Family inspired Pittsburgh mayoral candidate Peduto's passion for politics
The Peduto women rose from the dining room table, as was the custom, cleared the dishes and disappeared into the kitchen.
Only the men remained. Sipping glasses of red wine, they commenced their weekly discussion, a serious dialogue that mixed English and Italian with a deep understanding of current events. Only the men remained — except, that is, for a then-6-year-old Bill Peduto, who watched silently.
“They would sit there, talking about the issues of the day, and I'd think: How do they know all this stuff?” Peduto said, recalling those traditional Sunday night family meals in his Scott home. “It was fascinating. They went back and forth. ... I come from a very traditional Italian family. Nobody in my family ran for office — not even a (political) yard sign. But they voted in every election, and they knew what was going on.”
So began the political ambitions of Bill Peduto, the all-but-official next mayor of Pittsburgh.
Peduto, 48, of Point Breeze virtually locked up the office in May when he defeated former state Auditor General Jack Wagner and state Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, in the Democratic primary. Pittsburgh voters last elected a Republican mayor in 1933, and his competitors in the elections next month appear resigned to the idea that they won't reverse that trend: Republican Josh Wander recently sold his home and moved to Israel; independent candidate Lester Ludwig skipped out on a recent debate with no explanation.
Even Peduto's longtime political nemesis, Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, acknowledged he will be the next mayor.
“I wish him the best,” Ravenstahl told reporters last week. “I hope many of the positive strides we made will continue under him.”
Peduto has taken a long road to the fifth-floor corner office on Grant Street, he said.
Though he grew up surrounded by relatives, Peduto was a loner as a child. He had three brothers, but the closest in age was Tom Peduto, nearly nine years his senior.
“I grew up in a family, alone,” Peduto said.
If he wasn't playing Little League baseball or hockey, Peduto likely was reading non-fiction books about war or spending time with his grandfather, who was “born in 1893 in the Old Country.” They watched the news together, he said. He taught Peduto how to speak Italian, plant a garden, can goods, drive a nail straight.
Peduto's path as a young man mostly followed the expected script: He went camping a lot, studied at Penn State University, “changed majors like five times” and eventually left, three courses shy of a degree in political science, he said. (He later returned for his degree.) He fell in love with music, followed the Grateful Dead and worked for a while as a deejay, spinning '80s-era vinyl at high school proms and college frat parties. He tried his hand at a wide range of jobs, including ski store clerk and road crew laborer.
But, in 1991, the script fell apart when his brother Tom died of cancer.
“There's something about losing a sibling that is unnatural,” Peduto said. “I've lost my grandfather, my dad … Tom was just 35. That was the hardest thing I've had to deal with in my life.”
His brother's favorite holiday was Christmas. Peduto made sure he enjoyed his last one.
“I broke into Shadyside Hospital on Christmas Eve,” he said. “Went in through a side door, took the stairs up to his room, put up a little Christmas tree. ... We knew it would be our last Christmas together, and it was.”
The day after Tom died, Peduto said, he got a job working on a local political campaign. He began a political career that eventually included running a consulting business, working as chief of staff for former Pittsburgh Councilman Dan Cohen and serving three terms as District 8 councilman representing East End communities.
Former council president and current District Justice Gene Ricciardi recalled Peduto as having “a streak of independence and courage.”
In meetings with Peduto in his office, Ricciardi would gaze over Peduto's shoulder at a framed photo of a famous scene from Tiananmen Square in 1989: A man in a suit, unarmed, standing in front of a tank, holding up his hand.
“I used to sit there and look at him and see that picture, and that sent me a clear message,” Ricciardi said. ”This guy wasn't afraid to put himself out there.”
But what Ricciardi saw as conviction, others on council viewed as stubbornness. Political opponents long accused Peduto of being rigid in his views and holding personal grudges against those who cross him.
City Council President Darlene Harris said Peduto did not speak to her for two years after she refused to support his mayoral campaign. Councilman Ricky Burgess said the same.
Harris and Burgess declined to be interviewed for this story.
A voter questioned him about this reputation last week in Lincoln Place during a candidates' debate in which Peduto was the only candidate to attend.
Peduto replied that he would not run a “vindictive administration” but made no apologies for his style.
“I'm not one to get along just to get along,” Peduto said. “I tell you how I feel even if I know you're going to disagree.”
Councilman Corey O'Connor defended Peduto. Moments after being sworn in last year, council voted on its new president. O'Connor turned to Peduto and told him that he would vote for Harris, going against Peduto's wishes.
“He told me, ‘Don't worry. It's one vote, (and) it's not personal,' ” O'Connor recalled. “That's the kind of character this man has. We talked (about other issues) the very next day.”
Ricciardi agreed, saying Peduto's reputation for being stubborn is a product of his work ethic. When he was council president, Ricciardi said, Peduto and Councilman Doug Shields regularly put in 16-hour work days researching issues they planned to discuss with council.
“If you're going to show Bill another viewpoint, you have to be well-organized, well-researched and very articulate,” Ricciardi said, “because he's put the time in.”
Ricciardi's one concern for Peduto as mayor is how he will handle the daily demands of less fortunate constituents. As a councilman, Peduto represented some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, such as Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, areas with good infrastructure and fewer day-to-day problems that plague poorer communities, Ricciardi said.
“Bill got to focus on policy, the big picture, development — even when I'd take him out socially for a slice of pizza, it would always come around to policy,” he said. “Bill as mayor is going to have to say, ‘I have the vision, but why do some neighborhoods have overgrown weeds and vacant homes?' He's going to be outstanding on policy, but he's going to have to focus on constituent services now.”
Peduto said he is up to the challenge.
Although he won't be sworn in until January, he has spent the months since his primary win acting as if he already is mayor. He meets with city employees, studies the budget and plans the transition, he said. Unlike Ravenstahl — who has “checked out” and rarely shows up on Grant Street, Peduto said — he still works 16-hour days.
He is reluctant to discuss his personal life, saying only that he is single, has never been married or engaged, but had three “near misses — pun intended.”
In many ways, he said, he is still that kid who sat in his family's dining room while the grownups talked. Only now, those meetings take place late at night in a small Shadyside pub, and he leads them. Sitting at the bar with his regular order — a shot of Maker's Mark bourbon and a glass of Miller Lite — he plans the city's future with trusted aides.
“This is campaign headquarters,” he said one such night last week at Cappy's on Walnut Avenue.
It was well after 11 p.m., more than 13 hours after his day began in Lincoln Place. He leaned in with his aides in the nearly empty bar and continued to strategize.
Chris Togneri is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5632 or firstname.lastname@example.org.