by Chris Potter
Yesterday's municipal primary was a big night for Pittsburgh -- the election not just of a new mayor, but of a new governing coalition -- even if the number of people paying attention was small.
City Councilor Bill Peduto won the primary, which will almost certainly make him the city's next mayor -- a post he has sought for the better part of a decade. Peduto won the race with 23,597 votes, according to an unofficial vote tally last night. Trailing Peduto's 52 percent share of the vote was former state Auditor General Jack Wagner (18,060 votes, or just under 40 percent of all ballots cast), and state Rep. Jake Wheatley, with 3,499 votes or 7.7 percent of the vote. AJ Richardson rounded out the Democratic field with 294 votes.
All told, only about 45,500 ballots were cast in the race, in an election where Democratic turnout countywide was just 23 percent. Despite(or because of) all the TV and radio ads, all the debates and candidate forums, all the money thrown around ... roughly the same number of people turned out for this year's race as showed up back in 2009, when Mayor Luke Ravenstahl faced only token opposition.
But the small number of votes mask what is a significant win not just for Peduto, but for the movement he has been heading up for the better part of the decade. Peduto's close council ally in district 4, Natalia Rudiak, beat challenger Johnny Lee by a 52.3-47.6 margin. And Peduto's own chief of staff, Dan Gilman, won a three-person race to fill the seat Peduto is vacating, city council district 8.
The win, as we suggested here yesterday, is the result of years of planning and coalition-building by Peduto, who has assiduously built a network of support while honing a sophisticated political team.
"It's huge; it's epic," said state Rep. Erin Molchany, a Peduto ally on hand for last night's boisterous victory celebration at the South Side headquarters of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Molchany, who was elected last year with the help of his own campaign team, said, "When you look at Natalia's win, Bill winning -- I think the possibilities are endless. I was looking out over the crowd tonight, and every subset of Pittsburgh was here: young and old, black and white. It was amazing."
After giving a speech promising "a new day in Pittsburgh", Peduto credited his win to "a massive field effort," albeit one that had originally been created to take on incumbent Ravenstahl, who decided not to seek reelection. "We knew we couldn't beat him with money, so we focused on having people on the ground," he told City Paper last night.
In many ways, Peduto's campaign apparatus had been beta-tested in 2009 -- the year Rudiak first won her council seat -- and 2012, with the victory of Molchany and state Rep. Ed Gainey, another Peduto ally. Matt Merriman-Preston, Peduto's longtime political field general, noted that today's effort began back in 2005, when Peduto ran a sure-to-lose-but-have-fun-doing-it campaign against shoo-in Bob O'Connor. The ensuing eight years of experience, he said, culminated in an operation big enough to deploy some 600 people in the field yesterday.
And many of the faithful were in high spirits last night. As local performance artist Phat Man Dee said, "I came so hard when Peduto won that there aren't enough ShamWows in the world to mop that shit up."
Wagner's own election-night party was just a few blocks away, at the IBEW hall. But it may as well have been taking place in a different universe: The crowd -- which skewed heavily toward older, white voters -- was subdued throughout the evening. A guitarist, playing old Beatles tunes and other decades-old chart-toppers could be heard over the murmur of conversation.
Wagner told reporters that Peduto's negative ads had been the difference-maker in the campaign. "Unfortunately, negative campaigning works," he said. "And I really believe that the media can do a better job analyzing negative campaign ads ... When things are said, such as I cut Meals on Wheels, simply not true. It never happened."
Others in the Wagner campaign agreed the ads were a factor, but cited other considerations as well. There was grudging admiration for Peduto's field operation. And state Sen. Jim Ferlo said Peduto, by virtue of having been in the race before anyone else on the ballot, had the opportunity to shape the battlefield. The vast majority of debates, Ferlo noted, had taken place on Peduto's turf -- held in the East End by groups Peduto had long been affiliated with. Wagner entered the race only after Ravenstahl had gotten out. Had he been in the hunt sooner, gotten into the hunt sooner, Ferlo said, "There could have been a veteran's forum, or a public-safety forum."
Another common refrain was that the city had changed -- both demographically and politically since Wagner's last mayoral run, in 1993. And Wagner, a conservative Democrat, never fully calibrated his pitch to the new electorate. In one notable example, he ran an ad in which his daughter, Sarah, lauded him for "evolving on social issues," and then stymied the Post-Gazette's efforts to find out just what that meant.
Ferlo cautioned that for Peduto, winning the election was the easy part. "At some point, he has to become the CEO of the city. He has to transfer from being a legislator to being the executive."
"I think you can expect to see Bill in the neighborhoods," Rudiak countered last night as the victory party continued around her. "I think people are going to see a more hands-on approach to government than they've had."
And yes, I'll admit it: Calling the race for AJ Richardson, and identifying him as our projected winner on the cover of this week's issue just might have been a bit premature. (It was, of course, a joke, prompted by the fact that we have to go to press hours before the polls close, leaving us unable to report on election results in our print edition.) But Richardson might want to hold onto this week's cover anyway. As Peduto campaigned for votes yesterday, he held a sign reading "Will Work 4 votes". That sign, Peduto acknowledged was inspired by a City Paper cover dating back to his first 2005 campaign. And it brought him better luck the third time around.
Stay tuned for more news and analysis of yesterday's election.