Most years, being a reform-minded Pittsburgher is like being a Pirates fan. Spring rolls around, and while a primary election may create excitement in other cities, we've come to expect the same old dreary, uncompetitive performance. By mid-May, you're already telling yourself -- again -- that it's a rebuilding year. Even though you can't help noticing that nothing ever seems to get built.
On the surface, there's little reason to think the May 19 primary will be much different. Mayor Luke Ravenstahl seems all but certain to win re-election. He faces two spirited challengers, Pittsburgh City Councilor Patrick Dowd and attorney Carmen Robinson. But they suffer from the challenger's curse: Their best hope for getting attention lies in attacking their rival ... who then accuses them of running a "negative campaign."
There's a bit more cause for optimism further down the ballot. Two of the three contested council seats -- those of Tonya Payne and Theresa Smith -- are held by party-endorsed incumbents who have plenty of reason to feel confident. But sometimes you win just by showing up for the fight.
Both Payne and Smith are facing challengers -- Daniel Lavelle in Payne's case, Rob Frank and Georgia Blotzer in Smith's -- who have allied themselves with the cause of political reform. And they're doing so in working-class districts whose politicians, traditionally, haven't offered that message to voters recently.
In fact, the only council incumbent not facing a challenge this May is ... Bill Peduto, a leading critic of Ravenstahl and business as usual. You'd think the old-school pols could have found some warm body to run against their nemesis, but apparently not. So while reformers may get blown out of the water May 19, they appear to have a deeper talent pool.
What's going on here may be something like the "50-state strategy" that Democrats used in the last presidential election. Instead of just campaigning to his base and a handful of key swing states, Barack Obama fought just about everywhere he could. Republicans, meanwhile, became increasingly focused on their traditional strongholds. Similarly here, the progressive message is being pitched not just to the folks in the East End, where it has always resonated, but to the West End and the South Hills as well.
It's a winning strategy -- even if all the challengers lose. Days before the primary, council passed a first-of-its kind overhaul of contracting procedures and campaign-finance rules. The landmark measure was proposed by Peduto, but is being supported, however reluctantly, by Ravenstahl and his council allies. It's probably no coincidence that each is running for re-election against reformers.
What's more, Ravenstahl has also put a bigger dent in the Democratic Party machinery than Peduto ever could. In the sole open council race this May, District 4, the mayor has made waves by supporting a candidate who wasn't endorsed by the Democratic Party: Anthony Coghill.
Ravenstahl's motive is obvious: If you're the mayor, you'd much rather have a guy on council who owes some of his success to you. Especially when the endorsed candidate, Patrick Reilly, is backed by Pete Wagner, whose family represents a power base that rivals the one Ravenstahl shares with County Executive Dan Onorato.
But whatever Ravenstahl's motivation, he's made it a little easier for the next unendorsed candidate to get a second look. And the turmoil of the Reilly/Coghill match-up could even help deliver District 4 this year to Natalia Rudiak, who's denounced party shenanigans from the outset ... and who won't owe anybody anything if she's elected.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not calling for a Dewey-beats-Truman headline here. Or even Pirates-beat-Brewers. If Ravenstahl wins, he'll have four whole years before facing another election. And progressives have a knack for cheating themselves out of victories. In 2007, three reform-minded candidates actually got elected to council: Dowd, Bruce Kraus and Ricky Burgess. Hopes that the newcomers would join to form a progressive coalition have, well ... not panned out. The relationship between Dowd and Peduto is especially fractious.
But look on the bright side. No matter what happens this May, Ravenstahl will almost certainly face an independent challenger -- most likely Dok Harris, the son of Steelers great Franco -- in November. Harris may not have a prayer either. But for a Pittsburgh reformer, like a Pirates fan, the chance to go to extra innings can be a victory in itself.