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Eroded base of support could leave Ravenstahl vulnerable

| Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Two years before Pittsburgh's next mayoral election, potential candidates are reaching out to a growing number of local leaders who say they're looking for someone to run against Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Auditor General Jack Wagner of Beechview said he's giving a mayoral run "serious consideration." City Councilman Bill Peduto of Point Breeze is "seriously looking" at it. City Controller Michael Lamb of Mt. Washington said he's focused only on his re-election this year, though he's running unopposed and will soon kick off a series of neighborhood discussions about the city's budget situation.

Some view the mayor as vulnerable.

"Look at what just happened in the council races. Everybody that (Ravenstahl) put up lost, except for (City Councilman Ricky) Burgess -- even the guy he was pushing in District 1 (Vince Pallus, who lost to Councilwoman Darlene Harris). And that was his old seat," said former City Councilwoman and Ward 1 chairwoman Tonya Payne. "I don't really understand where Luke's base is any more."

One of his weak spots might be the city's 14th Ward, a sprawling and politically active section of the East End. Home to about 13 percent of the city's voters, it routinely accounts for 15 percent or more of the voters who turn out on election day. Ravenstahl doesn't show up often, said the ward's chairwoman, Barbara Daly Danko.

"It would be nice if he came here more. He is the mayor," Danko said.

Mayoral spokeswoman Joanna Doven said discontent stems from the tough decisions Ravenstahl has had to make to steer the city through state receivership and a global recession.

"Like any family living in America right now, we have to watch our budgets, we have to balance our budgets, and we'll continue to do that," Doven said. "Part of that is sometimes you have to say no."

Beating Ravenstahl wouldn't be easy. If too many high-profile names crowd into the race -- and niche candidates emerge later -- they could divide the bloc of voters who oppose Ravenstahl, helping him win a second full term. Politicians and activists who oppose Ravenstahl say the top candidates might have to come together, assess who is the strongest challenger and clear the way for that person.

Some ward leaders already are considering how to broker such a deal.

"Our job might be to try to narrow it down to the point that there's not so many people in the race that it becomes obvious that (Ravenstahl) wins re-election. I think he's going to have a very, very difficult time winning unless" there are enough challengers to dilute the opposition vote, Payne said.

But Ravenstahl has proven his ability to raise the money needed to run a successful campaign.

"He's a good campaigner. ... He can get the money," said August Carlino, who has served as chairman of the 8th Ward in Bloomfield for 44 years. Carlino said Ravenstahl could have accomplished more if his foes on council hadn't blocked him. "Anything he wants to do, he gets shot down."

As City Hall gets mired in political disputes, neighborhoods languish, said Wagner, a former City Councilman.

"You cannot let your core neighborhoods decline, because that is the lifeblood of the city," Wagner said. "I see no real plan to correct it. A town needs a vision."

The city used to hire as many as 35 seasonal laborers to help with the maintenance it must complete in summer months, said Phil Ameris, president and business manager of the Laborers' District Council of Western Pennsylvania. Since Ravenstahl took office, none has been hired, he said. In Ameris' 18 years with the union, Ravenstahl is the only mayor to skip a Labor Day parade, he said.

"It shows a disregard for laborers in general. We're the ones who supported him early on. ... He turned his back on us," Ameris said. He praised Lamb, Peduto and Wagner but said they would not endorse Ravenstahl, who he said is not "in control of his administration."

Doven said the city has made "remarkable" progress during Ravenstahl's five years in office, including avoiding having to issue any new debt, a rarity for municipal governments that rely on bonds to pay for capital costs such as road paving and equipment for city workers.

"He's done as good a job as can be done," said Rich Stanizzo, business manager of the Pittsburgh Building and Construction Trades Council. "We supported him big time last time, and I don't see anything that's going to change that."

Though almost two years remain until the mayoral primary, political concerns among the incumbent and potential challengers are already driving some of the conversation in City Hall. When Lamb released his Popular Annual Financial Report -- a glossy, easy-to-digest version of his dense annual city audit -- the mayor's office attacked it as a taxpayer-funded campaign stunt.

"It's blatantly obvious that it's a campaign piece that's being paid for with taxpayer dollars," Doven said.

Lamb denied a political motivation behind the document, saying he put it together after independent auditors recommended it. He said his neighborhood meetings are at the request of people in those neighborhoods.

Spats like these threaten to undermine progress on dire issues confronting the city, from its pension liability to crumbling infrastructure, said Joe King, president of the Pittsburgh Fire Fighters Local No. 1.

"This is not healthy for any of us that live in the city," King said. The people who want to hold or win the mayor's office already have public duties, but if they do anything useful or popular, "it's considered to be of a political nature."

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