A Conversation with Bill Peduto | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Bill Peduto

For a guy who just dropped out of the mayoral race, Pittsburgh City Councilor Bill Peduto has plenty of fight left in him. One day after Peduto withdrew from the May primary, he talked with City Paper about his decision, his gripes with the media and his political future.

There are a lot of people out there saying, "Peduto was our only chance of beating Luke Ravenstahl. He got us believing. And now he's pulled the rug out from under us." I don't want to get all Dr. Phil on you, but some supporters are hurt, and some of them are angry. What do you say to them?
The issue wasn't just whether we would win or lose. It became more of what will it take to win. And if we fell short, what do we lose? [Ravenstahl's] positives are so high that the only way to win this race is to go after him. ... Instead of talking about the city, or how to make it better, or where we differ, our paths and records, I had to make it on what I consider the BS issues: the Steeler game incident, the midnight jaunt to New York City, and Denny Regan. And I would not have been proud of the campaign in the end if it was focused on that. I don't think that my supporters would have been. I think that I would have lose more supporters, and I believe that my negatives would have gone up higher than his. And if I lose, I wouldn't only have lost a race for mayor. I could have, and probably would have, destroyed a reform movement in the city.

That's what I was considering. And it wasn't on the horse-race numbers. It was about his popularity numbers.

Can you give me a sense of what those are?
I don't want to give the straight numbers, but they are extremely high.

Was he bigger than Ben Roethlisberger?
I would say that he'd be comparable. I'm not kidding.

Roethlisberger after the Super Bowl, rather than Roethlisberger after last season, I mean.
Right. I'm not kidding. Luke's number are that high. And there are no issues that translate to him. It's just "give the kid a chance.” That's the issue, and that's what the race would have become: Is Luke Ravenstahl the new fresh leadership that he was going to portray, or is he this scandalous kid that my campaign would have portrayed? And in the end, I end up probably not only losing, but with negatives so high that I am destroying the thing that I've worked over a dozen years to build. Not my career.

Who takes over? Who takes over the reform movement when I destroy it? Who's the next one that tries to pull these folks together? Doug Shields? I don't think so.

It would be arrogant to say that you were the only person who could possibly lead this movement, wouldn't it? Couldn't there be other people out there?
I would say I was the architect of it. And that for over 12 years I've been putting it together and holding it together. I helped to create the League of Independent Voters [a progressive political group focusing on young and marginalized voters]. I went and got funding in order to get them going. I supported, and was the first funder of, the Stonewall Democrats [a gay-rights political group]. I mean, all these organizations that have been coming together on the progressive side, and there is nobody in city government who can claim the title of reformer other than me. No one in city government, Chris.

I'm in the position of going forward with the campaign where people say, "Well, we're barely running a campaign,” because anything I do will be perceived as a negative against Luke. Or taking another tack, which is taking the gloves off and going right after him. And with potentially Luke winning big, and winning not a two-year term but a six-year term. Because no one will run against him in four years. And a movement that I've dedicated a dozen years of my life [to] being dismantled. And why people can't see that, I don't know.

You talk about not wanting to run a divisive campaign, but for a campaign to be divisive, people have to be paying attention. Do you think people are just tired of thinking about who the mayor was supposed to be?
I think that until yesterday [when Peduto dropped out of the May primary] that was the case. I think we dropped a bomb yesterday. And the thin veil of complacency that's been over the city since Bob [O'Connor] died has been lifted. I think that Luke is going to be held more accountable now; I think that people are going to be looking at issues a little more. And I think people [will] start talking about a $400 million unfunded pension obligation, a billion-dollar deficit, our debt structure, an ongoing deficit that only gets greater every year, neighborhood infrastructure crumbling, lack of economic growth -- those issues will start to become focused. But under the past six months, there was absolutely no interest whatsoever in any of those issues. Every time I brought them up, there was absolutely no traction. People didn't care.

