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In Progress

Time to look ahead to the next mayoral race

For a guy who was getting creamed by a two-to-one margin, Bill Peduto looked remarkably upbeat on Election Night. He'd told supporters he only needed 25,000 votes to be the next mayor, and he ended up with half that. Yet there he was on TV, telling reporters that a new political movement was a-borning. 


Every candidate says he's building a platform for the future, of course -- especially when he's getting drubbed in the present. But Peduto may actually deliver. As this space said in January, with Bob O'Connor's victory nearly assured, "the race for second place might be just as important," because the runner-up would be poised to lead the party's loyal opposition. Peduto won that race for second, edging out county Prothonotary Michael Lamb by 1,000 votes. And Peduto has long been able to create built-in constituencies for his agenda. During his first term in City Council, he ran a "Guyasuta Fellowship" that solicited young people's perspectives on issues like transit; today, some of the fellows are his most ardent supporters. He'll likely be even more active on citywide issues over the next four years.


So it's worth asking now what kind of platform this could be.


Like Lamb, Peduto ran as a "progressive," a word that seems popular despite -- or because of -- confusion about what it means. Many Democrats call themselves "progressives" simply because Republicans have trashed the word "liberal." For other Dems, though, being "progressive" means advocating for left-of-center positions on social and economic issues.


Peduto doesn't use the word in either sense. He styles himself as a Clintonian "New Democrat" -- a liberal on social issues like abortion and tolerance of gays, but more conservative on fiscal matters. Indeed, Peduto's made his name, and his bones, by constantly referring to labor unions as "special interests." To be fair, the unions in question have generally been the police and firefighters, and both represent somewhat special cases. Still...decrying labor as a special interest is the sort of thing Republicans do. That's partly why some labor activists I know backed Lamb.


Like Lamb, Peduto uses "progressive" in an early-1900s sense, when the word had a lot to do with government reform -- tidying up patronage and other abuses of democracy. Those progressives got a lot done, but often being "progressive" meant letting well-off whites call most of the shots.


Peduto himself draws from a somewhat paradoxical base: He's attracted young activists skeptical of the city's decision-making elites...and the elites themselves. According to mayoral election returns, Peduto beat O'Connor in two of the city's affluent white strongholds, Shadyside and Squirrel Hill. By contrast, his message got little bounce in predominantly black neighborhoods like the Hill District. He and Lamb struggled to get double-digit support in black wards, where O'Connor had strong shows of support.


O'Connor had the party's endorsement, naturally, and black voters are especially loyal Democrats. But the racial gap apparently wasn't just about endorsements; it was about issues too. 


Both Peduto and Lamb endorsed a countywide referendum to consolidate row offices: It's the kind of good-government reform each embraced as "progressive." But while the measure passed countywide, it lost in most of the city's majority-black wards -- sometimes by 60-40 margins. No doubt part of the reason is that a row office, Recorder of Deeds, is the only countywide post held by an African-American. In a county as famously insular as this one, that's a tough job to advocate cutting.


The potential for hubris is high for any "progressive." Just look at outgoing Mayor Tom Murphy. Hard as it is to believe, Murphy once sounded a lot like Peduto does today. Murphy, too, stressed his political independence, his grassroots efforts on behalf of neighborhoods, his zeal for reforming the bureaucracy. We all know how that ended.


I'm not predicting such ignominy for Peduto, who is smart and sincere and strives to be inclusive. Still, he ran this race boasting he could become mayor by getting less than 30,000 votes in a city 10 times that size. Politically, that may be true; philosophically, it could be disastrous.


City employees aren't just "special interests," and some people care more about things like a living wage than the fate of row offices. Real progressives will remember that...and be grateful their man has four more years to speak with -- and listen to -- those who missed his campaign the first time.

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