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Political Exorcise

Mark it down: The 2007 mayoral campaign began last week

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Bill Peduto's head did not turn 360 degrees on his neck on Oct. 15. Nor did the Pittsburgh City Councilor unleash a torrent of demonic obscenities -- or green-pea soup -- at the audience in East Liberty's Shadow Lounge.

But you couldn't blame them for expecting it.

After all, Peduto was sharing the stage with Mike Veon. Yes, Mike Veon: state representative from Beaver County and Democratic whip. Mr. Legislative Pay Raise. Or, as reform-minded Exorcist fans might think of him, Pazuzu himself.

Days before, Peduto sent out an e-mail invitation under the heading "Progressives for a Democratic State House." Recipients were invited to "Join COUNCILMAN WILLIAM PEDUTO and Progressives for a Democratic State House For an Afternoon With STATE REP. MIKE VEON."

Considering that Peduto has long styled himself a government reformer, the wires crackled with dismay. As Veon put it on Oct. 15, when Peduto's e-mail went out, "I know some folks said, 'Woah.'"

"People were like, 'What is up with you?'" Peduto acknowledged. "People were asking, 'How can you support this guy?'"

Actually, he had a pretty good answer. The pay raise aside, Veon has staunchly defended gay rights, abortion rights and environmental causes. It's one thing to support those causes in an affluent, liberal district like, well, Bill Peduto's. It's another to do so when your district is like Veon's: chock full of Reagan Democrats who see environmentalism as a threat to their jobs.

Some will no doubt accuse Peduto of selling out, since he obviously plans to run for mayor next year. Maybe. But at least his position is honest. As you may recall, Gov. Ed Rendell played a role in the pay-raise fiasco too, but Peduto has long supported him. And he's not alone: If Peduto had invited backers to meet with Rendell Oct. 15, there wouldn't have been a peep.

Besides, if Peduto wants to be mayor, he'll need the help. In 2005, he ran as the young knowledge workers' candidate, espousing urban vitality and government reform. He finished second behind Bob O'Connor, and his good-government wonkishness played well to college-educated East Enders. His appeal to black and working-class neighborhoods, however, was limited. As this space observed at the time, "[S]ome people care more about things like a living wage than the fate of the row offices."

If he wants to govern the entire city, Peduto has to broaden his appeal. And as one of his backers confided to me, "The story of this election will be how Bill accommodates himself to more traditional Democrats" in trying to beat his likely rival next year, 27-year-old Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Ironically, while Peduto was taking a step toward the old boys last week, Ravenstahl was moving the other direction.

Ravenstahl put aide Dennis Regan on paid leave after allegations surfaced that Regan interfered with the discipline of a city police officer. Regan hasn't been cast out, exactly: An investigation continues. But it's hard to imagine Regan, the consigliere Ravenstahl inherited from the O'Connor administration, returning to his old prominence.

Given the allegations, Ravenstahl probably had to do what he did. But he also ain't dumb. Inexperienced, sure, but not dumb. He knows that if voters don't think he's running the show today, they'll think twice before electing him next year. And they're going to have doubts as long as Regan is around -- and as long as Peduto is on hand to raise the question.

So we have two young mayoral candidates who will no doubt be running on "fresh ideas." Fairly or not, Ravenstahl has been labeled the youngest of Pittsburgh's Old Boys. Peduto, meanwhile, may be the oldest of its Young Turks. Don't be surprised if the two end up sounding more like each other as time goes on.

If the younger rivals merely focus on splitting the whippersnapper vote, of course, some party fossil could sneak in and win. But so far, at least, the 2007 mayoral campaign has made Ravenstahl and Peduto better politicians. It gave Ravenstahl added incentive to act on doubts about Regan, an aide who probably never should have been there at all. And it has compelled Peduto's followers to figure out what issues matter most if they want to win.

To borrow from Veon himself, "'Politics' is not a dirty word."

At least, I never heard Linda Blair use it.

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