Now all the sudden, since we've decided to withdraw from the May 15 primary, there seems to be a great interest. [I've gotten] hundreds and hundreds of calls, from people I don't know, begging [me] to please stay in this race.

On the other hand, we had "Peduto drops out” on the front page of the Post-Gazette today, and right beneath that we had a story which was basically "Ravenstahl on questions about his trip to New York City: Screw you, I'm not telling you anything.” There's a fear that by dropping out, you removed the only bulwark that was keeping Ravenstahl in check.
I'm not a pawn. It's like what the Post-Gazette [editorial] said: that I need to stay in there to give [Ravenstahl] the experience of running a citywide campaign. That's not my job. I didn't get into this race to be Luke's mentor. I got into this race because I know what the problems are in the city, and I know how to fix them, and I'm not going to hide the fact that this city is going in the wrong direction.

I would contend that the honeymoon that the media has given Luke over the past seven months has created this, not me. And that I was the only one who had the guts to stand up to a very well-oiled machine to take it on.

So you see this as the media's fault -- a failure to cover the things that matter?
I don't blame anyone.

Really? Because it sounds like you just did.
No, I think I know who Luke Ravenstahl was before he crossed the hall, and the person that he is projected as [being] now is completely different than the person he was in City Council. And I don't think that the media ever gave scrutiny to that, or even asked a follow-up. I don't blame them for that; that's how he has been able to get these types of numbers of popularity. It wasn't through any initiatives that he's created; it's been through a masterful PR campaign.

Can you give an example of where you think the media went over-the-top in covering for him?
At least once a week. I think the media should have asked whether the Pittsburgh Promise [a proposal to provide college scholarships to students who graduate from Pittsburgh Public Schools] was really an educational program or a campaign promise, and where the $200 million endowment is. I think they should have held his plan for tax abatement to the same scrutiny I provided to the public, and not weighed them equally. ...

Even these ideas of doing annual inspections of every rental unit. I think you've got to do the math and say, "Well, we've got about 50,000 rental units; how many thousand building inspectors are you going to hire, and where's the money going to be?” Offering everyone an ice-cream cone gets you a lot of votes. And I think you said it best: that the things that make me a good public servant make me a horrible politician. And if that's what people want, the people got it. They got their Lukey, so why are people upset? I don't get it.

You were saying stuff like this yesterday, and a couple [reporters] were getting pretty pissed off at you. One of my colleagues pointed out that your campaign hasn't issued a single position paper or held a press conference ...
We brought up substance from the announcement. And I talked about it; I kept focusing on three critical issues: the budget, economic development, and neighborhood revitalization. And I offered specifics on my announcements with it as well. Nobody cared. When I brought it up at forums or anything else, it never got covered, it never got any play. In fact, the forums and the other events weren't even covered.
We had 25 organizations asking for debates. Luke scheduled two. We put out press releases every week, doing the debate update: nobody covered it, nobody cared. Now all the sudden everybody cares, and I think that if anything, by withdrawing from the May primary -- remember that's all I did; I just took my name off May 15th -- [but] by doing that, we've shaken up some people.

You seem to be raising the possibility that you might get back in the race as an independent in November. I'm not sure that's even legal. Has the campaign looked into that?
No. but we will. I didn't even ask them until yesterday.

Here's the deal: [On] Sunday, I guess, I started thinking, "What could happen in this campaign?” Monday afternoon poll results come in, and the numbers are stark. He has a significant lead. But it wasn't that. It was when I started asking what some of the other numbers were, and that's when the reality came that the strategies that we had discussed would require the negative route.

They have done a good job in restoring the political machine -- basically the [former county commissioner Tom] Foerster machine of old is back. You've got the party with [Allegheny County Democratic Chair Jim] Burn, you've got the county with [County Executive Dan] Onorato, and you've got field folks with [state Senator Jim] Ferlo, and that type of organization. But what you really have is the money. You've got all the contractors and the vendors in town now -- anybody who gets a professional services contract that doesn't go out for a bid -- scared. ...

