Poll: Mayoral campaign evolves to battle between 2

| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The four-candidate Democratic primary campaign for mayor of Pittsburgh is settling into a two-man race, a Tribune-Review poll shows.

Former state Auditor General Jack Wagner leads City Councilman Bill Peduto 40 percent to 33 percent. State Rep. Jake Wheatley and newcomer A.J. Richardson trail with 4 percent and 1 percent, respectively.

“I see a dogfight here. I don't see (Wagner's 7-point lead) as insurmountable,” said Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling & Research in Harrisburg, which conducted the poll for the Trib on April 1 and 2. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

Wagner, 65, of Beechview paints himself as the experienced candidate with 30 years in state and city elected offices.

“The message we're putting forth — that city government is broken and needs to be fixed, and I'm the person to do that — is resonating,” said Wagner, who spent the past 30 years in positions on City Council, the state Legislature and as auditor general.

“I just think he's the best, most knowledgeable candidate out there,” said supporter Walter Price, 73, whose Banksville home sits squarely in the Wagner family's South Hills political base. Wagner's brother Pete is a Democratic ward chairman in Beechview, and his niece, County Controller Chelsa Wagner, lives in Brookline.

During municipal primary elections, when turnout rarely tops 35 percent, older voters dominate the electorate, Lee said. Among voters older than 45, Wagner leads 44 to 31 percent.

Peduto, 48, holds a 24-point lead among voters 44 and younger, according to the poll.

“Jack has basically adopted the (Mayor Luke) Ravenstahl campaign — the people, the money and many of the voters,” Peduto said. “We can draw a distinction with our message. It's a message about Pittsburgh's future, not its past.”

Peduto leads in the East End, where neighborhoods characterized by young professionals, artists, students and progressive religious organizations coalesce into the city's liberal base. Wagner said he'll cut into Peduto's base by promising to lobby for money for education and transportation.

Peduto has represented the area since 2002, including part of the city's 14th Ward — its largest by far, with twice as many voters as all but two other wards.

“I've been a supporter of his for a long time,” said Gregory Brooks, 43, of Morningside.

Brooks said he is disappointed by what he sees as Ravenstahl's hands-off approach in recent years.

Peduto, who released several policy papers detailing his plans for office, offers a fresh start “in terms of integrity and how he approaches city business,” Brooks said.

One in five voters remains undecided, with Diane Vaughn, 39, of Brookline among them. Vaughn worries that the next mayor will continue “business as usual,” catering to well-connected people and conducting city business in the opaque conditions that breed corruption and scandal.

“Wagner and Peduto are pretty entrenched people,” Vaughn said. “I don't know a lot about the other two, except that one got arrested for drunk driving, which isn't going to help him get my vote.”

Police on Wednesday arrested Richardson, 36, of Sheraden when they said they found him slumped over the wheel in his car.

“I made a mistake. I made a huge mistake, but now I think people are looking at how I come back from this,” he said.

Richardson said he's counting on nontraditional voters — people in poorer areas who typically don't vote because they feel abandoned by the political system.

Doing so will require overcoming a lack of name recognition. Sixty-four percent of voters don't know who Richardson is, and 23 percent know who he is but don't have an opinion of him, according to the poll, which was conducted before his arrest.

“That's where I have to lace up my sneakers,” Richardson said. He acknowledges the long climb ahead but said people will connect with him when they “get a chance to look me in the eyes and talk to me one-on-one.”

Wheatley, 41, also plans a shoe leather campaign to raise his profile.

“I will go house to house,” he said. “I will go neighborhood to neighborhood, and I will go with a message and a vision. I think people are fed up with the same old, same old. We started a little late, but we know how to run, and we will show people that this is not a race about how much money someone has and how much popularity someone has.”

Forty-two percent of voters don't know Wheatley, and 32 percent don't have an opinion of him. Among those who have an opinion, 16 percent view him favorably and 10 percent unfavorably.

Wheatley said those numbers will improve. He represents the Hill District, which, combined with Downtown, has the largest percentage of undecided voters, a plurality of 38 percent.

“If the race was tomorrow, I would be worried,” he said. “We haven't spent any money, and we've only been on the campaign trail for a week or two.”

Voters said the candidates' plans for economic development and improving public education would most influence their vote.

“We wouldn't have all this crime if everybody was working and had a nice wage to live off of,” said Michael Glover, 51, who grew up in the Hill District, left for about 20 years, and then returned from North Carolina three years ago to care for his mother.

The mayor does not directly influence the public school system. Some people, such as Jonathan Brito, 23, of Oakland, want to see Pittsburgh's next mayor take his cue from Washington, where a city takeover of the school system led to big changes and mixed reviews.

“The mayor does have some power to influence the school board,” said Brito, who's studying comparative analysis and administrative policy in education at the University of Pittsburgh.

Vaughn said a candidate could win her over by, among other things, focusing on public transportation and articulating a plan to extend Allegheny County's light-rail system to the airport and the northern suburbs.

Oh, and one other thing, Vaughn said: “Fix the potholes.”

Mike Wereschagin and Bob Bauder are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com. Reach Bauder at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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