The Peduto interview: director's cut

Includes material deemed too wonky for general-interest audiences!

Posted by Chris Potter on Wed, May 29, 2013 at 8:34 AM

For hard-core political junkies, here's the extended version of my interview with Bill Peduto last week, just 48 hours after becoming the Democratic nominee in the city's mayoral race. The bonus material includes more election-night emotions, campaign tactics, his next chief of staff -- will it be Kevin Acklin? -- and his expectations for Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's final days in office.(The abbreviated print version is here.)

So congratulations on being the Democratic nominee. Have you gotten to meet Tiger Woods yet?

Nope. I've never met anyone named Tiger.

What have the past couple days been like?

More reflective than euphoric. It's sort of like if your deck's falling apart and you think, "One day I'm going to fix the deck." You spend years obsessing over how you're going to fix the deck: You hire the best people, they write the plans, and one weekend it's sunny out and you fix the deck. You don't then go, "WE FIXED THE DECK!!"

After all these years of seeking the office you don't feel --

Nope. I got emotional twice. Once on the way driving to the party, when I was a nervous wreck. That was the only time in the entire campaign that I thought we could lose. At about 4:30, I got an email from somebody saying, "You HAVE to write a concession speech, don't make the mistake so many people have." It sort of put that thought in my head, and by 7:30 I'm calling frantically to Matt [Merriman-Preston, Peduto's longtime political field general], and at 8 o'clock trying to get the earliest poll numbers we could get. We knew that turnout was light, but spread out. But by that point I was freaking out. So my brother calls me – and it's gotta be like 8:30. He's getting emotional, but I can't understand him [on the voice mail message]: if it's like we lost the South Side or did we win it? He was crying, so you can't hear that they are good numbers. But when I finally understood what he said, it made me sort of emotional.

I got emotional then, and then late that night we were at [Shadyside bar/Peduto hangout] Cappy's –

Of course you were.

— With my niece. I was wearing my grandfather's watch, which I rarely wear, and I pointed to it and said, "This was from my grandfather. He worked his whole life in a mill, he never would have dreamt that his grandson would have a chance to become the mayor of the city of Pittsburgh." She got emotional and I got emotional.

So there was no euphoria. There were two moments where there were tears in my eyes, but they were both with family, and other than that, there was -- the only time in the campaign when I thought we could lose was those few hours before the polls closed and the ride down to the party. And the entire rest of the campaign, I never though we could lose.

Really? There were times when some of your supporters were antsy.

About six weeks out, we were anywhere from 7 to 10 points down, and [Jack] Wagner had gone up on the air first. Over the next five weeks, he outspent us 2-to-1. … And on top of that, [Mayor Luke] Ravenstahl starts his crazy ads, and they run over $300,000 worth.

But we had built a field campaign that would crush Ravenstahl. We were never going to have as much money as Luke, so we were going to have to win it in the field. I always felt that even if [Wagner] stayed ahead 5 percent, we were still going to win, because we were going to push out the vote.

Wagner was complaining right up to the end about the negative ad you ran, saying he never cut Meals on Wheels, as you made it sound. Do you have any regrets about the spot?

We'd been told by supporters of Ravenstahl that they were going to come out against us with negative ads that were going to be very harsh. So we had to go up on a comparative against Wagner. And the strongest comparative we had was "pay raise versus pay cut." [Wagner had voted himself a pay raise as a state senator; Peduto supported a plan to give up a small portion of his salary to help defray police layoffs.] And the other part, which dealt with [Wagner's position on] the Corbett budget, was factual.

But you know what independent observers said: There's a difference between supporting certain budgetary principles [as state auditor general, Wagner had agreed with Republicans on some key assumptions] and supporting any given cut.

But the debate was very real about what would be cut if the budget got approved. If he's arguing that he didn't cut Meals on Wheels, then the question is, "What did he think would be cut?"

We polled before we did it, to see where the race was, and what the next ad should be. That was the last polling we did -- about four or five weeks out. We had narrowed the gap with our first ad, this ad would draw the comparative between the two.

Jack had been attacking me at every debate: "The problem with this city is you've got this mayor and THIS council." And at every single debate I never brought up him. I could have brought up the fact that when he talked about modernizing the city, he had a system [as auditor general] that used Lotus. When he talked about having to pay bills on line, his department never adopted the technology to do ANYTHING online. There were so many ways we could have gone after him, but chose not to. Chose to make it on his votes, not on his personality. That's where the campaign had a very different tack.

Everything that he did, was a personal attack against me. Jack had been attacking me at every debate – "the problem with this city is you've got this mayor and THIS council."

… He used his own surrogates to say not what he was going to do, or how they were going to build a coalition, but why I was a bad person. And my surrogates were told, "Don't mention his name. Talk about what we're going to do for Pittsburgh." And when it came to paid advertising, although we were comparative in using the votes where he went one way and I went the other, his attacks were on personal issues, cloaked in very charged issues. When you put up the neighborhoods of Homewood and the Hill District, you aren't being subtle.