We want to build a new machine that's for reform, with the people that I have on the finance side, and the field people that we have -- over 900 volunteers -- with a message of how you can reform Pittsburgh. And we want to make sure that that sustains. That may mean that I never run for mayor again. That may mean that we support a whole slew of candidates for city council and city school board. That may mean we find somebody else to run for mayor: Maybe this November, maybe in 2009. But right now, it's not that we have a one-party system. We have one machine that has taken over our party, that's running the city and county.

OK, but back to the original question. What responsibility do you have for the fact that a lot of these issues were never discussed? If campaign position papers existed, I never saw them. Even the Web site seemed like it wasn't percolating after you unveiled it. How much responsibility do you have for the fact that you never seized control of a news cycle?
We do have position papers that expand on what we put out [during the 2005 campaign]. We were planning on putting it out blog-style, and through video as well. I guess we could have been more proactive earlier rather than waiting. My concern was more centered on what the media had been portraying as Luke, in order to create this kind of insurmountable number. It was the constant barrage that created a candidate with the backing of a machine that could not be beat.

I think that now you're going to see a difference, though. And I think what may have been needed in order to do that was my dropping out of the race. I don't think the press will be as lenient toward the orders of [Ravenstahl spokesman] Dick Skrinjar as they were in the previous months.

Do you really think the media is that perverse? That we say, "If only Peduto would drop out, then we could really go after this guy”?
No. I think that in a sense, I was Luke's best friend. Because as long as I was there, they always had the excuse [that] "It's just politics.” Or they could put it out that the stories were coming from myself or from supporters of mine. And the media always knew that I would be there to take the shot, to say that Dennis Regan wasn't the qualified person, or that [police commander] Catherine McNeilly's First Amendment rights were being taken away [when she was demoted for accusing Regan of interfering in police discipline]. The media could come to me for the comment.

You're the first politician I know who is complaining the media gave him the chance to score political points.
Yeah, but time after time. I was the one that everybody came to after the incident of being handcuffed and detained came up. I was the person that everyone came to just recently about the midnight [flight to New York City].

Each time, I could have taken the gloves off and knocked him down a couple pegs. And I didn't [for] two reasons. Number one: that's not why I was running. Number two: because I would have been knocked down even further.

When you and I first talked about this race a couple months ago, you said the campaign couldn't be about Luke if you were going to win. Yet it seems that for some people out there, including some supporters in the blogosphere, it was about Luke. Did you worry they were being conflated with your campaign, and that their "go for the jugular” approach was rubbing off on you?
I was, but I wasn't going to get involved in telling people what they should be able to say. I have a different view of the blogosphere. It to me is like the early printing press of the revolutionary war, and it just provides everybody an opportunity to get their message out. It's a First Amendment right, so whatever people say -- even when it's against me -- it's a right of folks to be able to do so.

But one complaint I've seen among some bloggers -- and at least one City Paper editor --was that it was hard to see when this campaign was up and running. People were saying, "Where is Bill on transit cuts, and issues that matter to me?”
See, that's the hard part. It seemed that I've been so upfront on so many different issues, that people would basically know what my platform is. Which is not true. You have to keep reidentifying and reexplaining every couple years.

That's why it was troubling for me to see them take on the issue: "Luke Ravenstahl, the green mayor.” Luke Ravenstahl had three bills that he sponsored as a council member. Number one was to take away all the funding for the shade tree commission, another was to put advertising in the parks, and the third was dubbed as "reform lite” for the council spending bill. You know, you can't all the sudden become the "green mayor” just because you walked across the hall.

I realized what they were doing. They were trying to lift my policies so that they could position Luke slightly to the right of me, and then basically say, "Peduto's too far to the left.”

I guess going back to it, a lot of the ideas that I would have posted -- and we'll still post them too, because we'll be working on some of the issue stuff and trying to get some of these things pushed through council -- were going to be a lot of the stuff that we talked about two years ago. I mean, my ideas haven't changed, my beliefs haven't changed, so it's a lot of the same parts regarding the budget, neighborhoods, Downtown, economic development, and then some new stuff thrown in including transportation [and] a couple others.

