Debates roll on

Published by James O'Toole on .

Cross-posted at the main site:

The Democratic candidates for mayor were paragons of decorum Tuesday night, finding words of praise for one another and even for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl during the hour they shared on WTAE television.

But while they were on their best behavior in person, the better-funded campaigns of city Councilman Bill Peduto and former state Auditor General Jack Wagner continued their sparring in new television commercials.

The contenders for the Democratic nomination in the May 21 primary were prodded to the more positive tone by a question on what qualities they admired among their rivals. Mr. Wagner, who can be caustic in his denunciations of Mr. Peduto, allowed that the councilman, "has some good ideas.''

Mr. Peduto cited Mr. Wagner's record in the U.S. Marine Corps and his record in public office in saying he's admired his dedication.

"I'm very proud to say I worked for Jack Wagner," he said, referring to the earlier intersection of their careers when Mr. Wagner was on council and Mr. Peduto was a council staffer.

"I'm honored to be among these men,'' said A.J. Richardson, the Sheraden activist, who was lauded by Mr. Peduto for "his spirituality.''

State Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Hill District, cited Mr. Richardson's sincerity.

"Bill Peduto is very creative,'' he observed, while saying he had a strong bond of rapport with Mr. Wagner over their common history as Marine veterans.

When asked to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Ravenstahl administration, Mr. Peduto, perhaps his sharpest critic over the last decade, praised his willingness to work with Bike Pittsburgh to make the city more bike friendly. But he maintained that the mayor's deference to other outside groups and powerbrokers was the deepest flaw in his tenure.

Mr. Wagner noted that the population of the city had increased for the first time in 50 years during Mr. Ravenstahl's tenure, "so some good things are happening,'' particularly in the area of development.

"On the negative side, the mayor simply doesn't make himself available," Wagner said, saying that any mayor should spend more time in the community, mixing with constituents.

Mr. Wheatley also pointed to Mr. Ravenstahl's success in presiding over new development in the city, but said he would have liked to see "some of these underserved neighborhoods have a bit more of a piece of the pie.''

The relatively positive tone of Tuesday night's debate marked a return to the typical atmosphere of their many joint appearances. That cloak of civility had frayed in two during more recent encounters, however, as Mr. Peduto fended off Mr. Wagner's criticism of his relations with colleagues and his opposition to some development proposals.

While Mr. Peduto has aired successive commercials accusing Mr. Wagner of being a supporter of the budget policies of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, in his latest ad, he takes a positive turn at the wheel of a street sweeper. The commercial, backed by cheerful music, and footage of the councilman piloting the vehicle, recounts Mr. Peduto's support for reform legislation including campaign finance limits and lobbyist disclosure. It concludes with a repeat of an earlier boast that he once cut his pay to save police jobs.

That claim's been disputed by the Fraternal Order of Police, a union supporting Mr. Wagner. The Peduto camp stands by the claim, pointing to the councilman's move in 2006 to cut his salary by 2 percent and encouraging other city employees to do the same with the aim of freeing up revenue to recall some of the 100 police officers laid off during a budget crunch during the Murphy administration. The Wagner campaign points out accurately, however, that no police officers were, in fact, rehired as a result of the move.

Mr. Wagner has disavowed any association with an anti-Peduto ad from a campaign committee headed by Mr. Ravenstahl. He echoes some of its talking points, however, in his new commercial attacking Mr. Peduto. The ad faults Mr. Peduto for opposing a high-rise for seniors in Homewood that was supported by his colleague and frequent council opponent, the Rev. Ricky Burgess. The issue also arose at a weekend debate, not far from the site of the development.

Mr. Peduto defends his vote against the project, saying he was responding to complaints by other community members, including his ally, state Rep. Ed Gainey, who maintained that they had not had a chance to review the development. Mr. Peduto said he voted no only after he was denied a request for a one-week delay on council consideration.

Buttressing Mr. Wagner's contention that Mr. Peduto is a divisive figure, the ad repeats statements from council members Darlene Harris and Mr. Burgess that Mr. Peduto has refused to speak to them for two years. Finally, the ad complains that Mr. Peduto had supported "a 6 percent property tax increase.'' That's a reference to a 2003 council debate in which Mr. Peduto spoke in favor of a proposal by then Councilman Sala Udin for the city to raise the property tax rate by 0.7 mills -- the same amount that the city school district had just cut the levy.

His argument in favor of the plan was that the cash-strapped city could capture the revenue that the school district was losing while city residents would see no differene in their tax bills.

Here's a passage from a 2003 Post-Gazette story describing the debate:

"By raising city government taxes, the city can capture its own $8.5 million to help fill the $42 million hole in Mayor Tom Murphy's 2004 budget proposal.

"This is a swap, where council fills the vacuum," Mr. Udin said.

"It's a swap. It's not raising city taxes," agreed councilman Bill Peduto.

Others weren't so sure. "We can call it a swap or not a swap. ... In reality, we're raising property taxes," Councilman Jim Motznik said.

As it happened, the proposal went nowhere.

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