When Bill Peduto's supporters walked into the Democratic Party endorsement gathering on March 4, they thought they had 350 committeepeople backing him for mayor. It might not be enough to win the party's endorsement, they knew, but it would make their man look like a viable contender.
Instead, Peduto got only 162 votes, losing the endorsement to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl by nearly four to one.
Peduto's biggest mistake wasn't miscounting the votes, though. It was seeking them at all.
Peduto is campaigning as a reformer, but it's hard to run against "the Democratic machine" while seeking its favor at the same time. And the hours Peduto spent courting committeepeople could have been spent reaching out to average voters, many of whom still don't know what he's about.
Sure, it's easy to say that in hindsight. But Peduto knew it in advance: When he ran for mayor back in 2005, he didn't seek the endorsement at all. He finished second in a crowded field anyway.
It's hard to see him doing any better this time around ... unless something changes soon.
Support for Ravenstahl is broad but not deep. (That's partly why Peduto thought he had so many votes going into the endorsement.) Peduto's support is deep, but not broad. He has a fanatical base of Pedutoistas, but privately, even some of them worry he isn't reaching working-class or black voters.
Take, for example, his proposal to spur development with new tax abatements. Peduto's plan focuses on subsidizing growth in and around Downtown, leaving the rest of the city out. There are policy reasons for doing so, sure, but voters in struggling neighborhoods resent every dollar spent Downtown.
Ravenstahl's camp understands that. So when they shamelessly lifted Peduto's plan and repackaged it as their own, they extended it to cover neighborhoods all over town.
The Pedutoistas howled that Ravenstahl stole Peduto's idea. That's true, but most voters don't care. When you propose a policy, people want to know what they get from it, not where you got it from.
Anyway, if your ideas are that easy to co-opt, maybe they aren't as revolutionary as you think. If you want the powers-that-be to stop stealing your platform, you need ideas that actually challenge the powers-that-be.
For example, instead of cozying up to committee members, Peduto could have spent the past few weeks publicly denouncing proposed cuts to Port Authority bus service.
Peduto has advocated for transit in the past, and it's an issue tailor-made for him now. Knowledge workers, whose support Peduto has, approve of mass transit. Working-class voters, whose support Peduto needs, depend on mass transit. Plus, Ravenstahl is unlikely to touch the issue: The cuts are favored by his political patron, County Executive Dan Onorato.
Of course, the Port Authority is a county agency, where city officials have little input. But in 2005, Peduto took aim at the proposed Mon-Fayette Expressway, a position that also had little impact but fired up supporters.
Fighting transit cuts could have a similar effect, with the bonus of possibly making a difference. In fact, one guy Peduto could use as his political patron, state Auditor General Jack Wagner, has been denouncing the Port Authority for high administrative costs. Officials are already pledging to scale back overhead, a move that may save a few routes.
It's not too late for Peduto to get on board. (In fact, a pro-transit rally is slated for the day this issue hits the streets.) After the endorsement vote, Peduto told reporters that the Democratic committee represents only 800 people -- and that he'd be reaching out to the rest of us in the weeks ahead. I hope he means it: Since Ravenstahl hasn't come up with many ideas, we may as well give him a few good ones to steal, just in case he wins.
More importantly, Peduto is as knowledgeable as any public official I know, and no politician has ever bullshitted me less. Pittsburghers deserve to learn what his backers already know: He has many qualities that would make a great mayor.
But sometimes, it seems, those same qualities hurt him as a candidate.
Finally, a correction: I misspelled the last name of KDKA-TV's Sonni Abatta in my Feb. 21 column ... which, ironically, was about how stupid TV news is. Having shown that I probably couldn't key in text for a Teleprompter -- let alone read one -- I offer my apologies.