The problem with democracy in Pittsburgh is that there's never enough of it ... until there's too much.
That's been the gripe about this year's fledgling mayoral race, in which incumbent Luke Ravenstahl faces a challenge from not one, but two reform-minded challengers: City Controller Michael Lamb and City Councilor Bill Peduto.
Ravenstahl has faced only token opposition in two previous runs, so having two qualified opponents may seem like a nice change of pace. But Ravenstahl's opponents have been dreading this match-up, because they've seen this movie before. Peduto and Lamb both ran for mayor back in 2005 against frontrunner Bob O'Connor. O'Connor won with 49 percent of the vote; Peduto and Lamb took 47 percent between them.
Back then, no one thought O'Connor could lose. This time, in Peduto-land especially, there were hopes a split opposition could be avoided. The idea was that Peduto could win the "money primary" — the race-before-the-race in which candidates seek financial and other support — and that Lamb would be scared off by Peduto's superior resources.
By most measurements, Peduto has won the money primary. His campaign started 2013 with $260,000 in the bank, a balance which reflects money he raised and spent in just the last couple months of 2012. Lamb's $212,000 bank account seems competitive on paper, but it's less impressive when you consider it includes $62,000 he raised in 2011 — as a controller — and $50,000 he loaned to himself.
Peduto has, in fact, filed a legal challenge over Lamb's fundraising. His petition says that under a 2010 campaign-finance law that Peduto himself championed, Lamb shouldn't be allowed to run for mayor using money he raised as a controller.
"Just because [Lamb] can't raise money doesn't mean he gets to break the law," Peduto told me.
"The construction of [the campaign-finance legislation] is horrible," shot back Lamb, who says he's complying with the law as written.
The real winner in this argument is Ravenstahl. Re-election bids are supposed to be referendums on the incumbent: So far, the challengers' sharpest attacks have been directed at each other.
The problem, obviously, is that in a one-party town, there's no means for choosing a champion to represent the "loyal opposition." Once a Democratic nominee is selected in the primary, the November election is a foregone conclusion. And there's no such thing as a primary before the primary, so there's no way for the opposition to rally behind a would-be challenger. The result: challengers arguing over who has the right to campaign when they ought to be campaigning.
But what are you gonna do? Pining away for a third-party movement is too naïve. Hoping a "money primary" will solve things, meanwhile, seems too cynical. (Yes, it's important to be able to build a movement, as Peduto especially has done. But is judging candidates solely on their ability to garner contributions and tap political networks the way to topple politics-as-usual? That's how politics-as-usual is done.)
At this point, Peduto and Lamb's only hope may be to compete — with Ravenstahl and each other — on actual substance.
I realize how desperate that sounds. But Lamb recently announced an audit of how the city handles off-duty work by police officers providing security to bars and other businesses. Old heads will remember that questions have swirled around that issue almost since the day Ravenstahl took office. Peduto, for his part, has just launched an effort he's calling "100 Days, 100 Policies" — a pledge to unveil a new policy prescription each day between now and the primary.
And imagine if this campaign lives up to both the hopes and fears of Ravenstahl's foes. Imagine if Lamb and Peduto suggest visionary plans for poor communities, and bold reforms of a police department that seems — again — in danger of going off the rails. Imagine they devise a mechanism for ensuring big nonprofits like UPMC contribute their share to city coffers.
And then imagine Ravenstahl wins anyway.
If that happens, it will most likely be in an election where — as in 2005 — fewer than 60,000 voters turn out. That outcome wouldn't prove that we had one challenger too many. It will prove that Pittsburgh had two more challengers than it knew what to do with.