Peduto: Putting the pedal to the metal

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"Want to know how serious I am about this campaign?" Bill Peduto asked me, speaking from his cell phone. "I'm driving a Ford."

Which is a joke, of course, but one intended to suggest that Peduto -- whose previous cars have included a Saab, a high-mileage Audi, and a presentable Cooper Mini -- is no longer content to be mayor of the tony East End. His campaign to challenge Luke Ravenstahl in next year's mayoral race, though not officially announced, was made public today. And it began, significantly enough, with a high-profile contribution from Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

"It was Rich's idea to make the announcement through his e-mail," says Peduto, who notes that he was an early backer of Fitzgerald's 2011 county executive campaign -- even though the early favorite had been rival Democrat Mark Patrick Flaherty. Fitzgerald's $8,000 contribution -- the most allowed under the city's campaign finance rules -- will help Peduto put together the bare bones of a campaign. "It's not an endorsement because I haven't officially announced my candidacy yet," says Peduto. "But I think it sends a message."

And that message, he hopes, will be: Bill Peduto is ready to go all-city.

Such high-profile backing would have been unimaginable back in 2005, when Peduto launched his first run for mayor -- a scrappy, seat-of-the-pants campaign against shoe-in Bob O'Connor. And it's a sign of vitality for a candidate some Pittsburghers wrote off for good after 2007, when Peduto pulled the plug on an abortive challenge of Ravenstahl.

One sign of Peduto's seriousness this time around is his fundraising goal: $1 million. "I don't think you can be involved in a race against an incumbent and not be able to raise that kind of money." And because of campaign-finance laws that Peduto himself pushed for, that won't be as easy as it might have been. (To put the challenge in context: When Ravenstahl got support from a county executive -- Dan Onorato -- in 2009, it was in the form of a $150,000 loan.)

Peduto won't officially announce his campaign until after the Presidential election. "I'm not making any decision final until then," he says. He pledges he'll announce his next move before the end of the year, but at this point, he says, it's possible that he could drop his bid and run for re-election to his council seat instead. Still, it doesn't seem likely: A few minutes later, Peduto joked about having been in council so long that he'd "either have to move on or just become part of the furniture."

The real test lies in the weeks ahead. Peduto will begin garnering contributions next week, though he won't start fundraising in earnest until after the November election. For now, "We are just going after supporters who have already asked to write checks." Key to his efforts will be Eric Hagarty, who was a prodigious fundraiser for Fitzgerald, and who will be serving as the face of the Peduto campaign at least until it's time to hire full-time staff. Hagarty, says Peduto, "is going to open ponds that we wouldn't have been able to fish in otherwise." (Peduto's long-time political adviser, Matt Merriman-Preston, will be involved with the campaign as well, though he'll also be involved in other council races.)

Peduto admits that one challenge will be erasing the memory of his abortive 2007 run, which he called off after determining that Ravenstahl, who'd been sworn in after the untimely death of the late Bob O'Connor, was simply too popular. "He seemed unbeatable," Peduto says today. "But 2007 was a great lesson to me, which is that if you intend to win, you have to have a team. It's not enough to have good ideas: You have to have people to charge up that hill with you. and what makes this time different is that we've worked six years to build that team. It's a coalition that hasn't been around before."

"It's spread beyond the East End," he says, citing a series of big wins for progressive candidates elsewhere in the city during this year's spring primary. "The county exec’s $8,000 check is great, there are other announcements that will happen that are just as big, and that may be just as surprising to people. People who were Ravenstahl supporters back in 2007 are now committing early to us."

And what will Peduto's message be?

"We'll provide the city with a vision of where this city needs to go, but there will also be accountability for the mayor that there hasn't been publicly."

But ... isn't Pittsburgh doing pretty well, all things considered? Spared the worst of the recession? A decades-long population loss finally being stanched? All those balanced budgets with no tax increases?

"It's going to be a question of what the incumbent has done," says Peduto. "He says he's balanced the budget without tax increases. That's because council fought him [on proposals like] the tuition tax."

"I'd argue that Pittsburgh is a good place despite its leadership in city government," Peduto adds. "And that with an administration that worked well with organizations and people instead of fighting with them, we’d be doing much better. Every time you turn around, the mayor is fighting with someone: council, the state legislature, the county executive. Well, at some point -- is that because everyone else is wrong, or is it because of you?"

Peduto was far more generous toward the other potential challengers in this race: City Controller Michael Lamb and state Auditor General Jack Wagner. "I like both of them. They're both good public servants, and if things were different, I might be supporting one or the other. But if you're not happy with the Ravenstal, and your goal is to change it, then you are going to have to have a very compelling reason for why you can win."

And that's really what's going on here. Most voters, of course, are fixated on the Presidential campaign; next year's spring primary is a distant concern. What Peduto did today, with his pre-announcement announcement, is to raise the stakes for the primary-before-the-primary: the contest for financial and political support that usually takes place out of public view, in which candidates try to line up politicos and powerbrokers behind them.

"I believe we'll be able to put together a movement with labor, elected officials, and community leaders that will be bigger than anyone else's," Peduto says. "Including the mayor's."

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