It was so over the top that it actually drove not only undecided voters to us, but Wagner voters to us.

How do you know that?

By the numbers. You don't go from a 10-point lead to a 12-point loss while outspending your opponent two-and-a-half to one without losing your base.

You still sound pissed off.

I get upset when I hear people commenting, "This has been a very negative campaign by both sides." We had a lot of arrows in the quiver, and we could have made it a personal attack as well. Every time he said [that] I don't talk to [fellow city councilors] Ricky Burgess or Darlene Harris, we could have reminded people that there was a coup against [Wagner] in city council, and they ousted him as president.

You especially took a beating from the Fraternal Order of Police, with FOP head Mike LaPorte accusing you of lying about taking a pay cut, and using actors dressed as police in your ads.

I've never seen a public-employee union head take actions like that.

So what is the source of the animus there?

I think that there is so much cleaning up to do within the police bureau — and I know this from talking to the officers: There's a group within the bureau that controls certain operations, especially around off-duty details [providing security at bars and events]. They are so afraid that if I get in, the gravy train will end. And guess what? The gravy train is going to end.

And is the mystique of the public-safety endorsement finally gone forever? Out of all of us on council, the only one the firefighters endorsed was Corey O'Connor. At some point now, it can't be like, "You know what? Jack's in the race. He's got the support of Jimmy Ferlo, the firefighters and Sophie Masloff. How can you beat that?" That city is gone.

There's a whole new WAY to campaign, and a whole new group of people who are winning campaigns – on the field side, on the finance side. Look at how much money [city council candidate and Peduto ally Dan] Gilman raised, look at how much money [incumbent councilor Natalia] Rudiak raised. 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. Every single race. So it's not just wins in the East End: It's wins everywhere. It has a proven method of winning, and the architect of it is Matt Merriman-Preston.

On the other hand, I can't think of a local race where I've seen $100,000 come from a single source, as you got from the Laborers union. Shouldn't we be worried about what they expect in return?

They had been isolated by the Ravenstahl administration, and they were looking for the best person to win against him ... The building trades -- the other side that is also influenced by people like Mike Turzai, Republican powerbrokers -- were not only sticking with Ravenstahl, but going to Wagner. They put in close to a quarter-million dollars.

So you're saying all the Laborers expect is that Bill Peduto will take their calls in a way Luke Ravenstahl did not?

Yeah, there was never anything discussed on what would be a part of a Peduto administration that would involve the laborers beyond the workers that are part of the city's workforce. With the city workforce itself, the police and firefighters and teamsters make up close to half of it, but medics, laborers, AFSCME, SEIU make up the other half. The one quote from LaPorte is that "he treats city workers like garbage." Well, half of the city workers endorsed our campaign. And even my own workers, the people in my office, have probably been there longer than in any other office. It's not a revolving chair like in other council offices.

But from the perspective of a taxpayer who worries, "Now there's going to be a sweetheart contract for [Laborers working on the city payroll]" -- why shouldn't that be a concern?

Just because of the way I do business. I make it clear upfront that I don't negotiate the deal in order to get the endorsement. I haven't promised one person a job. Everyone says "Guy Costa [the former city Public Works director who managed Peduto's campaign] is coming back!" Guy went back to work for the county today. That's a discussion that I will have with him at the appropriate time, but the appropriate time wasn't before Election Day.

One of the early signals people will be looking for is who you'll choose as a chief of staff. I've heard [Squirrel Hill attorney, former mayoral candidate and Peduto ally] Kevin Acklin's name being bandied about for that. Anything to that, and what are you looking for in a candidate?

I don't know if Kevin's wife will let him take the pay cut: He's one of the top attorneys in the city. He'd be an ideal candidate, but with three kids at home, I don't know that he'd be able to take a pay cut of that type. He'd be somebody I'd be looking for — that type of person.

I don't want to preclude anybody that is a director right now, and say that they will not come back. I basically look at these next six months as an opportunity for them to apply. Now that the veil of political punishment from the mayor's office is gone, what are you REALLY like? What can you REALLY do? You start with that -- with people who are there and have an opportunity to apply, and then you start looking around the city at different people who are parts of different organizations, even outside of government. You say "what talent is out there that could be tapped in order to take on leadership roles?" Again, these are people who'd be taking severe pay cuts in order to do what's right for the city. And you do a national search.

What is it you want Mayor Ravenstahl to do in the remaining months of his term?

I think anybody would say the best transition is one where the sea is calm. You don't want to have to ride through waves to get to the beach. I would hope that his intentions over the next six months are to make sure that the city is being properly run without any major initiatives.

He had said at one point, "Now that I don't have to worry about running for reelection, I can really be free to go after some initiatives I hadn't pursued before" …

I guess what I'm more concerned about is privatizing parking, privatizing the water authority, major state grants to certain developers, major developments within communities that haven't had a community plan yet -- anything that would involve a long-term commitment that doesn't have a commitment from people already.