My perception, and that of some others, is that reaching out to the black community never really gelled for you. Is that perception wrong, and if not, what are you going to do in the future?
I don't think your perception is wrong; I think I was able to win over some key leaders -- not necessarily political although involved in politics -- within every community, including the African-American community, that I didn't have before. We have a citywide base that goes well beyond the base that we had last time. Our base was primarily between the rivers last time, and this time it stretches on all sides. I mean people from the democratic committee, people from all sorts of different organizations.

Within the African-American community, I don't think it was necessarily that I wasn't supported; I don't think I'm known. And it's not necessarily that I haven't had issues that I've run on. I haven't done a good job in doing the mega-PR on them. The bill that I did with the check-cashing places protects neighborhood business districts in basically low-income areas. I just was able to get the contract the SEA awarded for demolition to up their MBE/WBE requirements. Those are just the ones that come off the top of my head. I don't think that there's another white politician in city government that has done as much for the African-American community, [but] I just don't think I've done a good enough job to promote it within the community.

Why is that?
Because I'm a bad politician. Good public servant ... ba-a-a-a-d politician.

Part of it is on council I don't want to push too far in the sense of stepping on my colleagues' toes. And when I go into issues that are directly based on race, I always want make sure that I want to have at least one, if not both, of the council members who represent the community with me.

I guess there's still this question about whether Bill Peduto really wants the job. You say, "I don't want to be the negative person ...”
No, I will go negative, on an issue. I'll blast Luke for voting against Act 47 [which mandated a restructuring of city finances], and say he lacks the backbone that's needed in order to get the city out of its fiscal situation. I'll blast Luke for not standing on his own two feet, for getting into this position not by earning it, and I'll blast him for being controlled by others. I'll blast Luke on those issues. I'd run a race if I could have that opportunity. That opportunity is not before me. It's not on those issues.

Yeah, but Denny Regan -- which you say is a "BS issue” -- sums up about half the stuff you just said. [It suggests] Luke doesn't stand on his own feet, allows himself to be muscled around, lacks the judgment to put the right guy into the position. And yet you don't want to touch Denny Regan.
I don't want to fight a fight on issues that aren't directly related to reforming Pittsburgh.

But Denny Regan is a huge issue, isn't it?
Potentially, yes. But what did Luke say when I said he's not qualified? "It's political. He is the most qualified person for the job.”

Well, of course that's what he's going to say. Why let that bother you? Why not continue pounding it?
Continue pounding it now will not end up with anything other than guaranteeing [Ravenstahl] a six-year term. It's the perfect storm, Chris.

[The administration is] upset. They're not happy about what I'm doing. I was the pawn that they needed. They should be out there jumping and high-fiving: They've been given a free pass. What they wanted was something else. What they wanted was an overwhelming victory with a large negative turnout for myself, and an end to this reform movement.

When you got into this race, did you see this perfect storm coming?
No. I thought that once people started listening to the issues, once the people really started focusing and seeing the distinct differences in our voting records, the differences between leadership styles, that there would be a shift in support. And what I saw instead was each week, my negatives continued to grow only because I was running against Luke.

To what extent did you come to see this race as setting yourself up for a run when the perfect storm abated -- whether it was for 2009 or November? A lot of people have said to me, "Bill went for the Democratic endorsement to set himself up for 2009.”
I love that stuff. That was like yesterday people [were saying] I was doing this so I could run in the fall. No. We sat down with staff Wednesday morning to tell everybody [Peduto was dropping out]. I mean it was teary-eyed. It was not like [sinister voice], "Plan A has been executed; begin Plan B.”

"We're down three-to-one in the polls; we have them right where we want them.”
I laugh when I hear this stuff. And when it even gets better is when they come out on the blogs like, "A certain Peduto insider has told me that ...” and it's like completely wrong.

