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Party Time in Race for Pittsburgh Mayor 

The shit is hitting the fan in Pittsburgh's mayoral race, with both Democrats campaigning hard for the party's endorsement. Predictably, the campaigns of Mayor Luke Ravenstahl (a.k.a. Mayor Opie) and City Councilor Bill Peduto (a.k.a. Mr. Peduto-head) absolutely despise one another.

And that's understandable, because there's plenty to hate about both of them. Or so each side will tell you -- while asking not to be quoted.

Peduto, they say, is a phony, doesn't connect with people, and can be more than a little smug. Ravenstahl, they say, is arrogant and inexperienced -- an old-school hack with a grade-school face.

I have stated my preference for Mr. Peduto-head before. But right now, I'm just having a good time watching these two mugs fight it out for the party endorsement, which will be decided on March 4. Because, if City Committee Chair Barbara Ernsberger is to be believed, this race is very close.

There are 873 committee members who can vote on the endorsement. And Ernsberger says the two men are "about 50 votes apart at this point" -- with Opie having the edge.

I could only find two Democrats who are on the fence about these guys and willing to talk about it publicly. And they're both members of the Ernsberger famly. Barbara says she hasn't made up her mind, and neither has her husband. She's even consulted with her son, 23-year-old CMU grad student Bill Ernsberger, who doesn't have a committee vote.

According to Barbara Ernsberger, her son thinks Opie "looks more like a mayor, but he's got to be able to say something." That's Opie: Not the brightest bulb on the tree.

Ernsberger says her son has the opposite take on Mr. Peduto-head. While Bill Ernsberger credits Peduto for knowing a lot, she says, he "doesn't carry himself with a mayoral presence."

Barbara Ernsberger acknowledges Peduto's mastery of complex environmental issues. (He's been endorsed by the Sierra Club, for cryin' out loud.) But she says she's talked with the mayor about blight issues that are also fairly complex, and he seemed to keep up.

Opie's biggest problem, she says, is dealing with new issues he never expected to face before he took office following the death of Bob O'Connor last year: "So much at one time -- it's an awful lot to deal with," she says. That's probably why Opie ducked a question about the Mon-Fayette expressway project at a Feb. 22 Squirrel Hill candidates' forum. "I haven't looked at the issue that thoroughly," he said.

Opie was also asked about cutbacks to Port Authority service. He pointed at County Executive Dan Onorato and said, "You can ask the boss." Onorato does pick the authority's board members, but to my ears, Ravenstahl's word choice reinforced the notion that he's taking orders, not giving them.

Matt Hogue, an in-the-tank-for-Luke committeeman, says the race is a "slam dunk" for Opie. "I just don't see how he can lose it," he says.

In fact, any incumbent -- even one who's been in office for five minutes -- should win the endorsement. So the good news for Mr. Peduto-head is, if he loses the endorsement, it's no surprise ... and if he wins, it'll be an amazing victory. It could be seen as a minor victory if Peduto even makes it close. On the other hand, if Opie loses, his big-time supporters -- namely Onorato and Congressman Mike Doyle -- will have to switch their support to Peduto.

A loss would suck a little for Peduto. It would devastate the mayor.

Ernsberger doesn't think many committee persons' feet are "set in cement." I'm not so sure. At a candidates' forum on the South Side, I watched both candidates give their stump speeches. Afterward, both asked, "Any questions?" Not one person raised a hand: Those people had either made up their minds already, or just came to shmooze and eat pretzels.

Ravenstahl's got the kid-mayor-who's-been-on-Letterman thing, and lots of older folks think he's a nice boy. Peduto talks better, but as we've seen in recent presidential elections, that doesn't always matter.

Am I the only one who sees the Bush-Gore 2000 analogy here -- the friendly frat boy vs. the environmental geek? Pittsburgh doesn't have punch cards, so there won't be a hanging-chad fiasco. But Peduto was endorsed by the Sierra Club ... and Luke did get himself handcuffed at Heinz Field. I'm just sayin'.

And we all know how electing the friendly frat boy back in 2000 turned out.

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