I was talking to your friend Jim Ferlo on Election Night about your plan to ask for resignations from all the current mayoral appointees on boards and commissions. When I asked whether he'd offer to resign from the URA board, he said, "Absolutely not." And then he said "Bill should be careful if he has an axe to grind," because there are state legislators on these boards, and you might not want to jeopardize relations with Harrisburg. Are you worried about that?

Well, number one, [Squirrel Hill state Rep.] Dan Frankel stepped down so Jim Ferlo could be on the URA. Had Dan Frankel had taken the same approach, Jim Ferlo would never have been on the URA when Bob O'Connor got elected. So I think the protocol -- and protocol is what keeps civility in government -- is that he should step down. I don't think it should even be a question of me having to ask him. He should respect the decision of the voters.

Number two, Jim Ferlo represents two wards out of the 32 wards of the city. And the two senators that supported me represent 30 wards. To say that I have to be careful, and I better not alienate … he should be working with his colleagues in supporting the person who the people have elected to be the democratic nominee.

Well, you've probably heard this argument, but with so few people voting, do you really have a mandate?

Well, this turnout was right in the wheelhouse of what our polling told us to expect. We'd projected it a little higher, but it was 20 percent higher than the county executive race of just two years ago, when Flaherty and Fitzgerald both spent over $1 million. And it's not that we just beat Wagner by double digits, but that we had more votes than all the other candidates combined. In a four-way race, that usually doesn't happen.

And our message was never hidden. People knew, and they know from years, that I was the guy who was fighting against the corruption against the Ravenstahl administration.

Why do you think so few people did turn out, though? I mean, there was the same number of votes cast in 2009, and that was a gimme for Ravenstahl.

I don't know. All I know is that it was right within the expected vote. And you can't say every two years, "Oh, I can't believe municipal elections have low turnout." It's not news. The people who decide the elections are the ones who come to vote.

There are going to be people -- I spoke to some at Wagner's election night party -- who worry that now there's going to be a score-settling …

Burn down the village and pour salt on the ground.

Exactly. What do you want those folks to know – not necessarily the union heads, but rank-and-file workers, and regular citizens?

It comes down to me, and my character. There's a reason I get elected with 87 percent of the vote in my district. If it was because I'm divisive, like Ferlo or Burgess were saying, then I wouldn't have that kind of support. The people that know me know that I am basically a good guy. I don't simply fight for reformer to be on the side of power. I fight for reform in order to actually change things. So if all I do is fall back and behave in the same way as the Ravenstahl administration behaved, then I have not just failed the people of Pittsburgh; I've failed me.

But that doesn't mean that everyone gets to stay around, because there are serious problems in city government. I've been down there 19 years, and I've never seen it this bad. It needs someone who is going to clean it up, but at the same time not make it personal. I want to take the politics out of government, not put in a whole new crew that will just support me. Those folks that don't know me are the ones who probably haven't seen somebody operate in politics the way I have. And the ones who do know me are so thrilled that I've won, because they didn't believe that somebody who operates the way I do in politics could ever win. It's the old adage: the good guy never wins. Well, this time, he did.

Still, when campaigns appeal to youthful idealism, people get disenchanted quickly when candidates don't live up to their hopes. How are you most likely to disappoint us?

Maybe by renaming Heinz Field "Laborers Field." …

I guess it would be that, while I'm very committed to doing the national search for people, there may be enough talent inside this city — not necessarily inside city government, but inside the city -- that there wouldn't be a lot of people coming from outside the state. I've thought about it in the past 48 hours: There are so many different people that I know, some of them couldn't get involved in the campaign because they worked in nonprofits, but they'd be really good people. I don't know if I can convince them to work for city government, but if I could, people would say, "See? He hired locally. He was just saying that."

Or that you just hired your buddies.

I think people are going to expect that I clean up government and don't operate in a way to help a few people get rich. They're going to expect me to get more involved in education, and deal with issues of poverty. They're going to expect me not to be divisive, but to rise above it when it occurs. They're going to expect me to invest in neighborhoods that haven't seen investment.

I'm not going to change my opinion on fracking in the city, or the UPMC lawsuit. I've planted those flags already.

And I hope that I can let people see me more than they have when I was on council. I think you know that I'm a pretty funny guy.

(Silence.)

Well, I'm not just a policy wonk that's stiff, and I come off that way to a lot of people. I've gotta learn to let the guard down more. I think that's what the city needs too.

You'll be shifting from a legislative to an executive position -- a role you've never held before. Does that worry you?

Not at all. I have the ability to look through a budget and see a picture. I have the ability to look into neighborhoods and see the potential. I have the ability to connect with people. Those are the characteristics of a good mayor. …

I've been watching people play the video game for 19 years. It's so damn exciting that I finally get my chance that there's nothing fearful about it. It's more anticipation.

Which raises the question: What video game do you think running a city will be most like?

[Bally Midway's 1983 game] Tapper. You're a bartender and you have to run around as the customers come in and the beers are coming out. It's impossible to keep up. The people keep coming down, and they get angry if you don't give them their beer. And you have to get the empty glasses, too.

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