continues. If Ravenstahl hoped for a credible strike, an assault by one Democrat on a fellow Democrat, over policy or style, he could not have picked a worse messenger to craft his anti-Peduto missives.
The Alexandria, Va., advertising agency he retained is best known for the “Swift Boat” attack on Democrat John Kerry when he ran against George Bush, a tactic that is still reviled by Democrats. The firm, although it has had remarkable political success, is a deeply Republican outfit, now hired to intervene in what is essentially a family dispute among Pittsburgh Democrats.
Outsiders trying to manipulate the Pittsburgh mayor's race might be the rule and not the exception in local politics after this. There is nothing illegal about it and Ravenstahl has the same First Amendment rights as everyone else, including the freedom to choose his messenger.
But this is still a battle among Pittsburghers. At the end of the day, this race is about the candidates, their ideas and plans, as they describe them, and not some message from afar.
It is about the future — not Luke Ravenstahl's last hurrah.
Joseph Sabino Mistick, a lawyer, law professor and political analyst, lives in Squirrel Hill (SabinoMistick@aol.com).