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Thursday, May 16, 2013

War of words escalating in final days of mayoral campaign

Posted By on Thu, May 16, 2013 at 2:32 PM

We're now in the final days of the city's mayoral campaign, which means all the campaign rhetoric you've been hearing for the past several weeks is about to get dialed to 11. And based on a pair of dueling press conferences this morning, the race's two frontrunners -- City Councilor Bill Peduto and former Auditor General Jack Wagner -- are going to be attacking each other over ... the fact that they've been attacking each other. And state Rep. Jake Wheatley, meanwhile, is taking some collateral damage.

The tone of Wagner's press conference, held in conjunction with the Fraternal Order of Police at the FOP's Banksville offices, was especially sharp. Some highlights from Wagner's remarks:

"While the city of Pittsburgh is involved in a federal investigation of the mayor's office and the police bureau, the last thing we need is a member of city council running for mayor misrepresenting the facts as it relates to the police bureau and the city. And that's precisely what has happened in this campaign with Councilman Peduto."

"I have an opponent in this race who has not been truthful. He has not just been dishonest about myself; he’s dishonest about himself. He can't even look himself in the mirror and be honest about what he is seeing ... The voters should be very concerned because there's a candidate in this race that's lying through his teeth on a number of different issues, and that's Councilman Peduto."

While the tone of the claims has changed, the substance remains the same. Wagner is faulting Peduto for claims made in Peduto's first negative ad, which charges that as a state Senator, Wagner voted to raise his own pay back in 1995. Wagner acknowledged that was true, but noted it was "18 years ago," and that since then, he'd voluntarily returned pay hikes granted to him as a state auditor general. Wagner also claimed to have played a behind-the-scenes role in torpedoing another attempted legislative pay raise in 2004.

Wagner also denounced as "absolute, blatant lie[s]" another claim that Peduto has made: that while in Harrisburg, Wagner backed Republican efforts to cut social-service spending. Those claims have indeed been panned by independent observers.

Turning the attacks on Peduto, Wagner and FOP President Mike LaPorte blasted Peduto for how he characterized his own record. Peduto has drawn the FOP's ire by using actors dressed as police in two spots (the law prohibits using police in uniform in campaign materials). Wagner and LaPorte repeated that criticism today, while also rejecting Peduto's claim to have taken a paycut to help preserve police jobs.

"We are very, very dismayed at the ads Mr. Peduto has been running for the last two weeks," LaPorte said. "He's using actors that are depicting our police officers in the streets. And we as an organization don't like to be brought into the political arena as pawns. That’s not what we’re about."

Wagner and LaPorte also noted that since Peduto took office in 2002, the ranks of the police have been pared from nearly 1,100 to 862. And while Wagner conceded Peduto did take a paycut for a period, he said it amounted to only $2,200 -- and that over the past decade, Peduto's salary had grown by 15 percent.

"We have not endorsed Mr. Peduto in this campaign," LaPorte added. "We do not have a working relationship with Mr. Peduto. Myself as president, and going back two presidents prior to me, that takes us back a span of eight years, we've never had any relationship with Mr. Peduto."

Team Peduto held its own pre-emptive press conference at the City County Building, half an hour before Wagner's event. Peduto himself did not attend, but there were four clergyfolk on hand to denounce negative campaigning.

"Pittsburgh, pray for yourself, because there is evil running in the land," said the Rev. Maureen Cross Bolden of St. James AME. She praised Peduto for "struggling with trying to make the right decisions" and urged Wagner to campaign by proposing solutions "instead of using ... resources to beat somebody down, especially with falsehoods."

"I'm just so frustrated with politics today," said Ken Love, the pastor of Kerr Presbyterian Church in Penn Hills. "All it's doing is dividing the people." (Love was later asked whether the same moral standard should be applied to Peduto, who launched the first negative ad of the campaign. "Bill should be held to the same standard," Love said -- though he allowed that he was less familiar with the claims made in Peduto's own spots.)

Love took special issue with attacks related to Peduto's pay cut: "Why would he come out and say that [the pay cut] never happened when it can be easily documented?"

In fact, no one actually questions whether Peduto took a pay cut. He did vote to create -- and later participated in -- a program that allowed city workers to forgo 2 percent of their salary, with the money being spent "to avoid the lay-off of other employees." Peduto's camp provided a passage from a meeting transcript in which Peduto characterized the vote as "a good way of showing we're all on the same team."

But clearly, given the city's financial straits a decade ago, such gestures were never going to be enough to avert painful cuts entirely. Wagner estimated that Peduto's paycut forfeited only about $2,200. And layoffs within the police bureau were among a wide range of austerity measures the city has carried out within the past decade. (And it may be worth nothing that crime rates have remained at history lows.)

And yes, Peduto does make more than he did in 2002, thanks to cost-of-living adjustments made across the city workforce. Peduto's supporters stress that he never actually voted for any of those increases.

In any case, the Peduto event was notable for two other reasons. First, Peduto himself was absent, which by my count marks the third time his campaign has organized a response to attacks on the candidate without having the candidate on hand. (The first was a spirited defense of Peduto's record on labor issues, the second a gathering of black officials at Freedom Corner last week.) Peduto spokesperson Sonya Toler says that while the campaign coordinated the gatherings, they were inspired by "people who support Bill, no doubt, but who wanted to speak on their own. They wanted to get their truths out."

The other notable development at the Peduto event happened when Cross Bolden, while defending Peduto, called out a third mayoral candidate, state Rep. Jake Wheatley, as a potential spoiler. "Every time you vote for Jake Wheatley, you're giving a vote to Jack Wagner," she said. Echoing criticisms made by another black female leader, former city councilor Valerie McDonald Roberts, in the New Pittsburgh Courier, Cross Bolden noted that Wheatley had received $10,000 from Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who has been targeting Peduto in ads.

Asked about that claim, Wagner called it "another blatant lie. Jake Wheatley is a competent, qualified individual to run for mayor. He's an asset to the city of Pittsburgh, in this mayor's race and more importantly as a member of the House of Representatives."

Wheatley's own campaign released a statement of its own, asserting that "Anyone who looks closely at this campaign understands that voting for Jake Wheatley is in fact a vote for economic fairness." The campaign argued that Wheatley was the lone candidate focused on issues of poverty in the race, adding, "If Mr. Peduto is afraid to see a day in which all Pittsburghers are realizing prosperity, well then we understand why he would instruct his surrogates to say such misleading comments about voting for Jake Wheatley’s vision."

AmyJo Brown contributed to this report.

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