by Chris Potter
Let's hope the county is printing up more election petitions: state Sen. Wayne Fontana, a South Hills Democrat, is garnering signatures for his own potential mayoral bid.
"I am not 100 percent committed to doing it at this point," Fontana told me a short time ago. While he says he's been encouraged to run, "Getting signatures is just a very small part of it. It's about seeing who steps up and says, 'You're the best candidate.' I'm a little late getting into the game here, I realize that. And if people tell me they are already committed to other candidates, that may be why I decide not to do it."
Still, he says, "Crazier things have happened."
Fontana would join a field that has mushroomed in the days since Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's decsion not to seek reelection. In addition to City Councilor Bill Peduto and City Controller Michael Lamb, City Councilor Darlene Harris is circulating petitions, as is former state Auditor General Jack Wagner. State Sen. Jim Ferlo is also weighing a bid.
Fontana's Senate district stretches from the North Shore through the South Hills suburbs, and on into the city's West End. Along with Lamb and Wagner, he is one of three South Hills Democrats in the running -- an interesting turn considering that in recent decades, the mayor's office has been held by either an East Ender or a North Sider.
And that legacy of being overlooked, says Fontana is "Certainly part of this. We've seen progress in places like Beechview, but I have a lot of neighborhoods in my district that need help -- places like Beltzhoover or the West End. Main streets are in trouble, and we need to concentrate on every area in the city. Being a city boy, born and raised, I certainly understand the issues." He cites neighborhood safety and business-district revitalization as top priorities if he continues his bid.
Fontana says he's well positioned to deliver on those goals. In a city where political relationships have often been fractious, "I have no enemies on council, or anyone I can't pick up the phone and talk to. That's different from how things have been." He also touts his own experience in state government as an asset: The city's inability to advance its agenda in Harrisburg -- where Philadelphia has much greater sway -- has been an ongoing source of frustration across mayoral administrations.
"You need to get along with various layers of government, and other officials, or you don’t bring it back," Fontana says. "If you’re asking for help on the state level, you’ve got to get along with folks."
But Fontana has at times been at odds with the Wagner family itself, whose own political base is centered in Beechview. Was he seeking to dip his feet in the pool an effort to weaken Jack Wagner's bid?
"Not really," he says. "Nobody has called me to say, 'Why don’t you run to sap Jack Wagner of his momentum?' I don’t know that he has any momentum at this point. I am expecting a call from Michael Lamb asking, 'What are you doing?' But I sure don’t expect Jack to call."
In any case, Fontana says, having three candidates from the same part of town could pose a problem for him as well. "If there are three form the South Hills chopping up our base, while only one person is running from the North Side, I have to consider that. I didn't just fall out of the tree."
For now, he says, he's taking things day by day. The filing deadline for petitions is next Tuesday, March 12. Candidates can decide to withdraw as late as March 27.
"I'm taking this day by day, presenting myself as an alternative," Fontana says, and chuckles. "We'll see if that resonates with anyone."