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Heading for the Hills

Mayoral race shaping District 4 contest

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Just how quiet has the Pittsburgh City Council race in District 4 been? Until an April 29 forum in Brookline, the two Democrats in the race had not been in the same room for a political event. And even then, there were few fireworks. 

Incumbent Natalia Rudiak told the crowd at St. Mark Evangelical Lutheran Church that during her first term, "The tide has turned, and we are building a better south Pittsburgh."  And while her challenger, former post-office worker John Lee, claimed to be "a better fit for what these communities are all about," he offered little direct criticism. (Though Lee, 52, did set some teeth on edge by referring to 33-year-old Rudiak as a "very bright girl.")

Underneath the surface, though, are tensions about the future direction of District 4, which includes Brookline, Beechview, Carrick, Bon Air and Overbrook. In a recent campaign mailing, Lee decries Rudiak as a councilor who "forgot who elected her" and "takes her marching orders from Bill Peduto," the East End city councilor and mayoral candidate. 

What's more, the letter predicted, it was "highly probable" that Peduto would lose the mayor's race to Jack Wagner, whose family is a fixture of South Hills politics.  "It's not productive to have our councilperson on the wrong side of City Hall," the letter warned.

"I had to say what I feel," says Lee of the letter.

Rudiak says that message will backfire: "Politics is about addition, not division," she says. 

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Rudiak won her 2009 council bid with just over one-third of the vote, after two rivals split the support of party footsoldiers and Wagner loyalists. A Carrick High School graduate with a master's degree in public policy from Carnegie Mellon University, Rudiak ran as a reformer opposing "old-school political gamesmanship."  She was championed by Peduto-style reformers, who'd previously had little electoral success outside the East End. 

Rudiak, though, emphasizes her role as a district advocate. "I ran for office because I thought the South Hills were being neglected," she says. "And over the past four years, I've spoken with every real-estate developer and foundation head I can."

Among her accomplishments, she cites the $7 million reconstruction of Brookline Boulevard, begun this spring after more than a decade of delay. Rudiak also touts new or renovated community and senior centers, and plans for a "Dairy District" retail business development around Carrick's Colteryahn dairy. 

While Rudiak allows that "No elected deserves all the credit" for those developments, "our office had a role in every one of them."

On council, Rudiak typically sides with Peduto, and in opposition to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl: After 2010's "Snowmageddon" winter storm, when she was "just a bright-eyed newcomer" to council, she subpoenaed Ravenstahl's public-safety director to answer questions about snow-removal. And she acknowledges that city politics can be fractious. "I've been taken aback by some of the rhetoric that comes from both sides," she says. 

Still, she says, those battles haven't hampered her ability to help the district. "I think [Lee] is saying that the mayor is so mad at me that he's holding projects back in south Pittsburgh," she says. "But that's absurd. There has been an unprecedented level of investment in this community." 

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Lee remains unimpressed by those accomplishments. "She didn't do that," he says of the district's developments. "She was the councilperson when some of that came up." Planning for the Brookline Boulevard project, he notes, began years ago — and ought to be handled better today. The project is a "debacle" he says, with many businesses accessible only by a dizzying catwalk of plywood walkways over swaths of torn-up asphalt. 

But primarily, Lee's campaign touts his own neighborhood roots — the Brookline native was a near-legendary basketball coach at area Catholic high schools — while suggesting that Rudiak is too, well ... Shadyside-y. 

 "She got the master's degree from CMU; I got my degree from the streets of Brookline," he says. Shortly after launching his bid, he told City Paper that while Rudiak held an early fundraiser at Downtown bar Olive or Twist, "I'd rather stop at the Moonlight Café." (When Rudiak opened her campaign headquarters shortly afterward, she pointedly invited her supporters to the Moonlight.) 

Noting Rudiak's appeal to younger voters, Lee says "I like the idea that young people are getting involved" in the district. "But you have a lot of older people here too," and their concerns have more to do with filling potholes than with filling up at new restaurants. Lee says that because he's more focused on such street-level issues — and less caught up in council factions — he'd be better able to facilitate projects like Brookline Boulevard. 

A random City Paper check of area merchants found that business has been hurt to varying extents, though most seemed pleased with the project's pace. Rudiak allows that the Brookline project involves disruptions, but says such growing pains come with progress. 

"Patience is a virtue," she told attendees of the April 29 forum. "Things will be difficult before they get easy."

 

It remains to be seen how bumpy Rudiak's own road will be. Lee is the endorsed Democrat; Rudiak, who finished a distant third in the party's 2009 endorsement vote, didn't compete for it this time. Lee also has the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police and the firefighters union — two useful allies in a district that many public-safety employees call home. 

Rudiak has endorsements, too, including the city paramedics union and the SEIU, as well as pro-LGBT groups and Planned Parenthood. But unlike in 2009, there's no third candidate to split her opposition. And Wagner's mayoral run may well increase turnout from Wagner backers who opposed her in 2009. 

Still, the mayoral race is very much in flux. A recent poll by Keystone Analytics shows Wagner and Peduto in a statistical tie.

"It's presumptuous" for Lee to assume Wagner will win, Rudiak says. "We have an election coming up."

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