So why did you go for the endorsement?
I thought I had a shot. Not at winning it, but definitely trying at 250 [committee votes]. ... When I heard ‘one' [hundred votes], I just went [deflates]. And then I looked at the faces of everyone around us. Now, they were sad, but they were proud. It wouldn't have been the same on May 15th. They would be sad, and they wouldn't be proud, and I wouldn't be either.

Let me just ask you to compare this campaign to 2005, because as somebody outside the campaign --
Completely different.

-- My sense was that in 2005, there was a lot more energy, and people were having a lot more fun. And I didn't get a sense that this campaign was as fun for anybody. Is that true, would you say? Was it as fun for you?
No, because right at the beginning -- right in September -- I felt like I would wake up in the morning with a fist in my face. It seemed like they were really targeting me early on. The communication between the mayor's office and my council office was ended. I've never been in the mayor's office since then.

I remember you used to grouse about this during the Murphy days as well ...
At least that used to be fun. [Former mayoral spokesman Craig] Kwiecinski and I would try to fight each other by putting a little barb in a quote that would just rile the other guy up. It was never as maniacal as it is today.

Once we got the campaign up and running, we were able to bring back a lot of the same folks, and the same sort of excitement that we had early on in the last race. The one interesting thing about it was that in the last race, things didn't gel until the last two months, when we upped the staff. The other thing too is we ran the last campaign as the far underdog.

So there was already a poisoning of the water to begin this campaign, and there was less pressure in the last one, more pressure in this one. This one it came out as although he was the mayor, I was going to be a strong challenger after having finished with 25 percent in the last race. ...

We still have the core volunteers. I think that the endorsement took the wind out of the sail. It didn't end the campaign in any respect, but it took the wind out of the sail for about four or five days. But by that weekend again, we were getting a good response, we were getting folks back out, getting everything going again.

Should you run again -- either in November or 2009 -- do you think it will be harder to get that support again? It seemed like you had this reservoir of energy left over from 2005; you had your campaign kickoff and a couple hundred people show up. Are you worried that because this thing ended abruptly and was a struggle from a start, you're going to have a harder time drawing on that energy next time?
I think it all depends on what we do in the next two months. Like I said, the office stays open, the staff stays on board. The reach out to our loyal supporters has to be a continual one. We're still having a fundraiser next week for our finance folks. I'll be personally calling over the course of the next month those people that were courageous enough to financially support us. I'll be meeting with our volunteers and our supporters. We'll plan some fun events to keep things going. But it really depends on those two months, that we are not only present but thanking those that have stuck with us.

So no, I'm not concerned about losing it at this point. ... I'd be more concerned, having gone through the race, finishing with 40 percent of the vote, and the next time saying, "I need a check for $2,000,” and that person saying "Bill, I was with you twice --”

"-- And you got clobbered.”
"And you got clobbered,” yeah.

What will be the standard by which you judge whether the next two months have been a success or not?
Just one thing: "I was with you in the past, I'm sorry that it didn't happen this time, the next time you run I'm with you again.” If I hear that, then I'll know that we have succeeded. And that's what I've been hearing.

At the end of the two months, what happens to your staff? You said something about running the office like a think tank yesterday.
We're going to go on up to Conneaut Lake, feed the carp. I asked them to join me, I promised them a position till May. I'm going to keep that commitment. I need their help; we have a good team and they get along great. My volunteers love them; other campaigns would be blessed to have them. I'll help them to find other opportunities, and we'll see where we are by that point to know where we'll be for the next six months. Or the next 18 months. The race for mayor 2009 is only 18 months away. That's not a long time.

So is Bill Peduto in permanent campaign mode?
I feel like I've been. I think that that's probably a very true statement. And we have two months to make sure that everything we've worked to build thus far stays together.

Are we going to see a reinvention of yourself or your campaign style? Are there things you're going to do differently?
I need to do more outreach throughout the city. I think that I offer experience and leadership on council, and in city government that should reach citywide. And I think that you'll be seeing a lot more of me throughout the city.

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