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Best political activist

Bill Peduto

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Some may be surprised that City Paper readers named city councilor Bill Peduto as the best local activist in 2007. After all, Peduto's defining political moment this year involved not acting: After a brief campaign, Peduto decided not to challenge fledgling Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in the Democratic primary.

As he told City Paper at the time, Peduto knew supporters would be disappointed. But they'd be even more disappointed, he said, had he been crushed by Ravenstahl, who was then at the height of his popularity.

"[I]n the end," Peduto said at the time, "I [would] end up probably not only losing, but with negatives so high that I am destroying the [reform movement] I've worked over a dozen years to build."

That movement includes organizations like the League of Young Voters and Run Baby Run, political-empowerment groups for which Peduto was a key supporter. And despite backing out of the mayoral race this year, he's stayed busy, backing an agenda that involves government reform, environmentalism, and empowering younger voters.

"I was just out in the suburbs, talking to 4th graders," he says. And then laughs. "I'm building the base for a campaign by the time we have countywide government."

Earlier this year, Peduto launched a Web site, Reform Pittsburgh Now (www.reformpittsburghnow.com), that's part information clearinghouse, part town square, part soapbox.

In a recent post, for example, Peduto reported on a hearing he conducted on that bane of city life: street cleaning. Why do the streets hardly ever look any cleaner? he asked. The answer: There are only seven working street-sweepers in the whole city. Peduto then offered a slew of suggestions to improve matters: Create a computerized "Route Smart" system to streamline the sweeping process, then reduce the time residents are prohibited from parking on the street.

Such ideas are the hallmark of Peduto's style, which stresses technology-driven solutions to chronic problems. If that sounds wonky, Peduto leavens it with self-deprecating humor. Another Reform Pittsburgh Now initiative, for example, is the "Pokey Pavement Management System," in which Peduto drives city streets with a bobblehead of former Pirates infielder Pokey Reese. The condition of streets are rated by the frequency with which the head of Pokey (lifetime batting average .248) bobbles. However absurd, the idea pokes fun at the city's current system, which has used little objective criteria in deciding which streets to pave.

On council, meanwhile, Peduto has recently proposed legislation to encourage green building practices, making them a requirement for developers who want tax subsides from the city. And when Ravenstahl promoted three police officers with allegations of domestic violence in their past, Peduto was one of the most strident voices demanding increased scrutiny in such cases.

Next year, he hopes to work with environmental groups seeking to repopulate the city's long-neglected stock of shade trees. ("If anyone needed proof that I've become Al Gore, this is it," he says.) He also wants to change the rules governing tax subsidies, requiring developers to deliver on promises of jobs and other investment or else pay a price.

Will Peduto try another mayoral run in 2009? Publicly, he hasn't committed either way. He's said that if he does run, he won't also try to hold on to his council seat. (His council term also expires that year.) That's a message to those who fear he might not be truly committed next time around. Then again, Peduto says he isn't sure he's the right challenger. "I may be too polarizing by now," he says.

In fact, the CP readers poll suggests that Peduto's popularity comes with some baggage. It's hard to be an activist and a politician: Being the former often requires standing on principle, even if you're shut out by the powerful. Being the latter often requires compromise, even if you're accused of selling out by everyone else.

"People always cite the Nader example," Peduto admits. "But to me, being called an activist is a mark of independence." And there's reason for optimism too: CP readers didn't just name Peduto as the city's best activist -- they also named him as the runner-up for "best politician." Just behind Luke Ravenstahl.

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