John Lee doesn't look all that intimidating: an affable guy in a sweatshirt, sitting on a barstool near the front door at Coach's, a newly-opened bar in a Banksville Road strip mall. (ADDED: I should have noted the REASON we met there: Coach's is run by Lee's nephew; his uncle has been helping to launch the place.) And yet for City Councilor Natalia Rudiak, who launches her re-election bid tonight, he may be a worst-case scenario: a lone challenger with a sports pedigree who has essentially already won the party's endorsement.
"Her team will never outwork us," promises Lee, 52.
Lee, 52, is a lifelong Brookline resident, who lives "five houses up one street, and fives houses down the other" from the home he grew up in. This is his first run for office, in part because he's spent the past 24 years working for the post office: Postal workers, like other federal employees, are barred from such political activity. (Lee can run now, having retired from the post office last year.) But he's a familiar name in the area, not least because of a highly successful career as a basketball coach at Seton-LaSalle, a Catholic high school popular with South Hills families. Lee has also long moonlighted as a high-school sports announcer on cable.
And he approaches many of the issues like you'd expect a coach to do. Many of the district's problems, he says, stem from a lack of team spirit. So while there has been progress along Beechview's Broadway Avenue business district, Lee says, it could be doing even better with the right leadership to rally around it. "People wanted that IGA grocery store [which opened in the spot abandoned by Foodland], but now that it's open, they're all down here at Kuhn's" — a grocery store just a few doors down from his family bar. "We have to put on a full-court press to get people to use it."
Lee offers few policy proposals to achieve these goals, stressing instead his own neighborhood roots and his ability to motivate. "Am I a policy wonk? No. I'm a people wonk ... It has to be a team effort to bring District 4 back."
One of his chief criticisms of Rudiak, in fact, is that she and the mayor often seem to be on different sides of the ball. Rudiak has been a sharp critic of Ravenstahl on council and an ally of the mayor's bete noir, Bill Peduto. "I'm getting the feeling that the personality conflicts between district 4 and the administration are becoming an issue," Lee says. He notes, for example, that a new South Hills Dek Hockey facility opened not in District 4 but in district 2 next door — despite what he says is an active player base in Brookline and Overbrook. (The Banksville facility is the first of 12 planned for the city; Brookline is among the neighborhoods slated to get one.)
Rudiak's allies have been expecting Team Ravenstahl to rally behind a challenger ... though the possibilities bandied about most frequently — mayoral staffer Jim Sheppard and Mary Motznik, wife of Rudiak's predecessor — have shown little sign of jumping in. For his part, Lee says he hasn't spoken to Ravenstahl about his run (though he says he "knew Luke a little bit through basketball when he was in grade school"). And he says he doesn't intend to be a mayoral yes-man: "If I don't like something, I'll sit down and say I disagree. And I think we've been shortchanged whether it's roads or parks."
Rudiak may not have an easy road in any case.
In 2009, she eked out a win in part because her two main rivals — Anthony Coghill and Patrick Reilly — divided the votes in vote-rich Beechview, while Rudiak consolidated support elsewhere in the district. Reilly and Coghill, in fact, spent much of the entire campaign going after each other, owing to a feud between Coghill and Pete Wagner, Reilly's chief patron and chair of Beechview's 19th Ward. The whole mess boiled over during the party's endorsement vote, which resulted in accusations of fraud. Rudiak finished a distant third in the endorsement vote, but parlayed the outcome into a "plague on both houses" message that resonated.
None of that seems likely to happen this time around. Lee has essentially already won the party's endorsement: Neither Rudiak nor anyone else is contesting it. "I respect the [endorsement] process," he says — and if he didn't, he adds, "I could imagine my parents — who were lifelong Democrats — slapping me in the back of the head."(As for Wagner, Lee says, "I get along with Pete.")
This time around, of course, Rudiak has the advantage of incumbency. For starters, there was $57,000 in her campaign warchest at the end of 2012; Lee is starting from scratch. And during her term, there have been some distinct signs of life in the district, like a mini-Renaissance in Beechview dining options. And in an odd twist, Coghill is now a staunch ally: He and Rudiak joined to support Erin Molchany's successful campaign for state rep last year against a candidate backed by Wagner.
But while Rudiak can lay claim to her own neighborhood roots — she's a Carrick High graduate — it's clear Lee feels there's something kind of, well, East End-y about her. "I think I understand the people of district 4 better," he says. Rudiak "is bright, she's articulate. But I'd rather stop at the Moonlight [Cafe, a Brookline Boulevard bar/restaurant], and she'd rather not." I feel obliged to note here that I once interviewed Rudiak at the Moonlight Cafe. But you get the idea.
(Waiting to hear from Rudiak herself? Stay tuned.)