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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dowd Psychology

Posted By on Tue, Feb 10, 2009 at 10:41 AM

The world is still reeling over news that City Council President Doug Shields will not -- I repeat, not -- be running for mayor. 

Actually, by "the world" I mean, "a few reporters, bloggers, and  politicos," and by "reeling" I mean, "raising their eyebrows slightly." Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and incumbent with a million-dollar war chest, looks to be in a strong position, and no one could blame Shields for taking a pass. But still, this news deserves to be chewed over with a long-winded blog post restating the obvious, don't you think? 

Over at the 2pjs, David DeAngelo conducts a quick interview with Shields, the key parts of which are:

When asked if he thought that the Mayor was politically vulnerable, he said began his answer with a caveat; we live in uncertain times and no one should attempt to predict six months down the road in any political campaign. No one knows for sure what will happen.

Translation: You never know! Ravenstahl could be indicted after all! 

On the other hand, financially the city is better off than we were 4 years ago. The national press is playing up Pittsburgh in its coverage - he said, for example, that the NYTimes suggested that a good place to ride out the recession is Pittsburgh.

This dovetails with my own assessment: "As he did in 2007, [Ravenstahl] can tout positive financial results for the city, while boasting of feel-good innovations on stuff like biking." Ravenstahl's critics are just going to have to grit their teeth and admit it: He hasn't screwed up badly enough to be voted out of office. His publicity stunts may be wince-inducing, but when has a Pittsburgh politician ever been punished for shamelessness?

All that said, I'm now even more sure that Ravenstahl will face a challenge from city councilor Patrick Dowd. The past few weeks have been a kind of shadow play, with Shields and Dowd testing the waters, and each other's intentions. Shields has now ceded the stage to Dowd alone. 

Obviously the odds are stacked against Dowd, but I have a pretty good feeling he'll do it anyway.

For one thing, Dowd believes in robust public debate -- perhaps to the point of making other people wish he'd shut up. And even an unsuccessful Dowd candidacy will hold Ravenstahl's feet to the fire, nudging him -- however fractionally -- toward a more reform-minded approach to governance than he might otherwise demonstrate. Dowd's t-crossing and i-dotting will be a useful counterpoint to Ravenstahl's own frequently slapdash approach to governance.  In the end, that could be a good thing for Ravenstahl.

It could also be a good thing for Dowd, who could be the happy warrior of 2009. He can run for mayor without expecting to win, but with the hope of positioning himself for another run down the road. Dowd has a lot to prove to a lot of people -- black voters and progressives among them -- and this could be the race where he starts to make his case.

In other words, Dowd could run a race similar to that Bill Peduto ran in 2005.

In that year, Bob O'Connor was all but assured the election. But I always felt that Peduto's 2005 race was about establishing his credibility for this year, when he expected -- as did we all -- to see O'Connor up for re-election. By finishing second, Peduto could define himself as the loyal opposition, the viable alternative if Peduto's warnings about the city's fiscal plight proved prescient. 

The hopes for that approach were derailed by O'Connor's sad death, and by Peduto's abortive campaign in 2007. But it still might be a good model for Dowd to follow.

It won't be as easy for Dowd to be the progressive standard bearer as it was for Peduto -- partly because Peduto's backers may be loath to hand over the banner. I'm not sure how far you can carry that flag in this town anyway. Dowd has a chance to find out, and to see if he can cobble together a different kind of coalition. 

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