Tonya Payne didn't waste words. Kicking off her re-election campaign on Feb. 26, the Pittsburgh city councilor addressed dozens of supporters for just a few minutes. But her message about the May 19 primary was clear:
"We're absolutely going to win," Payne, 44, announced at her campaign headquarters in Uptown's Washington Plaza. "It's just by a matter of how much."
Not surprisingly, her backers share that optimism.
"Tonya Payne has been doing a lot of positive things," says Evelyn Clayborn, a 71-year-old Hill District resident. "She's putting the city in the right direction."
Payne, of Uptown, is backed by important groups, including the Democratic Party and the Service Employees International Union. Key to that support was Payne's work with One Hill, a SEIU-backed coalition that sought guarantees that the new hockey arena would produce benefits for the surrounding neighborhood.
But Payne's critics -- especially her opponents, Robert Daniel Lavelle and Mark Brentley Sr. -- argue that she's done too little to improve District 6, which includes the Hill District, Downtown and parts of the North Side.
While Payne boasts of luring a much-needed grocery store to the Hill District, and helping One Hill achieve a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), her opponents say she's too close to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and out of sync with her district.
Lavelle is chief of staff for state Rep. Jake Wheatley, who criticized the CBA for not demanding enough from the Penguins. "This CBA ... puts the emphasis on government to do more," agrees Lavelle, 31, of the Hill District. "That's not what a CBA is designed to do."
Even though the CBA includes a job center, Lavelle says Payne "should have started that a long time ago."
Both Lavelle and Payne worked as council aides for Sala Udin, whom Payne beat in an election four years ago. But the two former staffers had vastly different work experiences: Udin fired Payne in 1997, but Lavelle remains close to Udin, who is now president of the Coro Center for Civic Leadership.
"If Lavelle wins," Payne says, "you might as well put Udin's name on the door." And the fact that she beat him four years ago, she says, shows the district doesn't want that.
But some of Payne's former allies are now trying to replace her.
"Tonya has not been a good representative," says Don Friedman, a political consultant who helped get her elected in 2005, but who is now working for Lavelle. "She's one of the [candidates] I really regret having helped."
Payne has sometimes been out of step with her district. In 2006, she backed a proposal to build a slots parlor in the Hill, an idea that sparked vocal opposition (some of it from leaders tied to Udin). In last year's presidential primary battle, she supported Hillary Clinton. That put her in line with Pittsburgh's political establishment, but at odds with her district: More than 90 percent of voters in the Hill's 5th Ward, for example, voted for Obama last April.
On council, says Friedman, Payne is a surefire vote for the mayor.
"They're pulling at straws," says Payne. And in fact, Payne has been notably opposed to reforming local campaign-finance rules, something Ravenstahl has come to support. Payne says she favors limiting political donations only if the curbs are adopted statewide. "Put everybody to the same standard," she says.
Lavelle, who favors even stricter reforms than those being discussed locally, says Payne is "passing the buck."
Brentley, a school-board member since 1999, echoes some of Lavelle's criticisms, but is following his own path.
If Payne had been more proactive about creating a job center, "We could have solved a lot of problems in the community," says Brentley, who also ran for the council seat in 2005.
As the sole North Sider in the race, Brentley says the district needs leaders who aren't tied to the Hill or its factions. Brentley, who has often been a critic of school superintendent Mark Roosevelt, says he'd spend his energy urging the city to create more summer jobs for kids, keeping them out of trouble.
"Lavelle is a good man," says Brentley, "but he is a part of [the feuding]. ... There is no place for that kind of pettiness in public office."