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Unwelcome Contributions in Mayor's Race 

So far, big sums dominate local political fund-raising

This year's mayoral campaign is shaping up to be ugly. But there may be at least some common ground between the candidates.

Backers of City Councilor Bill Peduto say the incumbent, Luke Ravenstahl, has little support outside the local Democratic Party machine. Backers of Ravenstahl, meanwhile, sneer that Peduto has little support outside the affluent East End.

As it turns out, both sides may be right.

This weekend, I spent several happy hours compiling a database of campaign contributions reported by the candidates. I then sat around for a few more hours, sifting data and looking for a pattern. My wife, meanwhile, was doing the same thing with my psychological history.

(In case you envy my carefree weekend existence, you can click the following for our online database of campaign contributions made to municipal office-seekers. It will also disclose contributions to city councilors seeking re-election, and other candidates will be added in the weeks ahead. Fresh data will be added as it becomes available.)

As it turns out, Ravenstahl's biggest single contributor was County Executive Dan Onorato, who gave him $25,000. But more than one-quarter of Ravenstahl's support came from people who live outside the city. Way outside the city.

Ravenstahl raised roughly $260,000 last year, more than $80,000 of which came from donors with mailing addresses outside Allegheny County. Topping the list were two executives from Liberty Pacific Media, a Seattle-based advertising firm, who between them matched Onorato's $25,000 gift. Other backers include executives with a New York pension-consulting firm and Cleveland-based Ferchill Group, a developer with numerous Pittsburgh projects.

Why would a Seattle company be interested in politics here? Hard to say: I couldn't reach the firm's executives by deadline. Perhaps they saw Ravenstahl on Letterman, or on one of those 3-1-1 billboards around town: The company's Web site suggests an interest in "the unique investment and positive cash flow opportunities offered by the outdoor advertising industry." Either way, I doubt we've heard the last of Liberty Pacific.

"Clearly, the people that support the candidate give some indication of where his loyalties might lie," says Barry Kauffman of Harrisburg-based watchdog group Common Cause. "In most cases, that money is not for free."

Having a sizable portion of outside funding "is not necessarily good or bad," Kauffman adds. Cleveland developers, after all, can have a stake in Pittsburgh too. "But I think the stronger candidates are going to have local support."

The bright spot for Peduto is that, while his $121,000 in fund-raising is dwarfed by Ravenstahl's total, only $8,000 of that came from outside the county. Peduto has also racked up the single largest contribution (so far) in the race: $50,000 from local businessman William Benter. And since Benter's company, a medical-transcription service, has no city contracts to speak of, Peduto can cash the check in good conscience, while still campaigning against "special interests."

Unless you think of knowledge workers as a special interest.

Peduto's second-place finish in the 2005 mayoral campaign proved he could be mayor of the East End. But so far, his fund-raising suggests he's got a ways to go before he'll be mayor of anything else. Peduto received some $37,000 from five ZIP codes concentrated in Oakland, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, East Liberty and Point Breeze. But in 16 ZIP codes covering city neighborhoods north of the Allegheny and south of the Mon, I could find just 14 donors who gave Peduto anything.

Of course, in 2006 few Pittsburghers thought about voting in the mayor's race, let alone underwriting it. The power of special interests is most easily observed early on, when no one else is especially interested. So it's worth noticing the ludicrous sums they shell out now, before the debate is dominated by the ads their money pays for.

In Pennsylvania, there are no limits on contributions to state or local races. If Ravenstahl and Peduto were running for president, by contrast, federal election law would limit individual contributions to $2,300. If the mayor's race had a similar cap, Peduto would have to return nearly three-fifths of the money he's received. Ravenstahl, meanwhile, would have to return nearly 90 percent of the money he's raised so far.

But their loss would be our gain. As Kaufmann puts it, "The public needs to own both the elections and the government."

Actually, I'd be happy just getting my weekends back.

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