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A Tale of Two Cities

Peduto's win shows a new Pittsburgh taking root — and taking over


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Jack Wagner's election-night party wasn't like a wake, exactly. The scene at the South Side's IBEW ballroom, where supporters awaited results in the city's mayoral race, was more like a 50th-wedding anniversary celebration ... one where everyone knows the marriage is on the rocks. 

A few blocks and a world away, City Councilor Bill Peduto's party was in high gear, with DJs spinning for a multiethnic, multigenerational throng. But at Wagner Central, the crowd was middle-aged and then some, and almost exclusively white. A guitarist, tucked into an alcove, played chart-toppers from four decades ago. 

And as the numbers refused to budge from a double-digit Peduto lead, Wagner's loyalists tried to explain it. Peduto had been building his campaign for years; Wagner had jumped in only weeks before, after Mayor Luke Ravenstahl dropped his reelection bid. What's more, Wagner lacked not just time but room to run: While he chafed at being the "Ravenstahl candidate," he couldn't distance himself from the label. Peduto had captured the anti-Ravenstahl vote, which left Wagner with the mayor's constituency or no one at all. 

But maybe Wagner's biggest challenge, his backers admitted, was this: While Wagner, a lifelong Beechview resident, never truly left Pittsburgh ... Pittsburgh had moved away from him.  

Wagner's polling, campaign sources told me, showed that Pittsburgh had become a much different city since 1993, when he'd last run for mayor. Polls showed that more than half of primary voters identified themselves as liberals. And Wagner, a conservative Democrat, could never find his footing in the new landscape. In a campaign ad, his daughter praised him for having "evolved a lot on social issues." But when the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette asked about the claim, Wagner said, "That ad has nothing to do with any specific issue — nothing." 

Often, the same could have been said of his entire campaign. But in many ways, the former city councilor, state senator and state auditor general reflects the best Pittsburgh's old guard has to offer. During his council stint three decades ago, he took a strong position on gun control, and helped spin off Phipps Conservatory from city control, allowing it to blossom as a green role model. Most of all, he was a fundamentally decent guy who never forgot where he came from. 

It's not his fault if, for an increasing number of Pittsburghers, that place is just a memory.

Part of what's changed is the political lines. "There's a whole new way to campaign," Peduto later told me. "And the group that controls elections in this town is a group of progressive young people who've won every single race that they've gone up against the old machine." Of the city candidates who won their primaries this spring, for example, only one had the Democratic Party's endorsement: Peduto's own aide, Dan Gilman. 

But there have been deeper social shifts as well. Environmentalism, equal rights for same-sex couples, greater political transparency ... these can no longer be derided as concerns merely for East End liberals. And after spending two decades fretting about how to hold onto young people, Pittsburgh might finally be listening to them.

Of course, Peduto is not the first guy to beat the city's "old machine." It was done three decades ago by Pete Flaherty, and arguably once or twice since. Yet the machine has clanked on, and sometimes the would-be reformers found themselves working the levers. 

This is, after all, not the first time Wagner lost to another high-minded reformer. Tom Murphy, too, started out as a champion of grassroots activism. By the time he left office, though, his reputation was somewhat different. Once you're at the controls of the machine, it's hard not to use it.

Peduto has pledged to "turn upside-down the top-down model" of governance used by Murphy — and almost every other mayor dating back to David Lawrence. I think he means it. But a bottom-up approach asks a lot of everyone else ... and only about 45,000 people voted this spring. Passive-aggressive citizenship may be one old-school habit that still hasn't died. 

To borrow one of Wagner's favorite campaign tropes, That Has To Change. Otherwise, the next mayoral election might feel like a marriage gone sour as well.  


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